Attending the TopCoder Open, the final in-person rounds of an intense programming competition, in support of the TopCoder Cookbook, showed me possibilities that go way beyond programming or books into business models and community I came expecting to see a competition, but found a much more inclusive (and compelling) business model which builds and applies an international community of dedicated developers.
TopCoder runs programming contests designed to produce results for paying customers. The programming contests I joined as a kid were extremely abstract, put on by adults hoping to inspire us to learn. This approach turns competitive energy toward real problems, provided by companies who are even willing to pay for solutions. Competitors may not do well their first few times out, but as they learn the ropes, they can earn cash, not just understanding.
TopCoder rented a ballroom at the Mirage and flew its finalists there. They had two stages with a dozen booths each, and monitors in the middle that let you watch what competitors are doing. And yes, people studied those screens!
TopCoder ran a variety of different types of competitions, including Marathon, Mod Dash (bug fixing), Studio, and Algorithm. There was more going on than just competition, though. They also held a few roundtables, a session on the Cookbook, a game night, and a Q&A about the company. Less formally, a Settlers of Catan game in the corner seemed to run for much of the time.
As Slashdot noticed, TopCoder’s finalists, around 100 people, were a somewhat different demographic from their overall membership. There were lots of Eastern Europeans (especially Russia, Poland, and Ukraine), with a large Chinese contingent and smaller numbers of people from other parts of Asia. There were a few people from the US, Western Europe, and Latin America.
Most competitors were under 30, and older folks suggest that it’s hard to stay focused enough as life becomes more complex. There were some grizzled folks almost as old as I am, mostly in the marathon competition. TopCoder’s overall membership includes a lot more Americans, Western Europeans, and Indians. At the event, competitor gender ratios varied from 10-1 Male-Female to about 3-1, depending on the contest.
A number of the competitors talked about making real money doing this. In a lot of ways, TopCoder seems to be making globalization work, in a much more exciting way than outsourcing contracts. A guy from Brazil said his earnings on TopCoder bring him as much as his day job programming. Financial incentives didn’t dominate the conversation, but they were certainly a part of it.
For such a competitive organization, the level of cooperation and collaboration is amazing. Some competitors arranged to fly here together, and meeting other competitors in person was a big part of the draw.
Their Studio competitions really stood out for community. At the awards ceremony, the Studio competitors had a group hug, something like a huddle. Their strong culture of supporting and congratulating each other ran all the way into the finals. Given the potential minefield of angry designers who hate “working on spec”, TopCoder’s smooth expansion into design seems and the resulting culture felt especially surprising. Having the whole company based on competition, I think, avoids some historically difficult conversations that come up especially around design.
Facebook was the primary commercial sponsor this year, and there was a solid dinner talk about the Facebook platform’s evolution. At first I was amazed that they’d sent so many people, but as they peeled off to do interviews, it seemed about right. Other exhibitors included the NSA, which has a big presence on the TopCoder site but is somewhat limited here by its requirement that employees be US citizens, IEEE, trying to reach a new generation of programmers, and SNIA, a storage-oriented standards body.