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Hackathons or Codefest: the new rites of passage for code gurus

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Deccan Herald | Uma Kannan | October 5, 2015 | Bengaluru, DHNS |

Anirvan Mandal, a senior software engineer from Bengaluru, was at the huge conference room, along with a hundred other coders. Boxes of half-eaten pizzas, burgers, and doughnuts were strewn all over the place. It was 3 a.m. in the morning.
A few dozen youngsters were sleeping or trying to grab a sleep, curled up on the sofas and bean bags. Others were making a beeline to the Coke and Pepsi fountains and coffee vending machines, which were dime a dozen. Among those still glued on to their laptops was Anirvan, who was by then coding non-stop for 32 hours at a stretch. But how did he manage to do it? “It’s a very competitive environment. While you are coding, you see everyone around you coding to build something new,” he says. Welcome to the magical world of hackathons! They are happening everywhere now. From startups to college campuses, IT firms, to healthcare companies, ‘hackathon’ or ‘codefest’ is the new buzzword for the young and the restless. Prizes are the draw for some, while others get hired by top companies, or go on to start their own startups or even better, find their products directly hit the market. A lucky few find their hackathon output rolled out into full-sized projects by their employers, earning them the respect of peers.

A week ago, a 24-hour Philips Digital Healthcare Hackathon was held in Bengaluru, which drew wide participation. The winners were students from the city’s engineering colleges. When asked about the takeaway from the hackathon, Srinivas Prasad, CEO, Philips Innovation Campus, said, “The apps developed could address the real healthcare problems in semi-urban and rural India. Some of them targeted persistent conditions like cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).” A beaming Prasad said some of the concepts and algorithms deserved follow-ups. The hackathon was a first for the company in terms of outside participants. “Outsiders can bring in fresh ideas to solve challenges, as well as give an outside-in view of new products,” he says. Prasad found it particularly useful to get quality feedback on recently released and to-be released platforms of Philips.

Infosys co-founder and former CEO Kris Gopalakrishnan is a hackathon fan. “They help employees create something out of their ideas and help them participate in problem-solving. They are a fun way to engage with employees. Some of these solutions become new products or even new startups,” he says. While many participate in hackathons and build apps, how do companies take this forward? Do they partner with them?  “The very essence of hackathons is to open a world of possibilities for technology enthusiasts,” says Sushma Rajagopalan, MD & CEO, ITC Infotech. The company organised a two-day Internet of Things (IoT) hackathon in July at its Bengaluru campus. Rajagopalan says ITC Infotech would partner top contestants and create joint go-to market opportunities.

The quality factor
At the IoT hackathon, 36 teams participated, sifted from over 700 entries. At every hackathon, companies do get more number of entries and participations, but what about the quality of the coding?
“The quality will depend on how the problems are defined and participation from employees and outsiders. If done properly, the quality of output can be good. Since there is an element of fun, even if the quality is not good, these are good for employee morale,” says Kris Gopalakrishnan. But then, are the participants up to the challenge of delivering effective and useful technology at the end of the hackathon?  “Definitely, yes,” says Sushma Rajagopalan. “We saw very creative IoT solutions developed by contestants from all categories at iTech 2015. For instance, the winning team focused on smart irrigation. The market problem targeted by the team was water conservation with optimal irrigation, and improved productivity. They harnessed sensors, edge intelligence, and cloud computing to come up with a winning application. Another team built a solution that can detect diseases in plants, and thus stop them from spreading through image analysis of affected leaves,” she says.
It is equally important to ensure that hackathons are conducted efficiently. Organisations must have clarity of purpose, says Rajeev Mendiratta, VP and Head, Workforce Planning and Development, Wipro. Hackathons are held with participation from employees or outside developers. For Wipro, hackathons are useful to re-skill and re-train employees and step up peer-to-peer learning. It organised an internal virtual hackathon called ‘CodeStormAppHack’. “The hackathon encouraged employees to develop their dream mobile and Web-based applications for both the B2B and B2C segments,” says Rajeev Mendiratta.

While at hackathons, participants start from scratch. But what about the research to build up on it? The Infosys co-founder says the whole idea is to build a prototype or skeletons of a solution. “These can be completed later if the company decides to take them forward,” he said. A typical hackathon can last long. It can be either for 24 hours or two continuous days, and sometimes even a week! “In an online or digital hackathon((referred to as a CodeSprint), you can compete from anywhere. There are no geographical boundaries,” says Harishankaran K, co-founder of HackerRank, a programming platform for technical assessments around the globe. HackerRank currently has over a million programmers in its community and frequently hosts its own online hackathons to engage them. A lot of companies also partner with HackerRank to conduct hackathons.

Hack to join a company
“Instead of hunting for candidates on job portals and scanning for resumés, you can now recruit from hackathons, where participants will be solving challenges that you have set up for them. This makes it easy to spot the best talent,” Harishankaran says. According to him, coding competitions are sure to draw superior talent. “Earlier, aptitude and knowledge were the most important things in recruitment. With an increase in the engineering talent, companies have moved from knowledge-testing to skill-testing as they want to demarcate the best from the rest. What has emerged from these hackathons is the fact that engineers are not really able to translate ideas to code. Hence it is crucial to identify the best coders,” says Murali Padmanabhan, Vice President and Global Head of Learning & Leadership development at Virtusa.
Virtusa, an IT services company, is for the first time conducting a hackathon in campus. “We are calling it the ‘App-Fest’ where we invite students to submit ideas. The best ones are shortlisted and demonstrated in the final round. The winners are not only awarded prizes, but also offered jobs,” he says. In his view, competitions of such kind help the company to engage with students.

“Also, it helps us to understand what the student thought-process is like, the relevance of the problems they have identified around them, and how they can apply technology to solve it,” Padmanabhan says. He notes that students have come up with a host of ideas around health, social issues, and education.  Virtusa had invited 88 colleges from multiple cities for the App-Fest, out of which 76 confirmed participation. “About 320 student teams were formed and 196 ideas were submitted, out of which 67 were shortlisted and 25 solutions were selected. These 25 teams are working on application development. The final round will happen in Hyderabad,” he said.
Where are the women coders?
At the recently held Philips Digital Healthcare Hackathon, compared with men, participation by women was relatively lower. How can we increase their participation? “There are several ways like mandating the presence of women in hackathon teams,” says Srinivas Prasad, CEO of Philips Innovation Campus. Sushma Rajagopalan, MD & CEO, ITC Infotech, says we need to encourage women to take up STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education and provide role models for young girls.  Nowadays, many women-only hackathons are coming up. Women’s Cup is a 24-hour online hackathon organised by HackerRank that will begin on October 10. It is open to women worldwide. Participants can either code alone, or in teams of two or three members.“If there are more women in IT and engineering, then there would be more women in hackathons. We could also experiment with women-only hackathons,” says Kris Gopalakrishnan.
Why do companies conduct hackathons?
To train the employees and accelerate peer to peer learning. Hackathons are a fun way to engage with employees in solving problems. Hackathons help in fostering new disruptive ideas which are relevant to local needs. They are good stimulators for creative people who are passionate developers and like solving problems by using technology. If there are more women in IT and engineering, then there would be more women in hackathons.”-  Kris Gopalakrishnan, Infosys co-founder

“A hackathon is a celebration of technologists and technology. The very essence of hackathons is to open a world of possibilities for technology enthusiasts.” –  Sushma   Rajagopalan, MD & CEO, ITC Infotech

“Hackathons are a great way to empower professionals to challenge themselves to think innovatively, learn new and niche skills and achieve great results in a limited amount of time.-”Rajeev Mendiratta, VP and Head — Workforce planning and development, Wipro
What do participants get out of it?
Apart from prizes, they get jobs. Some can build an app and go on to form a startup or their products directly hit the market. For employees, it can enable an environment where they can showcase their expertise, learn and adapt to the latest skill-sets, collaborate with their peers and use creativity and innovation to solve challenging problems, and have fun while doing so.
“Hackathons can be an open contest and we have to start from the scratch and pitch it to the people.”
Anirvan  Mandal, a regular participant in hackathons – Courtesy


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