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Crowdsourcing Solutions, One Competition at a Time: TopCoder Profiled – 2

Last week we told you about TopCoder. (You can access the entire interview here). But basically TopCoder is member based group of more than 460,000 coders from around the world, that harnesses the power of crowd-sourcing to achieve goals.

It seems fairly straightforward right? But, Mike Lydon, the Chief Technology Officer, told Chris Dorobek on the DorobekINSIDER program that government’s slow to change culture is causing some problems for the fast moving coders.


“The biggest hurdle we’ve had to overcome is the speed at which this process likes to work. It necessitates a lot of touch points between the coders and the client. 10, 12, 20 competitors will be hitting you with questions and you have to prepared to answer them and answer them quickly. The process will only move as quickly as you let it,” said Lydon.

Culture Clash

“The government entities we’ve been working with are not as comfortable moving quickly. They are use to being very methodical, very careful and conservative, so this is scary and threatening to some of the individuals we’ve been working with,” said Lydon.

Education, Education, Education

“The lesson learned on our sie is that teach empowerment is an important step to us working with government. You say, ‘here is a tool to allow you to think differently about their job and not only provide the resources but the capacity to get work done in a different way.’ Once the mind shift has taken place things move through much more quickly with agencies,” said Lydon.

Is TopCoder a Silver Bullet?

“I can’t call it a silver bullet because right now where it doesn’t work is specifically in government in high security areas like the DoD, where there are laws that govern who is allowed to be working on a system and personnel require security clearances,” said Lydon.

TopCoder’s DARPA Projects

  1. CS Stem Program: Effort by DARPA to come up with creative ways to encourage high-schoolers and middle-schoolers to matriculate into computer science programs. So TopCoder build over a two year period, a website with games that have an inspirational element which will hopefully prompt the kids playing the games to want to work and learn more about computer sciences.
  2. Crowd Source Formal Verification of Software: This is a pretty complicated project. But the premise is that software has the potential of being made more secure and the testing process around software can be made more comprehensive by making games. Then crowdsourcing the games that are designed specifically so that the ouput of the game levels will be use by automatic verification programs that are out there to make them more effective in verifying that some piece of software doesn’t have bugs in it.

NASA Goes All-In on TopCoder

  • Background: TopCoder and Harvard found each other many years ago. Harvard’s Dr. Karim Lakhani decided he wanted to focus research on TopCoder’s platform. He was looking for hard/press-worthy challenges that we could run on our platform. He had some contacts at NASA and brought them in. The results of that competition were so well received in NASA that they ended up starting a program within NASA called the NASA Tournament Lab. It allows NASA scientist to propose problems to be run on a competitive crowdsourcing platform.
  • NASA has now expanded the program into the Center of Excellence for Collaboration Innovation. They’re helping not just themselves internally but they’ve taken on the resources and hired a staff of individuals that are willing to help other agencies figure out how to bring the concept of competitive crowdsourcing to their agency as well.

Part 1 of our Interview

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Profile Photo eric Wolff

What do the coders who don’t win the competitions get out of this?

and Why do you feel this would be sustainable in the long term?

What prevents this from working until it becomes poplular and then burnout of the majority of people involved quickly diminishing its returns.

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