DE-CODER: The kings of coding

“Tomek” and “Pops” may be unfamiliar names to you, but in the world of coding competitions, they’re as big as rock stars.

Now they’re at the top of the stack, according to their peers who participate in online programming contests at, a mecca for those willing to publicly test their programming chops.

Submissions to the competitions (usually divided into design/development and algorithm categories) undergo peer review before they are ranked. There’s prize money and camaraderie—and participatants love it.

“At the very core of what we do is the belief that competition is the best method of evaluating ability and delivering quantifiable results,” says TopCoder’s president, Rob Hughes.

“Tomek,” a.k.a. Tomasz Czajka, a Ph.D. candidate in computer science at Purdue, began participating in online competitions when he was in high school in Poland. He entered his first TopCoder competition in 2003 and won the “TopCoder Open” two years running, as well as the TopCoder Collegiate Challenge, earning about $98,000.

Czajka says he was “just looking for any kind of programming contest.” But since entering TopCoder, the adrenaline rush of competition has become habit forming. “The problems are so interesting so it is very stimulating,” he adds.

“Pops,” a.k.a. Tim Roberts, an independent consultant in the Chicago area, and TopCoder member since 2001, focuses on design/development. Competing on TopCoder not only helps pay bills; his consistently high rankings also give him a strong reference for potential clients.

Mike Morris, TopCoder’s VP of software development, says the company has nearly 50,000 members in 160 countries, and about 1,500 compete weekly in online coding rounds.

For Roberts, TopCoder isn’t just fun and games; it represents the future. “I have been very active on the design side, trying to improve the process over the years,” he says. “I find that many companies talk about reuse but most don’t really do it.” He believes TopCoder shows it can be done efficiently. “The stuff they develop is [of] much higher quality than you’ll find in most companies.”

About the Author

Alan R. Earls is a technology and business writer based near Boston.