Looking for a first peek at the new tech talent? Don’t wait for a job fair. Get thee to a hackathon.

These 24- to 36-hour marathon programming sessions are competitions for cash prizes and bragging rights. They’re also a great way to look at how new minds solve problems. That alone can teach you more about a candidate than a traditional job interview, says Dave Fontenot, the co-founder of the University of Michigan’s MHacks student hackathon who today runs HackMatch, a service that matches talent and startups. Hackers are “displaying their skills right in front of you, showing you on the fly what they can do,” he says.

Hackathons can also offer a better return-on-investment than working with a recruiter, Fontenot says. Attending a hackathon is usually free. If you choose to sponsor, low-cost packages at some college campuses to provide snacks and food might cost as little as $1,000. While walking the event floor requires a little more elbow-grease on your part, the competitions might be more inexpensive than a recruiter who will take a percentage of the new hire’s salary.

Still, don’t go to a hackathon just to collect resumes. That approach will backfire, warn some veterans, since there’s a certain etiquette attendees will be expecting. To build relationships and get the most out of these events, consider the following tips. 

1. Choose carefully. Not all hackathons are the same. They can be sponsored by a range of groups, including large corporations, non-profits and universities. Some competitions focus on mobile apps while others create games or other online tools. Hackathons can also vary quite a bit in theme and target demographic, says Fontenot. Talk to the organizers or people who have attended a particular hackathon previously to ensure that you’ll meet the type of people who might be of use to your organization, he advises.   

2. Don’t come on too strong.  Overt attempts to recruit will turn hackers off, advises Ishaan Gulrajani, co-founder of Watchsend, a San Francisco-based developer of analytic software that helps iPhone app developers understand how people use their apps. “A hackathon is not a career fair,” says Gulrajani, who’s hired three people he met at hackathons. Consider bringing along one of your own tech people, who may feel more comfortable interacting with hackers on an informal level, Gulrajani adds.

Take it slow and give off a “We’re here, we’re smart, and we’re cool,” vibe suggests Brendan McCorkle, chief executive officer at CloudMine (cloudmine.me) in San Francisco, who met one employee and two interns at hackathons.

3. Focus on making connections.  Talk to hackers on various teams about their projects to build a rapport, says Angel Rivera, senior architect and evangelist at Point.io in Wayne, Pa, the developer of an integrated document-sharing platform. Ask questions, offer advice, and then circle back later in the day to get updates, he adds. 

Try to talk to as many hackers as possible because you never know who you might encounter, says Rivera. At the same time, be upfront about who you are and why you’re there. “Transparency is good,” he adds.

4. Don’t overlook organizers. Get on the radar of the folks who put on the hackathon, from local tech groups to university faculty. They’re usually the most plugged in and can point out the most interesting talents, even if they’re not  hacking at that particular event, says Gulrajani. Connecting with these tech leaders can result in valuable relationships that last beyond the competition, says Gulrajani

5. Farm, don’t hunt.  Not everyone you meet is looking for a job. Some hackers might even be students who aren’t graduating for a few years. Others might have their sights set on starting their own companies, notes McCorkle. But needs change, so make note of the best talents with which you’ll want to reconnect. The hacker community is a close-knit group and social media is a good way to maintain contact and get to know student hackers as people, notes Gulrajani.