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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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  • 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: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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • by PolyDwarf ( 156355 ) on Friday August 13, 2010 @02:37PM (#33243862)

    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 of time in, like 90 days)... But paycheck?

  • by atomicxblue ( 1077017 ) on Friday August 13, 2010 @02:38PM (#33243892)
    If the runners-up are not selected, it isn't a complete loss as they had a valuable programming experience.
  • 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.
  • by godefroi ( 52421 ) on Friday August 13, 2010 @02:43PM (#33243972)

    Of course, if your code pisses off the recording or music industry, then there's no functional difference...

  • 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.

  • by retchdog ( 1319261 ) on Friday August 13, 2010 @02:48PM (#33244040) Journal

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

  • 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 AuMatar ( 183847 ) on Friday August 13, 2010 @02:58PM (#33244158)

    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:Pardonez-moi (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Rivalz ( 1431453 ) on Friday August 13, 2010 @03:02PM (#33244220)

    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 money and would do it anyhow).
    Chances are you want to know you are the best but really you arent. You are just the best of a group of people who want to prove they are the best or looking to get lucky.

  • Re:Pardonez-moi (Score:0, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday August 13, 2010 @03:06PM (#33244268)
    A company makes use of someone's work and you respond by mocking the idea that people should get paid for their work. You must really be sucking at the teat of our corporate overlords.
  • by nedlohs ( 1335013 ) on Friday August 13, 2010 @03:12PM (#33244330)

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

  • by Lumpy ( 12016 ) on Friday August 13, 2010 @03:46PM (#33244808) Homepage


    tell that to the tons of guys that fight with it daily on the Pro recording boards.

  • by berzerke ( 319205 ) on Friday August 13, 2010 @03:48PM (#33244836) Homepage

    A desperate for work idiot.

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

    by edmicman ( 830206 ) on Friday August 13, 2010 @04:06PM (#33245082) Homepage Journal
    Yes, if the people entering the contests agree to the terms and conditions before-hand. If I say 'hey, do this work for me for free, and I won't offer you any compensation' and someone willingly does it, what the heck is the problem? Are we in Bizarro World today?
  • Re:Pardonez-moi (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday August 13, 2010 @04:12PM (#33245176)

    And heck the best part about stuff like that crappy thing called "So you think you can dance" is that even those who do not win end up with exposure they would not have otherwise had. So sometimes the biggest winner isn't even the entrant that "Won" the contest at hand.

  • Re:Pardonez-moi (Score:3, Insightful)

    by apoc.famine ( 621563 ) <> on Friday August 13, 2010 @04:14PM (#33245206) Journal
    The thing is, you can't reliably use a contest as a substitute for hiring people. When you hire people, you interview, pick people with the correct skillset, and then tell them what to do. Contests are voluntary. There's no guarantee you'll get anyone finishing your project. There's even less of a guarantee that they'll finish it to-spec.

    Using a contest in lieu of employees for anything is a gamble. Not enough prize money, and you won't get competent people working on it. You'll also have to spend employee time weeding through all the cruft submitted. Then there's the legal questions about the code submitted.

    Unless you're a big-name company, with a solid reputation, I don't think that we really have to worry about exploitation via contests on any large scale. Even then, I don't know how many times a company could pull it off before everyone started calling out "bullshit". If you publicly pronounce that your in-house staff can't do a job too many times, everyone takes notice...
  • Re:Pardonez-moi (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Teancum ( 67324 ) <robert_horning AT netzero DOT net> on Sunday August 15, 2010 @01:00PM (#33257356) Homepage Journal

    Using a contest as a recruiting tool, on the other hand, is an interesting way to do thing. Hold a contest and then people may submit their code samples for that contest to solve a small but critical problem for the company. It should give a pretty good idea about how resourceful the candidates might be, how much they follow specifications, and how well they understand a critical problem domain for the company.

    Don't necessarily promise employment, but ask for enough information so you can contact that individual and perhaps offer them the chance to move on as staff to continue to do things like was in the contest on a permanent basis. At the very least, those who participate and get a job offer would be flattered even if they turn down the offer and perhaps there might be a couple desperate people who might say "yes" in such a situation. Nothing gives an ego boost better than a job offer anyway and is in some ways worth more than a prize.

    On the other hand, if a company is using a contest as a means to reduce its R&D staff and hoping to "outsource" that engineering effort through contests.... they are likely not a company you should be working with in the first place. A contest isn't necessarily going to reduce engineering costs and will likely even increase them over the long term as bugs in the source code are discovered or slight tweaks need to be made that may make the "winning" code obsolete. Unless it is a widely acknowledged program in general, it might even show "the competition" where you are weak and what kinds of problems you are facing as a company.

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