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Hackathon Hiring: How to Scout for Coders with Confidence

5 Ways to Score a Great Programmer at a Hackathon

In this competitive software market, finding a great developer for your startup can be a bit like dating.

You can try searching online sites such as TechCofounder and CoFoundersLab, which match entrepreneurs to software engineers. But it might be best to meet face-to-face to find someone who understands your goals and meshes well with you. One of the simplest ways is by attending coding events called hackathons.

These marathon programming sessions, which happen most weekends throughout the world, are the digital equivalent of a jam session: Programmers team up to write software, solve a specific problem or just test their development chops.

There are similar events, such as those sponsored by Seattle-based Startup Weekend. These aren’t technically hackathons but do bring people with different skill sets -- coders, designers, marketers, managers and others -- to collaborate on new business ideas.

If you are in the market for a great software engineer and are game for going to a hackathon, follow these five steps to start mingling with coders with confidence:

1. Know the language.
Coding expertise isn’t a must for every entrepreneur, but familiarity with programming language will enable you to talk software engineering with a modicum of confidence. Written guides can be a surprisingly comprehensive way to dive into a software topic if you’re starting from zero knowledge. They range from general surveys such as The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Programming Basics to programming-language specific books like SQL for Dummies.

There are also online resources for learning the basics of the common Web programming languages, including w3schools and Codecademy.

Related: Do You Really Need to Code?

2. Know what -- and whom -- you are looking for.
There are hackathons for mobile apps, websites and open-source tools. Some are sponsored by big companies, and others, by small businesses or nonprofits. The list goes on and on.

Before you invest in face time, have a concrete idea of the product you want to develop. And, based on your programming research on your product, you should have at least a basic feel for which development works best for your business. If you don’t know the kind of software talent you need for your business model, you’re wasting everyone’s time.

Once you know which software solution suits your project, there are several lists of appropriate events you may want to attend, including Hackatopia and Meetup.com. Google also sponsors technology meetups called Google Technology User Groups, which range from small gatherings to hackathons to lectures. Attendees talk about everything from designing full programs to simple Android apps.

3. Don’t be a digital wallflower.
Once you’re at the event, use the time to get a feel for which people you'll be most comfortable with. Only speak at length with developers willing to explain what they do in detail. Remember, they are coding right there before your eyes. If they can’t explain how they are engineering a problem -- literally command by command -- then they are probably not worth the time.

Once you think you’ve found a match, be ready to explain your idea. That’s the moment to pitch your “next big thing.” In doing so, present yourself as who you are -- the well-prepared entrepreneur. Don’t overstate your computer acumen.

Related: How to Find a Technical Co-Founder (Video)

4. Get real as soon as you can.
Once you have found a match, offer your potential partner a paid assignment on a simple project. This way you get a feel for how your programmer works, how well he meets deadlines, and whether you get along.

The fee can be as high as $100 an hour for an experienced developer. But $40 an hour is more typical.

This experience should be similar to working with an architect or contractor. If a contractor can’t explain exactly how to fix the kitchen and you aren’t seeing progress, then that person isn't your solution.

5. Rinse and repeat.
Software engineering is an iterative process. So is finding the right technology partner. Once that initial project is under way, hit the books again and study up on how your software is getting engineered. Then go back to your developer with questions to confirm that you’ve made a good choice.

If you feel you should look around for a different partner, you will probably have developed contacts with several other developers at this point. And it can't hurt to keep making more tech connections.

Related: Why and How to Host a Hackathon
 

Jonathan Blum is a freelance writer and the principal of Blumsday LLC, a Web-based content company specializing in technology news.
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