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The Risks of Entering Programming Contests 154

snydeq writes "Fatal Exception's Neil McAllister warns developers of the hidden risks of entering programming competitions, which are on the rise since NetFlix awarded $1 million to BellKor's Pragmatic Chaos in 2009. 'Web and software companies offer prizes for a variety of reasons. Chief among them is simply to raise awareness, interest, and participation in a given software platform or service,' McAllister writes. But the practice of offering and entering software prizes is not without concerns. Privacy implications, class-action lawsuits — many of the prizes leave participants vulnerable to prosecution. Worse is the possibility of handing hard work over to a company without reward. 'Contests like the Netflix Prize are sponsored by commercial entities that stand to profit from the innovations produced by the entrants. Those who participate invest valuable time toward winning the prize, but if they fail to meet the deadline (or to produce the leading results) their efforts could go completely unrewarded. Depending on the terms of the contest, however, the sponsor might still be able to make use of the runners-up's innovations — which, of course, would be a whole lot cheaper than hiring developers.'"
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The Risks of Entering Programming Contests

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  • GPL (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward

    GPL your entry.

    • Re:GPL (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Lunix Nutcase ( 1092239 ) on Friday August 13, 2010 @02:31PM (#33243770)

      That will most likely disqualify you based on the terms of the competition which usually contains clauses about them being able to use your work or some sort of copyright transfer.

      • Re:GPL (Score:4, Informative)

        by 0racle ( 667029 ) on Friday August 13, 2010 @02:37PM (#33243870)
        The GPL does not preclude that, though it would still most likely disqualify you from competition anyway.
        • Since they are usually using these contests as R&D for proprietary products, yes it would. That is why they usually also ask for copyright transfers.

          • by tigre ( 178245 )

            IANAL, but if you transfer the copyright, they are free to reuse without a license so the version you transfer can still be used by anyone under the GPL, but they are free to modify as needed without any "viral infection". All the same, it would probably still be unacceptable to the lawyers drafting the rules.

            • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

              by reebmmm ( 939463 )

              I am a lawyer, but not your lawyer. It seems to me that order would matter.

              If you assign your copyright first, then there is no GPL issue. The GPL simply wouldn't apply. The assignee (i.e., the new owner) did not need the license to use the software. And even if GPL did apply, they are under no obligation to continue distributing it and you have given up your right to do so (e.g., you sold all your rights to them).

              If you make a GPL transfer first, and the assign second, you could have a copy of the software

    • by Dunbal ( 464142 ) *

      And be immediately disqualified.

  • Pardonez-moi (Score:5, Insightful)

    by MrEricSir ( 398214 ) on Friday August 13, 2010 @02:31PM (#33243758) Homepage

    But aren't these risks, for the most part, kind of obvious? It's sort of like saying your employer might exploit you for free labor from your unpaid internship. Duh!

    • Re:Pardonez-moi (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward on Friday August 13, 2010 @02:34PM (#33243820)

      I for one was shocked to find out that if I entered a contest, there was a possibility I might not win. My mom always told me I would succeed at whatever I tried. Does this mean that I might not get $75 million dollars for the lottery ticket I bought this morning? I wish someone had told me that before I quit my job.

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by Imrik ( 148191 )

        It's not the fact that you might not win, it's that they can still use your entry (without paying you for it) if you don't.

        • So what. You don't get your lottery ticket money back when you lose. You enter a sports tournament and don't win, you don't get your money back. They still get your entrance fee. They still get to keep all the money from the spectators who paid to see you. As long as the contest wasn't rigged, I don't see where the problem is. That's the point of a contest. A bunch of people complete, for no reason at all, except to see who is the best. The winners get prizes. The losers get nothing. The people hol
    • Re:Pardonez-moi (Score:5, Insightful)

      by biobogonics ( 513416 ) on Friday August 13, 2010 @02:48PM (#33244034)

      But aren't these risks, for the most part, kind of obvious? It's sort of like saying your employer might exploit you for free labor from your unpaid internship. Duh!

      How is this situation different from any other so called "talent" contest? Look at the dancers who did not win on "So You Think You Can Dance?". It's the same reason for the spread of "reality" TV. These shows are inexpensive to produce - just like game shows were.

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by sohp ( 22984 )

        There a many corporate-sponsored contests like this photography, mostly geared at amateurs. Back in the 80s I learned to look at the terms carefully, and if anywhere in them was a clause giving up rights to the photographs entered to the contest-holder, to run far away. Prestigious contests always make it clear that all rights remain with the photographer, although they may legitimately request a time-limited right to display entries for promotional purposes only, not for resale ever.

        Stock agencies used to

      • How is this situation different from any other so called "talent" contest?

        If the organizer recorded your performance in the talent contest, then made a #1 single out of it without paying you, that's the problem. Not that it's not wholly legal if the participants agree beforehand to sign away their performance, but it could be a scummy business practice and worth looking out for. Which is all the article is saying, really.

        On the other hand, if your performance brought you fame (or in computing, a bright spot on your resume) that might be a reasonable exchange.

    • Yeah, I was thinking that same way. Granted there are businesses who will try to take advantage of people, not all of them are like that. I'm sorry, but I just can't be as fatalistic as the author. :D
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Rivalz ( 1431453 )

      Yes I often go to various companies I intend to work for. Offer them each to pay me in advanced for the chance I might choose to work for them.
      I of course will not refund the money as they had the privilege of competing for me to select them for my place of employment.
      The problem with my argument is no one in their right mind would agree to it.
      So why agree to a contest on the off chance you are one of two things (Extremely over qualified / talented enough to beat everyone else) or (Not doing it for the mone

      • by fishbowl ( 7759 )

        >Yes I often go to various companies I intend to work for. Offer them each to pay me in advanced for the chance I might choose to work
        >for them.

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Protection_racket [wikipedia.org]

    • >>But aren't these risks, for the most part, kind of obvious?

      Yeah. I think everyone that entered the Netflix contest knew, pretty upfront, that Netflix was interested in ideas people would be coming up with, and that nobody would get compensated except the first team to reach the target.

      TFA, methinks, is one of those anti-capitalist types that hates anything, whatsoever, to do with helping a company that actually makes money.

      I was listening to Pacifica Communist Radio yesterday, and they were

    • by Teancum ( 67324 )

      If you are a computer science intern and not at least making 2x minimum wage, you are most certainly getting ripped off. Perhaps getting paid less than the full-time professionals, but still you should be getting paid a pretty healthy wage none the less and certainly more than working at a burger flipper job.

      An "unpaid computer science intern"? I hope you are getting other benefits such as a major scholarship or a nearly guaranteed job afterward, or some significant political connections for doing that ki

  • by Joe The Dragon ( 967727 ) on Friday August 13, 2010 @02:32PM (#33243782)

    what about pre / in interview code samples or probation period coding?

    what stop them from firing you right at the end of the probation period and getting free work.

    • Nothing as your contract usually includes a clause about them owning copyright to the work you create while employed by them.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by PolyDwarf ( 156355 )

      Are there people who work, for free, in a "probation period", where those people are not interns?

      Seriously... If any job I was applying for said "Well, Mr Polydwarf, we like you and all.. but we're going to need you to sit at a desk and pound some code out, just to see if we *really* like you.. Oh yeah, no paycheck, either. But, you do get to bask in the glow of your monitor and congratulate yourself on a job well done."

      Benefits are a different story (a lot of places, they won't kick in until some amount o

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by AuMatar ( 183847 )

        Where the hell did you work with no benefits for 90 days? I've never seen it go longer than 2 weeks (generally because the health insurance processed forms every 2 weeks).

        • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

          by sorak ( 246725 )

          I've seen it at a few places, but never worked for large corporations. There was a job secured by a headhunter, where you weren't technically an employee of the company until 90 days had passed (although you did get paid). Then there is my current employer, who didn't provide health insurance for 90 days. I don't think I've ever had a job that gave out Health Insurance without a 90 day period.

    • by Surt ( 22457 )

      I can't believe either of those is a serious problem:

      Interview coding: do they really use you to solve a real problem they are having? And you are successful in understanding their problem domain in an hour, and providing a useful solution? Seriously? They'd have been run into the ground by more efficient competitors.

      Probation period? Who signs on to a job like that?

      • Well, I have helped solve real world problems in an interview. Naturally they offered me the job. If you do know that much more about the domain than the people hiring you they'd be fools not to take you on.
      • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

        by fishbowl ( 7759 )

        >Probation period? Who signs on to a job like that?

        Almost everybody at almost every level. Even when the opportunity has long-term prospects, the offer is usually on a contract basis where the employer defers the option to hire to a benefits-eligible position. This is pretty standard in programming jobs nowadays.

        • by Surt ( 22457 )

          I have never seen a job like that. And i've taken 4 interviews this year.

    • by Achra ( 846023 ) on Friday August 13, 2010 @02:50PM (#33244064) Journal
      Once, in a Microsoft interview, I was asked to write a memory allocator. I always assumed that after I left, the conversation went like:
      "Great, copy this down. Tell the next guy to write us a sound driver."
      • Once, in a Microsoft interview, I was asked to write a memory allocator. I always assumed that after I left, the conversation went like:
        "Great, copy this down.

        You might think that, but let's face it, memory management in Windows hasn't visibly improved in decades*. Any number of interview candidate submissions could have helped, and yet it hasn't.

        *I kid. I'm not a Windows fanboi, but at least Win 7 x64 isn't thrashing all the damn time on my system at home. It's almost Linux-grade!

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by nedlohs ( 1335013 )

      What sort of idiot would take a job with an unpaid probation period???

    • by Ash Vince ( 602485 ) on Friday August 13, 2010 @03:17PM (#33244398) Journal

      what stop them from firing you right at the end of the probation period and getting free work.

      Usually the main problem is that the code in question needs further work. It is very rare that developers are worth the time it takes to train them for the first 6 months. When you audit code written by people on their trial period before offering them a full time post you are usually just ensuring that it does not contain any glaring great screw ups.

      The project you give them will usually be very self contained but with a few external things they need to check in order to see how they deal with it. The main reason for this is that at the end of the day you have to audit it so the candidate is fresh in everyone's mind when the final decision is being made. In my experience you will want to give a potential candidate a decision very quickly after his evaluation day. If they were rubbish they probably did not get that far so you do not wan them to get another offer while you make up your mind. If you have given them a project that involved working on more than 5 or 6 files you have to go through every last line that is different and check it before the code is checked in and that can be a right pain in the arse.

      Much better is giving them a dummy project that is going nowhere but builds on a simple area of your existing system. This way they have to look a the existing code and plan their approach but you get an easy audit at 5:30 when they leave.

      I am also fond of giving them a project they have very little chance of completing in the time allotted in order to see how they cope with pressure. Obviously you do not count the fact they did not finish it against them but seeing how they cope with an unrealistic deadline is far more valuable than the code the produce ever could have been.

      The best employee I have ever had the pleasure to work with came to do a trial day on a day which turned out to be a fallback beta release day to a client. Since the program was supposed to have been handed across to the clients test team 2 days earlier but they rushed in some last minute changes we had no choice but to release on that day. We also knew he was good from his interview so we did not want the candidate to get another offer if we mucked him about cancelling with less than a weeks notice. Then our technical lead got sick on the day of the release.

      We went ahead and he found several bugs before the clients testing team. He also showed he was very professional and coped with a very stressful day very well even though he was a recent graduate with no experience on a development team. The end result was him getting dragged to the pub immediately after the day and him being accepted as part of the development team by his co-workers long before management had given him a firm offer (which of course they did, and he accepted).

      While I would never aim to make a potential employees first day as much of a disaster as that I do think you can give people a basic stress test without letting them know the work they are doing is actually a bit of a dead end that does not matter as much as it could. Unfortunately jobs that pay well are quite often a little stressful at times and it pays to see how people cope with this before you hire them. This can also help the employee since someone who copes well is going to get a better starting offer than someone who can do the job well but looks like they will require more managerial input when they are in post.

    • by sorak ( 246725 )

      The profit motive matters. If an employer asks me to write code to prove I can, then that is one thing. If that employer then uses the code to make millions of dollars, doesn't give me a penny for it, and won't even hire me, then I would be angry.

  • by John Hasler ( 414242 ) on Friday August 13, 2010 @02:34PM (#33243810) Homepage

    "...prizes leave participants vulnerable to prosecution." I don't see any in the article.

    • Indeed. "That word you keep using, I do not think it means what you think it means."

      Prosecution means a criminal complaint against you. You might be able to be named in a Civil suit, but i don't see how you can be arrested for writing code.
    • I can think of at least one. Contestant writes code which is scary-good at predicting your taste in movies, music, beer, and loose women. Company takes your solution and implements it. Some fiasco occurs, a bunch of private data is compromised, and somebody gets outed as being a homosexual (or something). Pissed off person tries to sue company. They probably fail because the company has a zillion dollars. Person is still pissed, tries to go after someone else. Person goes after the original author of the co

      • > Person sues you directly.

        Shrug. I could "sue" you for contradicting me. You'll cripple yourself if you refrain from doing anything that might, by any remote chance, get you sued.

        > Don't think it can happen? I've experienced it (though not in the above
        > form, exactly).

        In any case, being sued is not the same as being prosecuted.

    • This one is no biggie for me. I've been participating in so many contests, I'm sort of judgement-proof by this point. ;)

      On a more serious note, Neil McAllister seems to only see the computer programming field as a zero-sum game. The computer programming that someone does for free (for whatever reason: learning, camaraderie, ego, prizes, resume-padding, or whatever) is not necessarily just lost revenue/income for the labor market of programmers.

      For instance once upon a time, before the advent of Microsoft Wo

  • Those who participate invest valuable time toward winning the prize, but if they fail to meet the deadline (or to produce the leading results) their efforts could go completely unrewarded.

    Boohoo? Why should you be rewarded if you can't even meet the deadlines of the contest or producing subpar results compared to others?

    • because you 'win' in as far as you produce the stuff that the people putting the prize up want (if they use your stuff), but don't 'win' in as far as actually getting a prize. I don't think it's unreasonable for losing entrants to expect that their entry won't be subsequently used by the promoter - if it wasn't good enough to win the prize, how is it still good enough to use?

      Think of it like an auction, I bid $1m, you bid $1.1m: we don't then each pay the sum we bid, but only you get the item. This is simil

      • I'm assuming the rules on what the company gets to do with the leftover entries is presented up front in the terms and conditions? If you don't agree with those, then don't bother and enter. What's the problem again?
        • hey, I'm pontificating on what people ought to do. The problem is merely that the company isn't complying with my standards.

          Or, to put it another way, technically, if the crappy rules are up front, there isn't really a 'problem'; it's just that the rules are crappy, and I'm feeling free to say it.

  • If the runners-up are not selected, it isn't a complete loss as they had a valuable programming experience.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by retchdog ( 1319261 )

      nothing's ever a complete loss then. i'm sure even african slaves got good physical exercise in the cotton fields.

      • Why should someone be rewarded for not being able to meet a deadline or for submitting work that produces inferior results as others? The real world doesn't reward yot for participation alone.

        • That's nice, but the flip side of that is what is being discussed here: "why should someone work under such a brittle proposition?" Netflix is not obliged to reward "losers" nor is anyone suggesting they should be, so stick your red herring up your arse.

          • "why should someone work under such a brittle proposition?"

            They shouldn't if they don't like the terms of the contest. Since when is Netflix, or anyone else, able to force you to participate in their contests?

            • Yes, very good and I agree completely. This article is suggesting exactly that; that people should better consider the terms of that (or similar) contests, and that there could be better ways, in the long-run, to spend one's time. I.e., make rational decisions about who is benefiting, so that you can get reimbursed closer to your true value as opposed to following a herd and going for vague kudos.

          • by suso ( 153703 ) *

            Its also stupid to play the lottery. Unless you are the winner of course.

      • i'm sure even african slaves got good physical exercise in the cotton fields

        They did, and some people would probably choose to do the work that they did for a bit just for the exercise and to get out in the fresh air for a bit. The important point here is the choice: the slaves did not have a choice, competition participants do.

        • Yeah, and what's wrong with telling people that "hey this is probably going to be about as rewarding as slavery"? No one is saying anything about being forced. Is there something wrong with people with mutual interests discussing payoff structures amongst themselves?

          Sheesh. I figured I was just trolled above, but maybe not...

  • by catbutt ( 469582 ) on Friday August 13, 2010 @02:39PM (#33243904)
    I think it's only fair to point out that the terms of the netflix contest (which I participated in and got a lot out of) are such that you own everything you produce. I think you may have to licence it to netflix if you win and take the $million, but if so it is non-exclusive.
    • Do you know if the Quiz and Test datasets are still available on the net somewhere? I've been looking without much success.
  • Drama (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Voulnet ( 1630793 ) on Friday August 13, 2010 @02:40PM (#33243914)
    Let's not make a big corporate drama over everything. Every programmer that enters a contest knows (or should know) that his work may go unrewarded AND into the hands of the contest arrangement panel. If the programmer has enough free time to make something really great for a contest, then he's already a big name or capable of making lots of money and great projects, so somebody making use of his contest entry should be but a little blip on his radar; if his contest entry was that great then he surely can go big time.
  • Risks are everywhere (Score:1, Informative)

    by Palmsie ( 1550787 )
    These types of risks aren't inherent in devoting time merely to a contest, they're everywhere. You're at risk of unveiling your ideas at soon as you sit down for the interview and answer the question, "so why should we hire you?". You may have a great idea, spill the beans, and then not get the job only to see the company adopt your idea. Similarly, whose to say that when you implement a new idea in a company that they don't fire you and hire someone else once the system is implanted. While these are unlike
    • This type of paranoid thinking is typical among people with technical skill. The reality is, ideas are a dime a dozen. Even good ideas. Implementing ideas, i.e. getting them to work and then successfully marketing them and making money with those ideas, is orders of magnitude more difficult.

      It's a very rare that an idea is so brilliant, so simple, and full of so much potential, that a company could actually "steal" your idea from you and defeat you in the marketplace based on a 15 minute conversation. Serio

  • So you're tellin me that 15 years ago when I edited my colleague's autoexec.bat file into a loop that repeated "I AM A GIANT CAWK MAGNET" endlessly... I was at risk of prosecution?! Damn, barely made it!
  • by bugs2squash ( 1132591 ) on Friday August 13, 2010 @02:54PM (#33244118)
    The alternative to a competition is what, a request for tender, a bunch of responses from big corporations. At least the competition gives me as an individual a reasonable way to compete.
  • by nedlohs ( 1335013 ) on Friday August 13, 2010 @03:02PM (#33244218)

    Obviously if you enter a competition and don't win you spend effort entering for no reward. I wouldn't think it would be possible too drool let alone develop software without knowing that.

    That the prize runner benefits from non-winning entries (if the terms and conditions are as such, and you know them before you enter) is also obvious. That's part of the reason for running one, you might award your million dollar prize for the best piece of crap in a field of garbage and would have been better of hiring programmers (ignoring the promotion beneifits of a competition). Or you might get more and better software than you could have got via hiring for the same cost.

    Attending a job interview, writing a cover letter, tweaking the CV to highlight relevant experience, etc, those all require effort or time - and yet they don't have to offer me the job (or offer me the pay/benefits I want). Oh noes... there's risk...

  • by gurps_npc ( 621217 ) on Friday August 13, 2010 @03:08PM (#33244288) Homepage
    No, this is Fark. The 'risks' they mentioned are obvious and belong to almost all contests.
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by ADRA ( 37398 )

      You answered faster than I did! I mean DUH, that's how these contests work. That is why companies release them, and that is why there will always be a niche software market for them. If anything, it really tells us that there is an over supply of talent just wasting away in the market if they all have time to join these contests and get recognition. I don't really know how big this market is, but I can't imagine that the rewards are much above table scraps when you calculate time invested.

      • In general, true. The three real reasons to enter these things are:

        1. You enjoy doing the work (and are unemployed or otherwise bored from lack of work).

        2. You are using it as an excuse to learn how to do the work, with ready made sample projects.

        3. You are (or work for) an organization in search of good publicity. (Schools, corporations, etc.)

  • My non-profit has run a contest for the past three years. Maybe I've not been doing things the "right" way but it's only after an entry has actually won a prize that the developer assigns any rights to my organization. If they don't win then I get nothing. If they do win they always have the option of not assigning the rights (and concomitantly not receiving a cash prize!).

    I'm not sure why somebody would willingly assign away their rights just for a chance to win and frankly I question the value of what
  • Wow, those risky contests sound like just another at work, whether for yourself, or your employer. Either one could fail, and receive nothing.

    Maybe McAllister forgot about the whole "dot com" "nEW eCONOMY" (stylized for Web 2.0 chicness) market crashing.

  • Two comments:

    1. You're vulnerable to being sued simply for looking at someone cross-eyed. Anecdotes notwithstanding, you're not particularly more vulnerable just because you entered a contest.

    2. Using your invention without paying you is an unreasonable fear. They may not offer you the 50% stake in the company that you think your invention deserves, but unless you're antisocial, in some other way unreasonable or too disinterested to introduce yourself to the managers of the relevant team, the fact that they

  • Just because a contest is held doesn't mean it will complete.

    The last IOCCC contest results have been highly anticipated for years now [slashdot.org].

  • Those who participate invest valuable time toward winning the prize, but if they fail to meet the deadline (or to produce the leading results) their efforts could go completely unrewarded. Depending on the terms of the contest, however, the sponsor might still be able to make use of the runners-up's innovations — which, of course, would be a whole lot cheaper than hiring developers.'

    I don't see the problem here. This is known by the contestants going in. Of course the expected return on your time is

  • In Soviet Russia contest risks you!

If I had only known, I would have been a locksmith. -- Albert Einstein