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June 6, 2008

Tim Roberts, winner of this year's TopCoder Open, gives a lesson


Not in coding, silly billy — that's way above my TechnoDolt™ pay grade.

Rather, it's how he approached his problem that makes him worth mentioning here, and offers instruction to those of us without code codons.

I've always wanted to use that phrase in context and I appear to have finally succeeded.

But I digress.

Ben Worthen, in a May 20, 2008 Wall Street Journal story about Roberts, wrote, "The winner's secret: avoiding bells and whistles, and asking questions until he knew exactly what the judges wanted his software to do."

Here's the WSJ article.

    Keeping It Simple Pays Off For Winning Programmer

    A tournament for computer programmers crowned a champion Thursday. The winner's secret: avoiding bells and whistles, and asking questions until he knew exactly what the judges wanted his software to do.

    We won't pretend that this story is sexy. But it's certainly instructive. The majority of tech projects miss the mark somehow: They're either delivered late or fail to meet expectations, or both. Two of the main reasons for this are poor communication between the information-technology department developing a system and the businesspeople who intend to use it, and an influx of new requirements that cause a project to get derailed.

    Tim Roberts, who bested nine other finalists to win the "component design" competition at the TopCoder Open in Las Vegas, made up his mind from the get-go to do everything in his power to avoid these pitfalls. (TopCoder is a software-development company that structures the work it's hired to perform as competitions that freelance computer programmers participate in.)

    On the prior Monday at noon, Mr. Roberts and his competitors received their instructions: Design a computer program that can calculate relationships between TopCoder programmers. They were given six hours to complete the task. Mr. Roberts says that he spent the first hour reading through the project's requirements and asking "at least 30 questions" of the person who wrote those requirements.

    Once he understood exactly what was required, he set about designing a system that met those requirements — and nothing else. Competitors get extra points for bells and whistles, but Mr. Roberts knew that any time spent designing extra features would come at the expense of more basic functions. Instead, he focused on making sure that his software worked and that he finished by the deadline, which he did — by three minutes.

    Mr. Roberts, who designs systems at Axiom Investment Advisors by day and usually participates in competitions after the rest of his family is asleep, found out that he won the $25,000 first prize Thursday afternoon. He says that he planned to celebrate by doing "about four hours of work."


Or, as Ray Kurzweil remarked in what has to be one of the best four-word advice nuggets ever: "Work smart, not hard."

June 6, 2008 at 12:01 PM | Permalink


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I read Fantastic Voyage, The Age of Spiritual Machines and The Singularity is Near, and they changed my life. I even found some of his lectures on Itunes and I find myself impatiently awaiting his next book.

Recently read another incredible book that I can't recommend highly enough, especially to all of you who also love Ray Kurzweil's work. The book is ""My Stroke of Insight"" by Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor. I had heard Dr Taylor's talk on the TED dot com site and I have to say, it changed my world. It's spreading virally all over the internet and the book is now a NYTimes Bestseller, so I'm not the only one, but it is the most amazing talk, and the most impactful book I've read in years. (Dr T also was named to Time Magazine's 100 Most Influential People and Oprah had her on her Soul Series last month and I hear they're making a movie about her story so you may already have heard of her)
If you haven't heard Dr Taylor's TEDTalk, that's an absolute must. The book is more and deeper and better, but start with the video (it's 18 minutes). Basically, her story is that she was a 37 yr old Harvard brain scientist who had a massive stroke in the left hemisphere of her brain. Because of her knowledge of how the brain works, and thanks to her amazingly loving and kind mother, she eventually fully recovered (and that part of the book detailing how she did it is inspirational).

There's a lot of learning and magic in the book, but the reason I so highly recommend My Stroke of Insight to this discussion, is because we have powerfully intelligent left brains that are rational, logical, sequential and grounded in detail and time, and then we have our kinesthetic right brains, where we experience intuition and peace and euphoria. Now that Kurzweil has got us taking all those vitamins and living our best ""Fantastic Voyage"" , the absolute necessity is that we read My Stroke of Insight and learn from Dr Taylor how to achieve balance between our right and left brains. Enjoy!

Posted by: Beatrice | Jun 15, 2008 11:30:11 PM

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