Students at a Scott Logic hackathon.

Meet your future employer: where, when and how?

Technology firms are branching out from the time-honoured career fair in their search for the ideal employee.

Today’s tech companies may still have a presence at graduate career fairs, but they’re also looking down other avenues in their hunt for potential future recruits. With a wide range of industries interested in graduates with STEM skill sets, these businesses know it’s important to look into new ways to find raw talent.

With this in mind companies are getting involved in a variety of different events and competitions as a means of discovering untapped potential. Cisco, for example, holds a mix of competitions from Dragon’s Den-style pitching challenges through to project-based contests.

“Each person is uniquely different and companies now more than ever need to embrace change and stay ahead of the competition by looking to both traditional and non-traditional pools of talent,” says Kathryn Baddeley, Head of Corporate Social Responsibility, Cisco UKI.

Many companies already work closely with universities, holding talks, attending career fairs or sponsoring events and societies, but now they’re also collaborating on technical competitions as well as developing their own.

Bristol-based consultancy Scott Logic has hosted undergraduate hackathons for several years now. Recruitment Operations Manager John Wright believes the chance to connect with students in a relaxed and fun environment is a great way to raise brand awareness and talk to potential recruits about what the company does.

“The students get to network with our staff volunteers who they can ask both about working here and also software in general. One of our recent hackathons resulted in us successfully hiring a graduate who obtained a BA in English then went on to study an MSc in computer science. He approached us at the competition to ask if the fact he originally had studied English would be a barrier to entry, so this informal setting gave us the opportunity to reassure him, giving him the confidence to apply. He may not have done this otherwise.”

BT takes part in a number of hackathon-style ‘war game’ competitions that helps the organisation find people with a specific set of interests and skills. Rob Partridge, Head of the BT Security Academy, agrees that such events provide an opportunity to meet skilled individuals that may otherwise have not come to their attention.

“Sometimes people don’t have a set of qualifications that would immediately qualify them for a career in cybersecurity and the entry paths to the professional are still very immature,” he says. “These events help us find people that are talented cyber amateurs, but also build a pipeline of talent for the future by instilling interest and enthusiasm in the Industry.”

Holovis, an audiovisual design consultancy, was introduced to the world of hackathons by the University of Birmingham’s career department.

“What appealed to us was that this is an event for students, organised by students, so the focus is on meeting new people, learning new skills and having fun without too much brand presence, which could put people off if they feel the pressure of being on the recruitment stage,” says Claudine McClean, Holovis Recruitment and Career Development Manager.

By taking part in these events the staff are able to provide advice and insight into new platforms that the students may not have been exposed to, such as virtual reality headsets, giving them a glimpse into the kind of work they could undertake in the business.

As well as an informal way to promote the business, student competitions are also a good way for employers to discover untapped talent. So while company volunteers are there to offer support and answer questions, they’re also looking for specific skills in action.

“Technical knowledge, attention to detail, teamwork, tenacity and innovation are amongst a broad set of skills we look for,” says Partridge.

“We want to see evidence of them working effectively as a team, playing to their individual strengths as collaboration is so important to building software at Scott Logic,” continues Wright. “We also look for solid problem solving skills when we hire people, which is equally important in the hackathon environment,” he adds.

MWR InfoSecurity holds an annual cybersecurity challenge called HackFu – a two day contest made up of story-driven challenges that test contenders hacking, scripting, tinkering, and crypto skills to the extreme. Martyn Ruks, Technical Director, believes this allows him to get to know these potential future employees better than an interview.

“It lets us see how they fit in with our employees and culture. We specifically look for people with the right skills and who share our values and approach to the complex problem space that cyber security occupies,” he notes.

Whether or not a student is considering a future job with the company involved in their competition, there are many benefits in taking part in these kinds of events. They offer a chance to find out more about a specific industry as well as providing an opportunity to grill employees about the reality of working in certain fields.

Competitions also allow students to gain new skills, knowledge and add experience to their CVs – always useful in today’s competitive job-hunting environment.

“For our project-based competitions they get to try out different roles to see what it’s really like to market a project or finance a prototype, great examples they can add to their CV,” notes Baddeley.

“They get exposed to new ideas and ways of solving problems,” continues Ruks. “They also gain huge amounts of knowledge about both the methods of approaching puzzles and challenges as well as the detail behind lots of technology areas. Every attendee will take something different away and they’re actively encouraged to ‘own their event’, so they can take away something useful and relevant to them.”

Then there’s an opportunity for those who struggle with the typical recruitment process to stand out, as McClean highlights.

“For some people the traditional recruitment process isn’t one that allows them to present themselves in the best light,” she says. “This practical opportunity to do what they love allows their passion and talents to shine through, whilst also being pushed out of their comfort zones in a new environment with people they don’t know. [These competitions] present a massive challenge so those that thrive really are best in class.”

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