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Winning Design Ways

Software design contests can pay good money and provide an educational experience for competitive developers.

Tim "Pops" Roberts is an independent IT consultant who makes a pretty good living doing contract project-management work. But it's his side job that gets his creative juices flowing: competing in software-design contests, in which the winning creations are used as building blocks for real business. And, oh yeah, this hobby has earned him anywhere from $30,000 to $40,000 in extra annual income.

TopCoder Inc. puts on and hosts several of these Web-based events a month for software algorithm as well as architecture design and software development. Each submission is reviewed, scored, and critiqued by a panel of software professionals.

Winning submissions are often developed into real software--reusable components in business applications for companies that contract this development work out to TopCoder. In other cases, TopCoder includes the winning designs as part of its catalog of reusable software components that can be used in development work.

TopCoder contestant and judge Roberts supplements his income with winnings.

TopCoder contestant and judge Roberts supplements his income with winnings.
This year, TopCoder has awarded more than $150,000 in prize money for these contests and more than $1 million over the last five years. Many of the companies that contract software-development work as the challenges for these contests are smaller businesses that "have a tough time getting and keeping great programmers," says George Tsipolitis, TopCoder's VP of events employment services.

For software pros like Roberts, 40, who has competed in TopCoder Contests about every month or so in the last five years, each contest takes about 20 hours. "I'm married with three kids, so I pick and choose which tournaments to do," he says.

Regular contestants also get rated for the quality of their work. Each time a contestant wins, his or her ratings increase. As contestants' ratings rise, the better they're expected to do with their submissions when it comes time for the review panel to pick a winner.

On the side, Roberts also does some freelance work for TopCoder as a reviewer for software challenges in which he's not participating. It takes two to three hours to review each submission, and Roberts earns at least $200 for the first submission he evaluates in each contest, and then a sliding-scale fee for every additional submission. The review work earns him several thousand dollars annually.

Roberts and other TopCoder contest winners also earn royalties for their software designs every time they're used in a real-world software deployment. Most recently, Roberts says, he's earned $500 over a six-month period for some of his designs.

The money Roberts earns participating in the TopCoder tournaments and review work is about 20% to 25% of his annual income. At the height of the dot-com boom, he earned more than $150,000 a year, and the TopCoder winnings were gravy. "But now, they're really more than a little money I make from just a hobby," he says.

Still, it's not just the award money that Roberts finds valuable--it's the judges' feedback. "It's an educational experience. You create a design, submit it, and get a peer review by three others who look at it, review it, and give scores." Roberts, a seasoned professional, values the feedback, but calls the reviews "an incredible opportunity" for younger software professionals and students. Says Roberts, "This is 100% learning, and can really help jump-start a career."

This story was modified on Nov. 1 to correct Tim "Pops" Roberts' name.

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