Government Competitions Redux: TopCoder and the Power of Crowdsourcing – 1

Competitions are changing the way government iterates and innovates. NASA and OPM have both opted to use TopCoder to create new apps. TopCoder is member based group of more than 460,000 coders from around the world. TopCoder harnesses the power of crowd-sourcing to achieve goals. Mike Lydon is the Chief Technology Officer and Jim McKeown is the Director of Communications at TopCoder. Mike told Chris Dorobek on the DorobekINSIDER program how TopCoder works. "Our product right now is called enterprise open innovation. So it is leveraging crowd sourcing through controlled competitions to really help government agencies and commercial customers in their enterprise software products. As opposed to traditionally what we think of when we talk about prizes and contests we are thinking about the big moonshot competitions, 10 million dollars to get to the moon or find an astroid or $50,000 to build a mobile app; what TopCoder does is take that concept to the next level and really focus on the enterprise and utilizing and leveraging competitions in order to tackle that," said Lydon.

Advantage to Competitions?

"The biggest advantage currently is bust capacity. TopCoder has a member base of 460,000. That is a lot of people that we can tap into when a customer has a big project coming up and they're trying to figure out resource allocation. With TopCoder resource allocation is no longer an issue. What the customer controls is process and workflow," said Lydon. "It's the Holy Trinity of EOI. You get new ideas from external communities, from all over the world, from people in different fields. It's cross pollination. Plus it's fast. A whole competition can take place in 2-3 weeks. We return quality results very quickly," said McKeown.

How it Works?

"The key is decomposing an overall problem into lots and lots of small competitions. That is how our workflow is designed. In fact we use competition todo the decomposition itself. We will run a competition for the overall conceptualization of a business project. It shows the value of crowdsourcing when you have a lot of people looking at a problem or opportunity a lot of ideas come out of it," said Lydon.
  • After the initial idea is presented:
    • We run competitions to create the software and code. We have the capacity to run unlimited competitions at the same time a lot of the build of a system can be done simultaneously.
    • After the build is done we will run competitions to do integrations of components.
    • The really cool part is when a project is near completion we can utilize these unique competitions called Bug Hunts. They leverage the crowd to look for flaws in the system. They also check for regulation compliance issues.

Security in the Crowd?

"In some cases customers have asked us to restrict who is participating. However our response has always been this is a more secure way to e writing software than anything else that I can think of because:
  1. Completely open workflow that allows every line of code to be reviewed by the entire member base as well as the stakeholders.
  2. Each code is required to be reviewed by at least 3 review board members. They make sure coding conventions are correct, test cases etc. They look for malicious or extraneous code. The number of people that are looking at every single line of code that is written is far greater than it is with any other development process.
  3. This process is just rigorous and methodical that once a customer understands how this works they are no longer concerned about security.
"There is also a high degree of ownership amongst the members. Very professional and collegial interactions. It is all transparent, they actually built the platform. TopCoder itself was built using this platform by the community. That is fundamental to this concept of openness and transparency. Real innovation won't happen if you don't have that," said McKeown.

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