Over the last twenty years there’s been an ongoing discussion about meritocracy in the development of careers. It started with a book called The Big Test, which explored how SAT tests seemed to have a strong bias towards discovering the best of what white middle class America had to offer. In other words, to do well on the SAT generally requires that a student has been prepared by teachers and courses that are offered in high income communities that can afford the best school systems and best teachers.
Employment recruiting has similar biases, although online recruiting has attempted to devise ways for finding candidates on the basis of a meritocracy. The term meritocracy means, a system in which people are rewarded and advanced based on ability and talent rather than on connections and past experience. A meritocracy attempts to find a way past those connections and minimize past experience while emphasizing ability and talent.
A few years ago Scott Belsky, Vice President of community at Adobe, opened a recruiting platform called Behance where creative online people could showcase their skills and talents to each other. The idea was for these people to interact and network together within the Behance system and that would feature their talents for hiring purposes. A hiring executive could go to Behance and find a person that had the skills he or she needed and would know the candidate was good because of their interactions with other creative people in the Behance network. It was an attempt to change the employment game. In the meantime a far more down and dirty means of creative skills showcasing has developed. Many hackathons have now offered a better way of networking and connecting with potential hiring executives.
A hackathon is an event organized around a particular theme that allows those who enter to compete as individuals or as teams to produce solutions to a predetermined problem. So a hiring executive could organize a hackathon around a problem that represents the type of skills he needs to hire into his organization. The people who come to the hackathon would then display their abilities right in front of that executive’s eyes during the days of the event. Maybe someone would be hired or maybe it just turns into an extended networking event. Either way, the participants are likely to connect with a niche market and the executive is likely to generate an extended network of skilled candidates.
Hiring’s Recent History
Twenty years ago keywords became an important part of resume writing. At first it seemed that a job candidate with the right keywords listed on their resume would simplify the whole search process. It never worked out that way. Today keywords are a bothersome additional problem for resume writers and it doesn’t really help as much as it slows down the process. Yes, you can sort out resumes by keywords but do they really mean the candidate knows what the keyword indicates they know? The answer is: maybe yes and maybe no.
As internet sites began to attract job seekers, sites like the Big Board, turned resumes into commodities and hiring became a numbers game unrelated to careful candidate review. In some industries like IT that arrangement worked fairly well, but generally internet hiring has offered very mixed results. During this same time, meritocracy experienced a sort of golden age according to David Brooks, as he presented it in his book, Bobos In Paradise. The shift to meritocracy in college placement allowed a select upper-middle-class cohort of grinders and achievers to rise to the top of the hiring sweepstakes in large corporations. As it turns out by 2008 it became pretty obvious that these Bobos, as Brooks named them (it stands for bohemian bourgeois), were often little more than over-achieving Yes men and women who were instrumental in assisting senior executive teams to do whatever would make a profit even if it ultimately lead to deeply unethical behavior or economic chaos.
Hackathons And Meritocracy Moving Forward
What has been lost in the internet age is direct human contact and evaluation in the hiring process. Both the meritocracy system and the use of digital short cuts produce either biased or inferior results. But the question that comes up is: is there a better way? Meritocracy tends to become gamed by systemic social networks that establish and control their advantages. Hackathons have evolved as an alternative.
The first hackathons occurred in 1999. They were strictly software coder gatherings, but over the years hackathons have evolved. While hackathons continue to center around software development they now are likely to include project managers, graphic designers and interface designers as well as at least one or two experts in the particular niche area that the hackathon is focusing upon. So, if the hackathon is focused on restaurant service efficiency there are going to be a few restaurateurs, chefs, waiters and maître d’s involved. Hackathons started in niches that were very computer and internet industry oriented where software was central, but they are now expanding out into all kinds of niches as software penetrates everywhere.
Where is all this headed? It’s not clear, but many people get involved with hackathons for networking purposes. If a well-connected person hosts the hackathon, then everyone who participates has the potential of making contact with that power player. But it’s not just about connecting with niche recognizable mavens; it’s also about connecting laterally with other people in the industry. Powerful connections are made at these events that can lead to new ideas, sometimes new companies, and sometimes new jobs. And these connections have little to do with the host’s needs. The hackathon is also a talent showcase where people can engage their skills by working with a team (possibly an impromptu team) while attempting to solve a problem set by the hackathon’s host. What better way to display and to evaluate skills and talents. If there’s a meritocracy at a hackathon it is only related to the challenge of the problem at hand. Those who offer the best solutions rise to the top.