Will competitive coding replace in-house development?

NASA is using its Tournament Lab to conduct online competitions to create new algorithms and software in short periods of time at bargain-basement prices. The space agency or a sponsor posts the prize money and develops contest requirements, and more than 320,000 programmers in the TopCoder community take their best shot at solving the problem.

Results so far have been better than expected, said Jason Crusan, chief technologist for NASA’s human exploration operations. The lab now is in the middle of a two-and-a-half-year pilot period. If it works, does it mean the end of in-house and contractor software development?

Not likely. In the first place, there always will be sensitive and mission-critical functions that do not lend themselves to work in an open community. And someone always will be needed to determine needs and to assess and build on the results.

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NASA: Prize money a bargain for better software 

“My sense is we will always need internal staff,” said Karim Lakhani, assistant professor of business administration at the Harvard Business School who helped set up the NASA Tournament Lab. “But the role of that staff is likely to change. You need to think about development projects in a portfolio setting,” determining what to do in-house and what to outsource.

Setting up a competition can be a challenge in itself, Crusan said. The problem being solved has to be thoroughly understood and explained in terms of results that are not mission-specific. “That is not a trivial process,” he said. “It often takes us more time to do that than to run the actual challenge.”

As for the programmers who compete for the prizes offered through TopCoder and other competitive platforms, with prizes typically amounting to a few hundred dollars they are not likely to get rich. So why not take their talents to a large company and do the work for a good salary?

The idea of piecemeal work rather than punching clock in a cube farm is attractive to a lot of young programmers, said Robert Hughes, president and chief operating officer of TopCoder. The contests also can be a good way to break into the business and get some experience, or to earn a little money on the side.

As for the pay, although few competitors are likely to become wealthy, “I think it’s fair to them,” Hughes said. “I’ve never heard anybody say they have been ripped off.”

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.


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