College coders vie for cash in enterprise-sponsored contest

More than 120 coders are vying for cash and glory in Orlando during the final round of the TopCoder Collegiate Challenge.

More than 100 college-age programmers might be seeing visions of dollar signs amid their code in the U.S. where the finals of this year's TopCoder Collegiate Challenge began in Orlando.

Petr Mitrichev is certainly hoping to haul some of the US$260,000 in available prize money back to Moscow. It would go nicely with the US$60,000 in cash he won in other TopCoder events.

But the soft-spoken Mitrichev, 22, said he didn't come to the event purely for the money. "It's mostly about the competition itself. You get the chance to compete with people around the world. Money isn't the only reason," he said, describing the atmosphere on the contest floor as collegial, not cutthroat.

TopCoder has received attention from enterprises for its community-driven model of application development. The firm collects customer requirements in the usual manner, and then invites its 120,000-plus membership to take a crack at various aspects of the project through competitions. The company minimizes the amount of custom coding required for a given job by dipping into its repository of reusable components.

The Collegiate Challenge under way now at Walt Disney World finds a field of finalists competing in various events, from creating algorithms to user interface design.

Sponsors of this year's Collegiate Challenge include Lilly and Deutsche Bank. Government agencies are in the game too: The National Security Agency is serving as a "patron" of the competition.

"We're looking for the best computer scientists and mathematicians we can find," said Jim Burtt, a technical recruiter with the NSA. "That's the backbone of the agency." The NSA has hired at least one TopCoder community member, he said.

However, Burtt will have slim pickings among this year's contestants. While they number about 120, only two are from the U.S. "We have to have U.S. citizens," he acknowledged. "But the benefit to us is our overall dealings with TopCoder, not this one event."

TopCoder President and Chief Operating Officer Rob Hughes chalked up the dearth of stateside competitors to a couple of factors. U.S. coders possess good skills but may not be as driven to participate, he said, and "foreign competitors feel they can raise their profile and get job offers." Hughes also said the numbers could be somewhat misleading, because other U.S. coders were eliminated in rounds leading up to the finals.

Although TopCoder boasts a sizable registered user base, it seems that an elite cadre of members are most active in the competitions. Hughes admits there is "probably a small group of people who are constantly engaged. But then there's a much larger body of people who are on the site for the community aspects. They want to get better at what they do."

Shanghai native Shenhua Gu would probably fall into both categories. He's logged US$5,000 in TopCoder prize money so far, one of two key factors that drive him to compete. "First is the money," he said. "And I can learn a lot of technologies. I can become very confident after these competitions."

Mitrichev certainly has reason to be self-assured -- he's ranked second overall in the algorithm category.

The competitor is not sure where he'll end up after graduating from Moscow State University. "Probably as a software engineer in some big company somewhere," he said.

But Mitrichev harbors no uncertainty about programming. "That's what I love," he said. "That's what I know how to do."

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