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The Podium

Wanted: A strong hacker community

 Matt Margelony and Tyler White get ready for a Hackathon kickoff event meeting.  (Suzanne Kreiter Photo/Globe staff)
Matt Margelony and Tyler White get ready for a Hackathon kickoff event meeting. (Suzanne Kreiter Photo/Globe staff)The Boston Globe/Globe staff

The fall semester may have only just begun, but the fight for Boston’s young talent is well underway. Silicon Valley and New York are invading with an armada of startups, emerging growth companies, and even some of the top venture capital firms looking to direct upcoming grads and students (as interns) into their portfolio companies. But many Boston companies are missing out on the action.

What am I referring to? MIT will be holding their HackMIT hackathon in Cambridge on Oct. 4-6. It’s the third major university hackathon in the last month and tracking to be perhaps the biggest of them all. PennApps (UPenn) was held in early September with over 1,000 students participating. MHacks followed that up with over 1,200 hackers from 100 universities at the University of Michigan last week.


Hackathons are terrific environments for connecting early with collegiate software developers, engineers, and UI/UX designers. They’re providing a means to collaborate and experiment in new ways outside the classroom, all while exposing more students to the world of software, design and development. They’re impacting students’ lives, influencing the paths they want to take after college, and better preparing them to do so.

Why is this important? For companies, a strong hacker community is correlating to a marked increase in the quality of students being hired. As such, they have evolved into a key recruiting ground for technical and creative talent. This is best exhibited by the startups and technology companies from the San Francisco Bay Area and New York that are participating at these hackathons.

What is surprising is the lack of a significant Boston presence at them, particularly HackMIT. Perhaps this is simply reflective of the higher demand for talent in these other regions or that Boston companies feel they have enough local presence to pursue other recruiting initiatives at their own pace?


If that’s not the case, we should all consider the following:

Why is it a priority for West Coast companies to travel 3,000 miles (and back) to spend their weekend engaging Boston students? Why are these companies so excited about this pool of young talent and proactively creating roles and embracing upcoming grads and interns into their organizations? Why are they moving at such an accelerated pace and not waiting until next spring to recruit students?

It’s because they understand the value of talented people and how that is instrumental for fueling growth. Apple, Facebook and Google have actually quantified the dollar value of their employee assets. Facebook has estimated that when recruiting, “Engineers are worth half a million to one million” (each) in added economic value to the company.

This hasn’t been lost on others in Silicon Valley, where word gets around fast. Many in fact even possess the same DNA, having been founded by former employees of such companies.

Thus, the battle for Boston’s young talent is happening right now. Sure, the process will continue into this winter, but students are being aggressively courted as we speak. Some will make early career decisions from these interactions. Companies are on the field and engaging. They recognize that their best chance of winning the war for talent is to be in the game, and are willing to take a risk on someone without 5+ years of experience.

Yes, Boston has high-growth Wayfair involved at HackMIT, plus several startups and public companies’ Akamai and Boston Scientific. Independent of that, athenahealth, HubSpot, and TripAdvisor have also proven to be right in the mix fighting for the best students. Hats off to them. But, Silicon Valley and New York are showing up in force in our backyard and with a sense of urgency to boot.


The reality is that young talent will always flow out of Boston. We should be exceptionally proud of that. It is reflective of the region’s unique position as the education capital of the world.

That being said, while geographic proximity can be a helpful asset for retaining more than our fair share of students at Boston universities, complacency surely is not. We need to work at least as hard and as smart as Silicon Valley and New York companies, particularly for the innovation economy crowd where these destinations are the mindshare incumbents for many.

Retaining young talent in Boston is a noble aspiration. For it to become more of a reality, we need to address the supply side with opportunities to stay in the area and lift a page from the Silicon Valley playbook to go on the offensive. This requires rethinking approaches to embracing young talent, creatively developing compelling roles for them where they’re contributors out-of-the-gate and additive to a company’s growth, and pursuing a go-to-market strategy with the intensity and pace needed to compete.

Michael Gaiss is founder of ThinkB1G and entrepreneur-in-residence at the University of Massachusetts Boston Venture Development Center.