Programming prizes benefit everyone

Summary:We shouldn't be put off by the showbiz of competitions such as Google Code Jam -- recognising and rewarding the best programmers is in everyone's interest

We love giving ourselves awards. From the Olympics to Crufts via the Oscars and Whitbread, there's nothing we like better than working out who's best at something and slapping on the ribbons. It works for everything -- except, it seems, programming.

With its inerrant nose for publicity and insatiable appetite for fresh brains, Google is stepping into the gap. After successful stints in America and India, Code Jam has finally reached us old world Europeans. It is competitive programming at its most fiendish: not only must coders produce efficient programs under extreme time pressure, but the quality of the results must be high enough to withstand aggressive probing by the other competitors. The winners get cash, fame and a chance to merge with the Googleplex.

But if it's such a good idea -- and Google clearly thinks it a success -- why don't we have our own native software competitions? Software design as an engineering discipline does come in for its share of gongs. The Royal Academy of Engineering has innovation awards, as does the Institution of Engineering and Technology. Respectable, corporate, industry affairs, they do little to stir the blood.

Compared with these, Code Jam is more like Robot Wars -- and lots of people are uncomfortable with that. Yet winning things is sexy, and being a master of the art that runs the modern world is far cooler than writing another book about teenage angst.

Coding isn't just engineering. Awards aren't just there to rank contenders. The very best programmers are creative in ways that match the best of arts and science: they produce working code of rare quality, and at inexplicable speed. Recognising this will help put technology in its proper social context as a human endeavour capable of individual greatness, which can only be healthy.

There is an industry tendency to distrust star programmers, because they do things in a way that defies analysis and replication. That is wrong: they should be feted in ways that inspire the rest of us. We should celebrate these strange creatures. Progress needs hard work and discipline, but breakthroughs require genius. And that's equally to be prized.

Topics: IT Employment

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