May 8, 2006

TopCoder: Meritocracy in Action

Updated: Justin Uberti was also there, and posted some thoughts (w/pictures!)

I was at (part of) the TopCoder Open in Las Vegas last week. You probably haven't heard of it, but it was really amazingly fascinating. When I first ran into TopCoder, I thought it was a company/website that was trying to be a professional competition league for programming - which seemed really silly. Even the computer gaming ones are struggling for real legitmacy; programming-as-sport seems like fun to do (for some small few), but reeeeeallllly boring to watch, for just about everybody.

Turns out I was double wrong.

Whereas I thought their prime business was about sponsorships and advertisers and the like, as with traditional competitive sports, its not. Although they do do sponsorships and the like with partners like
Versign, UBS, AMD, and others, it is not just about advertising: its an ideal recruiting vehicle for these folks.

But that's not even the interesting part.

The interesting part is that they actually do professionaly services development this way. You submit them work - they have excellent folks on staff to help with design, documentation, and crisp specification - and they then decode and decompose this work into a series of "competitions". They reassemble and deliver to you a finished product.

Its no different (engagement-wise) than working with any number of professional development shops, but the core premise is this: first class programming talent ("top coders" if you will :)) are worth 10X normal devlopers in terms of speed and quality, but they're not paid 10X as much.

Interesting, hunh?

Of course, given the nature of specification rigor, I'd imagine front-end and/or iterative development projects would not be the best suited for their services, but still.

And, having watched the competition, I can attest to the value and strength of their talent pool at least. Its very Darwinian and challenges over 76,000 developers from literally all over the world in a very virtualized fashion. Watching it unfold in realtime for the "Algorithm Championship" was pretty amazing to behold, and hinted at the strength of the whole system: the challenges themselves, and even the competition scoreboard (!), were designed by their development community using the same principles.

And these competitors were good. There's
talent all over the world that global companies need to better leverage to compete; the real capital in the software business is brains. Finding and leveraging it is the hard part - and TopCoder poses an interesting solution to watch.


Anonymous said...

So how did you do? :)

Sree Kotay said...

lol - uh, I can armchair-algorithm like nobody's business...

I found the problems tough, but solvable - but not (for me) in the timeframes and with the pressure those guys managed to do it with.