Cultivating Next-Generation IT Talent

Tech vendors' and trade associations' programming competitions help develop IT talent and build loyalty for sponsors' products.
Pro basketball coaches look for players that might be a good fit for their teams at college basketball tournaments. IT managers have their own version of March Madness: programming competitions that let students show off their skills with software code.

Each year, hundreds of software jockeys--usually students--battle each other in competitions, often sponsored by tech vendors or trade associations. The winners can earn big bucks. Sponsors also can win by building brand loyalty with the top minds of the next-generation IT worker. And business-technology managers get an early look at potential members of their future workforce.

Next month, 192 finalists from the Association of Computing Machinery International Collegiate Programming Contest will gather in Honolulu for a five-hour competition sponsored by IBM. Programmers will be on teams that have to solve coding problems using both traditional and new programming languages such as C, C++, Java, and Pascal, as well as IBM's WebSphere Studio Application Developer. In addition to giving students an opportunity to distinguish themselves in front of the IT community and make connections that might help them in a tight job market, IBM says the competitions help expose up-and-coming developers to the vendor's software, which might turn them into future customers.

Meanwhile, 512 college programmers will compete for $150,000 in the 2002 Sun Microsystems and TopCoder Collegiate Challenge. TopCoder Inc. has been putting together programming contests since April, and businesses have shown such interest that TopCoder chief operating officer Rob Hughes says the company may offer recruiting services for companies seeking programmers skilled in specific languages.

Hughes says the contests can help businesses evaluate the skills of potential hires. "We gather information that ranks programmers against other programmers, using the same problems, algorithms, and tools, and how well they can code a solution to logic problems," he says.

Jason Woolever won the TopCoder competition last year when he was a senior at MIT; now he works as a senior R&D engineer at Synopsys Inc., which makes computer chip design software. Woolever says the skills he developed in the contests helped him when he got his job: :A lot of the problems were similar to what I have at work."