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In a hackathon, business students work in teams to solve a real-world problem faced by industry.MAX WHITTAKER/The New York Times News Service

Best Buy Canada is not alone in the race to harness the potential of online shopping in a fast-moving digital age.

To get there, the consumer electronics retailer is on the hunt for a scarce asset – new hires who have the technical expertise to manage data, the business smarts to expand digital opportunities to reach customers, and, not least, the communication skills to share insights with senior management.

“It sounds simple or obvious, but it is rare,” says Matt St. John, director of digital intelligence at Best Buy Canada’s Burnaby headquarters, adding that the “trilogy” of technical knowledge, business acumen and communication skills “is the No. 1 thing I am looking for.”

Two years ago, Mr. St. John was invited to serve as a judge at a business analytics “hackathon” – a day-long competition at Simon Fraser University’s Beedie School of Business for teams of students to examine a business problem using data supplied by the organizers and, within hours, present their solutions to a panel of industry judges.

Throughout the event, the judges get a close look at how students work together on a team, analyze data to define the business problem and draw up pithy slide presentations for each round of the competition.

“It is an unbelievable way to spot talent,” Mr. St. John says of the hackathon event.

To date, he says Best Buy has hired four new employees directly from Beedie’s hackathon in the past two years and recently signed on as the sponsor for this year’s competition, being held this weekend at Beedie. Best Buy and several other companies are also sponsors of BizHacks, a 24-hour competition (the next one is in February) at the University of British Columbia’s Sauder School of Business for teams of students to solve various real-world business problems using technology and other tools.

At Best Buy, Mr. St. John says his team of 11 employees (with current openings for eight additional staff) work at the intersection of analytics and e-commerce, looking to drive online consumer traffic and raise the retailer’s profile on popular websites. He says he needs employees who, beyond their technical knowledge, are flexible, nimble, adaptable and able to identify creative solutions under tight deadlines.

All of those traits are on display at the hackathon, says Mr. St. John, a Beedie executive MBA graduate and one of several industry advisers to the school’s business analytics and decision-making certificate program. “It’s pretty cool to see people who have expertise in statistics, computer science and data engineering come together and come up with creative solutions.”

In 2016, then a Beedie undergraduate in the certificate program, Rhythm Tang was one of the hackathon competitors who caught the eye of Best Buy recruiters. “Rhythm was a great presenter and storyteller, smart, articulate and with her team you could tell they were on point and had a great presentation to deliver,” Mr. St. John says.

Ms. Tang, now a digital analyst in Best Buy’s digital intelligence team, was hired by the company several months after she graduated in 2017.

At Beedie, where she studied operations and management information systems, she signed up for the new analytics certificate because it taught students how to mine data and come up with solutions to business problems.

A veteran of case competitions, she saw the business analytics hackathon as a venue to polish her skills in sorting out data to solve a problem. By design, the event gave her direct contact with the data analytics community in Vancouver and potential employers, including Mr. St. John and his colleagues at Best Buy.

“It’s so great to see that the connections I made a year ago had an impact on me coming here [to Best Buy],” she says, describing strong similarities between the hackathon experience and her current job.

“I love it. I come in at 9 a.m. and the [Best Buy] site changes every day,” she says. “Different people buying different products; different people behave differently; sometimes our website breaks. Within five to six hours I need to come up with my recommendations and that is exactly how the hackathon is structured.”

Like Ms. Tang, UBC third-year commerce student Katie Na, a vice-president of Sauder’s BizHacks competition, is enthusiastic about a format that gives students and prospective employers (who serve as mentors and judges) a measure of each other in a high-pressure environment.

“They can really connect over the 24 hours [of the Sauder hackathon],” Ms. Na says. “They [mentors and judges] can actually see the way the students think and how they come up with innovative solutions. ... It’s a good opportunity for them [employers] to know more about the participants before they hire them [after graduation].”

To date Best Buy has hired one full-time employee and four interns from the Sauder BizHacks event.

Beedie marketing professor Bob Krider, acting director of his school’s business analytics and decision-making certificate, says students in the program take a variety of courses that includes a one-term “capstone” for students, in a consulting capacity, to work with a company on one of its real problems.

“The idea is to take business students and give them STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] skills that allow them to at least be a ‘bridge’ person in this space between business and data science,” he says. Feedback from employers, he adds “has been very positive.”

Prof. Krider says data analytics competitions have grown in popularity and now have “morphed into recruiting tools.”

As for Mr. St. John, he offers a tongue-in-cheek reservation about the recruitment potential of a hackathon. “I feel it is my secret place to spot top talent and now the cat is out of the bag.”

Follow Jennifer Lewington on Twitter @JenLewington or contact her at

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