IT managers keep close eye on programming contest

More than 64 computer programmers from 19 countries gathered in Las Vegas earlier this month for the 2006 TopCoder Open, where developers competed to solve a complex algorithmic problem, design an application or develop a software component.

The competition for US$150,000 in prizes also provided an opportunity for corporate and government IT managers to recruit developers.

The secretive National Security Agency, a co-sponsor of the contest, publicly acknowledged that it hoped to recruit some contestants for its developer ranks. UBS was also a co-sponsor of the event, which was run by TopCoder.

TopCoder regularly taps some of the 80,000 programmers who have taken part in its contests to develop software for outsourcing clients such as Stage Stores and ESPN.

The freelance TopCoder developers are building several Windows-based handheld applications for Stage Stores, a Houston-based apparel retailer that operates 540 stores.

Work on the inventory, receiving, carton-scanning and merchandise transfer applications is slated to be finished in July, said Stage Stores CIO Jeff Kish.

The handheld project is the latest in a series that TopCoder has done for Stage in recent years, Kish said. For instance, the firm has built applications to handle the online sale of gift cards and to manage product returns.

"You can look at the competitions week after week and see how the developers are scoring," Kish said. "If you offshore something, you may understand the project manager, but you have no way of understanding the quality of the resources below that level."

Meanwhile, Kish is considering whether to launch internal competitions for Stage's development staff to help identify areas where employees need additional training.

Shawn Willett, an analyst at Current Analysis said TopCoder's "virtual sourcing" model could be viable for companies that don't have the scale to justify offshoring development.

TopCoder's contract developers are also building a content management system for a Mobile Companion project under way at sports broadcaster ESPN. The system will send viewers information about events as they are broadcast by the network, said John Zehr, vice president of development at ESPN.

Zehr said the TopCoder project is the first one in which ESPN has used nonstaff programmers to build a content system.

TopCoder developers used XML and Web services to build the content management system, which is now being tested and is slated to be rolled out this summer.

"They could increase our bandwidth without us necessarily hiring more people, and do it in a way that the code base becomes 'open-source' within our realm so we can add onto it," Zehr said.

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