Fourth-year B.Tech students Ishita Agarwal and Ruchita Chugh won top honours at Gojek’s SheHack for coming up with a solution for visually impaired people to access their smartphones through gestures with their canes.

BENGALURU : A few years ago, Akanshi Srivastava was the only woman in a Google Developers Group. Recently, she participated in a hackathon in Bengaluru organized by Skillenza for Indonesian on-demand services company Gojek. SheHack, as it was called, had only women.

It felt good to be surrounded by women hackers, she says, because breaking stereotypes is what her generation loves to do. “I don’t know why this notion exists that girls don’t know tech as well as guys do. This has always bothered me,” says Srivastava, who studied computer science at Vellore Institute of Technology.

SheHack proved to be a professional milestone too for Srivastava. Her team won the second prize for building a mobile app that used open-source computer vision libraries to convert sign language into text and speech in real-time. Gojek’s tech development centre in Bengaluru offered her a job that she started this month after quitting Ola.

Gojek operates in South-East Asia but has a large centre in Bengaluru to design and develop its tech products. Western multinationals have done this for over a decade. Add to that the thousands of startups in the city hustling for tech talent, and you have a bubbling ecosystem for millennial techies to choose from.

Srivastava grew up in Noida where her parents run an auto ancillary business. She now shares an apartment in Bengaluru’s Indiranagar with a friend who works at PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), and they attend various meet-ups.

“Bengaluru’s such a happening place. Everyone is trying to figure out their passion,” she says. She may now get a chance to express that persona at work too. At Ola, she was starting to feel straitjacketed as an Android developer. For Gojek, she interviewed with UX Engineering where she hopes to combine design work with Android.

For Gojek, the hackathon is a new way to find talent beyond resumes and interviews, as well as a channel to showcase company culture to the local community of tech millennials in its quest to build a talent base in India.

“Hiring people today cannot have a transactional approach,” says Subhendu Panigrahi, CEO and co-founder of Bengaluru-based startup Skillenza that helps companies discover smart talent by posting challenges for techies to tackle. “Companies have to be sensitive and build communities because it’s a talent-driven market,” says Panigrahi.

The connect begins at the college level as companies engage with students who get a peek into work environments and use cases of new technologies. The first and third prizes of Gojek’s SheHack went to student teams.

“Hackathons are our kind of thing,” says Ishita Agarwal, who won the first prize with her fourth-year B.Tech classmate Ruchita Chugh. “They help us explore.” They came up with a solution for visually impaired people to access their smartphones through gestures with their canes.

“When you go to hackathons, you get to see what others are doing,” says Shubhra Sachdev, a third-year student who loves all-girl hackathons. “There is an element of solidarity, which you don’t usually experience. We get to talk to female engineers about their experiences in the industry.”

Panigrahi has seen the tech job scene evolve over the last five years as Skillenza pivoted from being a training and hiring platform to focus on challenges and hackathons in tune with Gen Y.

Skillenza, HackerEarth and TechGig are helping organize scores of them every month, making India second only to the US in the number of hackathons. If Indian universities get as proactive in hosting them as their US counterparts, that gap would close, says Panigrahi.

Many startups have emerged from hackathons, including PhonePe, which first took shape in hackathons to build apps for the unified payments interface (UPI) shortly before its roll-out in 2016.

Learning tools

Hackathons are no longer just a hiring or development tool. Tech companies also find them a useful channel to introduce new products. “I love the fact that so many startups launch products in Bengaluru. We’re like the beta testers for them,” says Akanshi Srivastava.

Not all startups have the resources to conduct hackathons. But venture capital firms have started organizing hackathons for cohorts of their portfolio startups, says Panigrahi.

Another use of a hackathon is as a learning tool within enterprises to help employees upgrade skills. “Learning is very self-driven for millennials,” says Panigrahi. “If you want to learn something new, there’s enough content available. But you need some purpose, some competition which pushes you in the right direction.”


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