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Google's coding champions go for the gold in contest

July 29, 2008 |  8:00 am

Bartholomew Furrow

There are few titles in technology with more bragging rights than "top coder."

Yet few outside that rarefied world realize that techies routinely compete in cutthroat coding competitions that on an intellectual plane match the skill required to go for the gold in Beijing or take top honors in the U.S. Open.

Such tournaments are one way technology’s Tiger Woods gets discovered. Finalists of these competitions are the coding champions that every company would want to recruit, which would explain why Internet giant Google puts on just such a contest, called Google Code Jam.

At Google, programmers and engineers are encouraged to devote 20% of their time to a project that interests them personally. Bartholomew Furrow, an engineer, was one of the Googlers who chose to organize this year's Code Jam as their personal project.

Previous 20% projects include Google News, Google Talk, Orkut and the Authors@Google series, which brings notables to Google to speak. "Many companies end up in a situation where they have what I think of as a suggestion-box mentality: Write your own on a 4 x 6 card and put it in a box," explained Alan Eustace, Google’s senior vice president of engineering and research. "What we are trying to have is a healthy innovation pipeline inside the company."

Code Jam used to be run by TopCoder, a leader in online computer programming contests. Now, thanks to Furrow and his team at Google, Google itself is hosting the event. A 24-year-old physics major from Canada, Furrow has been passionate about coding competitions ever since he spotted a sign for one in the math building when he was an undergrad. The rush was unlike anything he had ever tried. ...

..."It’s a rare chance to solve really interesting problems," Furrow said. "It’s designed to test and to teach the competitors to think critically to solve some really challenging problems. I got hooked on it."

Not only that, competing in programming contests changed his life.

In 2003, Furrow was a finalist in Code Jam. After touring the Mountain View, Calif., campus and meeting Googlers, he applied for -- and got -- an internship. That internship led to a full-time gig.

Then he heard that Google was considering putting on Code Jam instead of outsourcing it. A brainstorming session drew every former Code Jam competitor at Google, all of whom were eager to help organize the competition. "There were around 15 of us in a room. The brainpower was just shocking, to be in a room with so many people with that much ability to focus and compete," Furrow said. "We just started throwing some ideas around."

Here's how the contest works. Tens of thousands of coders around the globe sign up for the opportunity to write code that solves complex logic and programming problems in just a few hours. For example, a contestant might have to calculate the chances of finding an empty table for five with statistics about frequency of visits to a Google cafeteria or how to place cellphone towers for maximum coverage with information about reception and knowledge of the terrain.

The contest has multiple rounds, with hundreds dispatched around the world to Google outposts. The 100 best are treated to a stay at Google’s headquarters. The winner gets $10,000 and 10 free meals at the Google office of his or her choice. (Google employees are not eligible.)

"These are the kind of people Google employs, the kind of people Google likes to interact with to encourage an atmosphere of intellect and innovation," Furrow said. "It really creates a sense of community. You get to know each other. A lot of my friends at Google are people I met through competitive programming through Code Jam and other competitions."

Furrow recalls traveling the world to compete. The competitions helped him land his job at Google. And that’s also how he met his fiancee, also a Google engineer.

They were competing in Prague in 2004, both on Canadian teams. They worked together during part of the competition. "We hit it off right away," Furrow said.

The two got engaged a few weeks ago.

How did Furrow propose?

He didn’t.

"It was very 21st century," Furrow said. "We went for a walk at work. At one point she stopped me and asked, 'Will you marry me?’ ... I had been ready for a while. I was pretty seriously considering proposing myself. She beat me to it."

-- Jessica Guynn

Photo of Bartholomew Furrow courtesy of Bartholomew Furrow