Thursday, April 05, 2018

I just wanted to ask, what's up with the 2010-quality prizes in algorithm competitions?

So hey, yes, I am going to be participating in "Google Code Jam 2018". I've been thinking for long to make a huge blogpost explaining my situation and why I stopped participating in algorithm contests and (more painfully) making editorials in TopCoder. (Just to be clear, it's not because I don't want to participate). I am unsure if I am going to make that blogpost, but one of the many tangents I wanted to include in that post is just a rant about the prize pools we've had in these contents for years now.
So as a bit of context, I used to be very active in these competitions. I started in 2008, I think. Back then the Google Code Jam was basically a Google-sponsored contest at Topcoder. And the prize pool in those times was just ridiculous in comparison to what we have now. First of all, there were both regional and global contests. And that's how I started, I was a finalist in the Latin American regional. And I really think that if not for the encouragement received from qualifying to that regional, I probably wouldn't have had such a large and extended "career" in these contests. Why? Because it would not have been worth it.
Another example: The TCO was also a thing back then - We had qualification rounds and there were t-shirts for the 3000 coders who qualified. The latter rounds would have other prizes. Well, probably the best thing you could get besides the finals' money prizes was a Topcoder-branded USB drive. But it was still pretty good.
And the money prizes were also quite there. Every month there were 2 SRMs where you could earn money prizes by acquiring the top positions in your room and this included division 2 coders. And I am not talking about those 5 dollars you can get for registering in those Harvard experiment matches. A talented coder could get 40 USD per match in average.
But let's forget about the money. Even those other prizes or the much higher chance to get a t-shirt were very important as encouragement.

Back to reality

The year is 2018, and although the Google Code Jam admins want us to believe it is a big deal that it is its 15-th year. It doesn't feel like such a special year. For some reason we are still following the prize pool from 2010. There was an economic crisis in 2010, (ironically, this crisis was caused in part by the irrational worship of algorithms as infallible) and this crisis brought extreme deflation in the availability of budgets for algorithm competitions. Topcoder eventually dropped their money SRMs (sans very extreme rare cases). The number of finalists dropped to the incredibly small value it is now. And there are at most 1000 t-shirts in code jam. (For TCO I think it is 450)? Although all of this was understandable during the recession, it stayed that way. And it has been 8 years since. I guess that the powers that be are content with seeing the same 25 people in all finals and not having to care about the remaining tens of thousands that participate in these contests. But maybe they should? You know, if there was more encouragement for those 10K coders, maybe more of them would be willing to commit the ridiculous amount of time it takes to become good at this stuff. Which would mean we would have more people who reach finalist level and there would be more competition there and we would all improve for it (maybe).
And although the number of t-shirts hasn't increased, the competition has only gotten tougher. Problems are harder and there's far more coders participating than before. I really think 1000 t-shirts is too little. Because I think that t-shirts should exist as a way to encourage even beginners to participate and continue participating. I don't think there's really so much benefit in having so few t-shirt winners. If you so desire make the top 1000 tshirts a different version so that people who really want to feel special would be able to remain feeling special.
In the last two years I've been able to look at these contests from more of an outsider perspective and it is really amazing how much of a niche we are. That there's so few benefits for complete new comers to start working hard to participate in these contests does not help.

1 comment :

Owen Mueller said...

This is a great post thaanks