How to build software? Henry Ford, meet eBay.
(Page 2 of 2)
TopCoder uses the competitions to entice new programmers to sign on.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Witold Jarnicki is a Pole whose ability to write algorithms landed him a free trip from Google to compete in the Code Jam. But when asked if he's interested in joining Google, Mr. Jarnicki says he prefers his $5,400-a-year job at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow. It's stable, it's where he grew up, and most important, it's far from the business world according to "Dilbert." "One thing I am really happy about is that I'm not bored," he says.
Freelancing offers the chance to pick and choose only the jobs that are interesting to them, programmers say.
"Many companies have very boring work for programmers," says Mike Mirzayanov, another finalist, of Saratov State University in Saratov, along Russia's Volga River. "I think it is a problem for many top coders. They like to think; they like to problem-solve and create."
Critics of the TopCoder model wonder if some tasks are too large for a hodgepodge of freelancers to tackle coherently. The top-down model that makes this form of radical outsourcing possible also makes it more difficult to deal with midcourse corrections or handle projects that evolve over time, they argue.
"With all this fancy technology, there's [still] nothing like being in the same room," says Moshe Vardi, a professor of computer science at Rice University in Houston. Sometimes, project managers don't know exactly what they want until code comes back to them, he says. "It's much harder to do the ongoing changes [remotely]. It's very different when you run into a person every day and ask, 'How is it going? What's happening? Oh, by the way....' This informal communication is incredibly valuable."
If software jobs are headed overseas – to the likes of Poles and Russians earning less than $6,000 a year – do American programmers have a future?
At TopCoder, Wright holds the only job in the assembly line that's sheltered from the digital Darwinism. As project manager, he's the liaison between clients and the technical architects who break the problem into its pieces. His skills – a combination of technical expertise, communication know-how, and business savvy – will be key for US programmers, some computer science professors say.
"If all they can do is sit in a cubicle and they cannot talk to other people, they do not have an advantage, they cannot leverage their location here," says Professor Vardi. "Because at the end, what are computers about? It's about solving other people's problems."
Software-outsourcing firm TopCoder sifted through nearly 22,000 applicants to pick the top 100 freelance programmers, who gathered in New York for a contest last week. So who are these digital Top Guns? • A third were Russian, including teacher and recent college graduate Petr Mitrichev, who won the contest.
• China had the second-largest contingent with 12 representatives, followed by Poland with 11. Some Polish universities place great importance on coder competitions.
• The US had 7 contestants; Germany, 6.
• The field was all male.