Alongside my role as an Enterprise IT Architect, I also support a number of talent recruitment and people development programmes. For example, each year at my company, we run a UK University Hackathon, with the prize being a one-year student placement as a software developer.

Alongside the Software Development roles, we also aim to recruit “Systems Analysts”, that target individuals who have a good balance of technical and business skills. The primary responsibilities of the role include: gathering customer requirements, supporting the technical design process, preparing specifications, partnering with solution integrators and developing test strategies.

Traditionally, recruitment had been driven by a multi-phase interview, however, this verbal process was not effective at benchmarking technical competency.

As a result, we recently introduced a new component as part of the second-round interview, specifically targeting Systems Analysts.

Sphero Hackathon

Knowing that these individuals do not necessarily have (or require) deep domain expertise (e.g. software development skills), the hackathon needed to be relatively simple, but still force the candidates to demonstrate specific behaviours associated with technical competency.

As a result, each candidate was given two hours to program a Sphero Mini so that it could navigate a pre-defined maze autonomously.

Sphero Hackathon

The advantage of Sphero Mini is that it offers multiple options to program the device, covering everything from declarative development (no code required) to programming (JavaScript). This is all achieved through Sphero Edu, which includes a very simple development app that works on iOS, Android, Amazon Fire and Chrome.

Not only does this approach promote key technology concepts, such as Mobility, API-Centric Architecture and Connected Devices (IoT), but it is also highly accessible, as even individuals with no software development experience can participate and achieve the desired outcome.

The maze itself (photo below) was very simple, with each candidate being designated a fixed start and end point. We chose to build the maze on wooden board, as we found that even short carpet reduced the accuracy of the Sphero Mini, making the challenge less predictable and therefore more difficult.

Sphero Hackathon

Although the goal was for the candidate to complete the challenge, the actual outcome (success or fail) was not overly relevant. The true value was observing the process, watching for key behaviours.


Overall, the hackathon was a great success! We purposely did not enforce to many rules, we simply outlined the problem statement and let the candidates start working. This resulted in some interesting observations, with some candidates choosing to work alone, while others were willing to share and discuss ideas with the group.

In summary, I believe this approach enabled us to clearly identify and benchmark the following behaviours, something that was almost impossible to achieve through an interview.

Learning Agility

  • Understanding the Sphero Hardware.
  • Understanding the Sphero Edu software.
  • Foundational understanding of computing.

Problem Solving

  • Comprehension of the problem.
  • Defining a realistic plan.
  • Ability to work under pressure with a fixed deadline.

Decision Making

  • Declarative vs Programming (Clicks vs Code).
  • Adapting to unexpected challenges.
  • Knowing when to ask for assistance.

Although these are all key behaviours for a Systems Analyst, the Sphero Hackathon also highlighted a wide range of soft skills, such as determination, creative thinking and teamwork.

The feedback from the hackathon was also very positive, with candidates describing the activity as “fun” and a nice change of pace when compared with other assessment centres.

Finally, several weeks after the hackathon, I saw a similar setup being used at my local Apple Store to help children learn the concepts of coding.

Sphero Hackathon

It was great to see the same techniques being applied in different ways to support technical education!