Uncovering Programming Talent through Gamification
Develop | Posted May 27, 2014

Sometimes the only way to find the right person for a job is to lay down the gauntlet and make each candidate prove his or her worth. This has clearly become the thinking at many of today’s leading tech companies when it comes to distinguishing contenders from pretenders in the competitive world of application development.

Companies like Facebook and Google rarely find top-flight talent through traditional recruitment methods— the skillsets they covet are simply too complex to be demonstrated over the course of several interviews.

Enter the gamification of the developer job market, where more and more talent-starved technology firms -- from start-ups to worldwide players -- are pitting top programmers against one another in complex coding contests. In return for their efforts winners are often promised substantial cash prizes and the chance to possibly interview with some of the most innovative companies on the planet.

One of the oldest examples of gamifying the developer job market is Google’s longstanding Code Jam competition. Code Jam was originally developed to help Google identify top engineering talent, but has since evolved into a global showcase for the world’s top developers—providing a platform, sponsored by one of the world’s most recognizable tech companies, where they can compete for the opportunity to be called "Code Jam Champion," a title that is often more valuable to participants than the $15,000 grand prize.

While Code Jam finalists are not guaranteed a position with Google, they are often offered interviews and can use the newfound notoriety to exploit a number of alternative employment opportunities—just as long as they’re not still in school.

Moving from one Internet giant to another, the Facebook Hacker Cup offers participants the chance to, “compete against each other for fame, fortune, glory and a shot at the coveted Hacker Cup.” Of course, in addition to the fame, fortune, glory and a big trophy is the opportunity to land a gig with the granddaddy of all social media companies. Like Google, Facebook has said that the primary objective of  the Hacker Cup is not aimed at recruitment – especially when a Google employee ends up winning it—but it’s still a recruitment tool all the same.

While global players continue to leverage their brand recognition to bring in top talent via the contests they sponsor, gamification as a business model has filled the void for less recognizable companies competing for the same resources and less experienced developers looking to get a foot in the door. Take the aptly named topcoder.com, a site that has made it its mission to, “reward and recognize the world’s best designers, developers, and data scientists for honing and proving their skills.”

By offering users the opportunity to solve complex code-related problems (or contests) individuals can build their skills (or compete) against others in their field in order to win a predetermined fee. The fee is usually set by a company attempting to find a more cost effective alternative to the high price tags that come with contracted developers and in-house open-reqs.

While not every submission will yield a satisfactory solution, as with any crowdsourced model, the cream rises to the top -- a slightly higher reward often attracts significantly higher quality participants while still delivering substantial savings. For developers who need more experience, or simply aren’t at point where they have a realistic shot at competitions like the Hacker Cup ans Code Jam, these gamification models offer the opportunity to build their portfolios and be rewarded for a job well done.

Interviewstreet.com, while similar, gets right to the point by offering employers a platform on which they can create their “own challenges that are directly relevant to the open position, or related to their company or industry.” From there these companies can either invite individual candidates to solve the program or post it to their career pages to immediately start vetting potential hires.

This all comes down to the investment organizations are making when they bring new developers into the fold—which is legitimate. Earlier this year a Google programmer reportedly declined a competitor’s offer of $500,000 a year because he was already making $3 million annually. When this kind of money is at stake gamification becomes the perfect vehicle for accurately evaluating how candidates respond to pressure, real-world coding issues and the sobering reality that there are other developers out there with comparable, if not advanced, skills—and understanding a candidate’s reaction to these variables before the hire can be invaluable.

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