Developers put to the test in Game of Codes

Come August 16, two-dozen programmers will attempt to solve a set of problems using their intimate knowledge of computer languages

Come August 16, two-dozen programmers will attempt to solve a set of problems using their intimate knowledge of computer languages. This competition will whittle away the weak from the strong, until one team emerges victorious with a $500 cash prize.

You may have in your mind memories of programming competitions from your time at university: dark computer labs with flickering fluorescent lights, awkward teenagers wearing headsets and empty energy drink cans piled in the corner — but this isn’t your average coding comp, this is Game of Codes.

Game of Codes is the brainchild of Shane O’Connell, Tanya Gray and Matty Blomfield.

O’Connell and Gray are second year computer science students at the University of Auckland, and the recently-graduated Blomfield (a former business student) works for the Japan External Trade Organisation (JETRO).

The competition involves six teams of four who attempt to solve three computer science-related questions using their programming skills. The questions include elements of cryptography, computer puzzles, database work, and require the participants to put their theoretical knowledge into practice.

While the organisers would not reveal the actual questions, they do say second year Computer Science students will be able handle them.

The competitors will be judged on how quickly they solve the questions, and how well they work together in a team.

Coding competitions aren’t a new idea, Gray has helped organise Code Jam events in the past, and she says technology vendors and universities often sponsor or host their own.

These events usually attract “typical geeks”, she says, and focus more on individual success than team efforts and networking. According to Gray Game of Codes will have a greater focus on social elements of the competition.

Members of the audience are randomly assigned to teams to provide support, cheer them on, bring them drinks, and help in any way they know how in order to win spot prizes. These same attendees can barter their way into other teams if they think they have a better chance to win. This all seems like it was lifted straight from the scene in the movie The Social Network, where Mark Zuckerburg is trialling potential employees by testing their ability to consume tequila while coding. O’Connell says it won’t be quite so raucous, but with a live DJ and MC, he expects that there will be a party atmosphere.

And this is important, he adds.

This new breed of coding competition is aimed at bringing in a wider audience. O’Connell says it will encourage technical people and the “stereotypes” to connect and network with non-technical people.

At the same time its creators hope it will lift some misconceptions about programmers, and raise interest in taking up an IT career. The entertainment is meant to help those who might not be familiar with coding or technology, view the field as more exciting than how it is sometimes portrayed in media says O’Connell. “Our goal from the beginning has been to change how computer science has been perceived,” he says.

“What we will consider a success is if a complete stranger to coding takes a look at these people [the competitors] and thinks what they are doing is cool and looks like fun.”

Gray adds that currently there are a lot of misconceptions about studying computer science or similar courses at university, which is often seen as a “guys’ domain”. Because of this women are often turned off from taking it up as a course and career path.

“I’ve often been to similar events like this where I’m the only woman there,” says Gray.

“I don’t think this is a reflection on those events as such but just the reality of the make up of an average computer science class.”

To help increase the participation of women O’Connell says university organisations like the Women of Computer Science, and smaller informal groups like Geek Girl Coffee have been approached for help.

“We’ve been very focused on addressing diversity,” says O’Connell. The organisers say there will be at least one all-woman team competing in August.

Game of Codes is open to any student or non-student, regardless of their university affiliation.

One of Game of Codes’ principal sponsors is the Institute of IT Professionals. CEO Paul Matthews told Computerworld the competition’s entertainment-based model will encourage younger people to consider technology careers.

“What’s become really clear when going into schools is if we want to make long term systematic change, we need to approach IT evangelising differently to how we have in the past,” says Matthews.

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