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Many firms are now using hackathons to find individuals with the skills needed to fill technology roles, or to encourage the next generation to pursue a career in tech.

Bloomberg hackathon Codecon was developed to find talented coders worldwide by challenging them to solve real-world problems such as the ones faced by Bloomberg’s engineers.

But Codecon creator and Bloomberg engineer Rangan Prabhakaran says Codecon is not just a hackathon, it is also a platform where programmers receive automatic feedback on projects to help them further their learning.

“A platform like this where you can automatically grade assignments or programme a solution is something that we lacked when I went to school at Cornell University,” he says. 

Developed as part of a philanthropic endeavour at Bloomberg, Codecon has been run as a hackathon event since 2014 in Bloomberg’s offices across the world.

During the events, contestants use the Codecon platform to solve problems presented and developed by Bloomberg engineers.

Each of the problems is meant to reflect a real-life issue that needs solving, or call on skills the contestants would need to solve a similar problem in a real-world business environment.

For a multi-city event in January 2017, one of the most complex problems was called “Firefighter Tim”, which challenged participants to write algorithms and create data structures to save as many people as possible from a burning building with a limited amount of water.

Winners are provided with new devices and many of the participants choose to pursue careers at Bloomberg after taking part.

The Codecon platform, as well as being used to issue challenges for hackathons, is also available for universities to give programming students instantaneous feedback on projects.

Developing coding skills

Leaders such as university professors can oversee student performances through the systems, assignments can be automatically graded and the students are put into an anonymous leaderboard so they can measure their own improvement.

According to Prabhakaran, this is something many programming workshops at universities are lacking. During his time as a teaching assistant at Cornell University, Prabhakaran found students would have performed better if they had been given more time and feedback.

“There would be some solutions where students have almost got the answer but I haven’t had  the time to look at their solution. Given the opportunity to know their solution wasn’t right, they would have been able to improve on it and get to the right answer,” he says.

Giving students the space to answer assignments in their own time and the opportunity to automatically generate their systems based on their code, as well as instant feedback, gives the students the tools they need to improve their coding skills.

“Because you get instantaneous feedback, it helps you to innovate and get to the answer – and that’s crucial to learning,” says Prabhakaran.

The UK is currently suffering from a lack of skilled workers, and many employers are saying students are leaving university without the skills needed to fill empty technology roles.

The browser-based system is used by university professors, gaining more than 15,000 users in two years, and is often used as a recruiting tool for Bloomberg Engineering after the department found its initial attempts to find talent were targeting the wrong people.

“We found that we weren’t really reaching out to the students we wanted to reach out to, and that was one of the motivations around building Codecon,” says Prabhakaran.

Most of the challenges on the platform are similar to challenges Bloomberg has faced, and giving students the real-world experience helps to “expose them to what skills they might need in a corporate environment”.

“The skills that are required to solve these problems are diverse across the board so you’d have to go away and learn algorithms that enhance your programming skills in general to solve these problems on a platform,” says Prabhakaran.

“That’s definitely part of what we want to do, we want to give skills to people and make sure they’re well prepared for the corporate world.”

Encouraging more women into tech careers

Prabhakaran admits the gender split of those using the platform is not 50/50, and this harkens to a wider challenge we are facing across the industry.

Despite many organisations and events geared towards encouraging more women to pursue technical roles, the number of women in the IT industry has remained stagnant over the past 10 years.

Codecon and Bloomberg have been partnering with schools to try to reach out to girls and women to encourage them into technology, and Codecon events are often run in partnership with women in technology groups.

One of the contests was held at the first London Grace Hopper event and Prabhakaran hopes the anonymous nature of the platform, coupled with its focus on continuous learning, will help encourage more women to code and participate in hackathons.

“There’s a long way to go and it’s something we want to work on to make sure we’re increasing that audience more. It’s a case of making sure the platform reaches more people,” he says.

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