Programming prizes on the rise: The risks of entering

Software development contests offer opportunities for programmers to distinguish themselves in the job market, if they can afford the risks

Looking for a new software project to get involved with? Maybe you're a student or an academic, or maybe you're just an out-of-work developer looking for something that will help keep your skills sharp and pad your résumé. You could go scouring for an open source project to get involved with, but laboring in obscurity for little reward can be frustrating. Instead, why not sign up for a programming contest? You'll gain experience and you'll also stand a chance to win a cash prize -- that is, if you can afford to take a risk.

Prizes designed to encourage innovation are all the rage in engineering and the sciences. A pioneering example was the Ansari X Prize, which offered $10 million to whichever private firm could build a working reusable spacecraft. That prize was awarded to Burt Rutan and Paul Allen's SpaceShipOne project in 2004. The X Prize Foundation has gone on to offer similar awards for innovations in genomics, automotive engineering, and undersea exploration, among other areas, and its model has been mimicked by other organizations across a variety of business and scientific disciplines. It's no surprise that software companies should want to do the same.

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Perhaps the best-known example of a software development contest is the Netflix Prize, which offered a bounty to anyone who could substantially improve the output of the Netflix movie rental service's recommendation engine. That contest awarded $1 million in 2009 to a team of programmers calling themselves BellKor's Pragmatic Chaos. Since then, several other companies have offered prizes of their own for software in a variety of categories. But are such contests really a boon to developers, or are they merely yet another blow to an already battered software development labor market?

A proliferation of prizes
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. For example, in 2009 PayPal launched a contest to encourage development of "next-gen payment applications" based on its PayPal X APIs. The top prize was $100,000 split between cash and waived PayPal fees, and it was awarded in March to the developer of an online, person-to-person rental marketplace.

Other companies offer a combination of prizes and incentives to woo developers to their platforms. Palm, for example, offered a $100,000 top prize to the developer whose app was downloaded the most times from the company's WebOS mobile app store, and it further spread the wealth with 220 smaller awards. Similarly, Intel has offered cash incentives to developers who build apps targeting netbooks based on Intel's Atom processor, in addition to a grand prize worth $50,000.

Prizes are also becoming a popular way to encourage developers to find bugs and security vulnerabilities in existing applications and websites. In 2008, an attendee of the CanSecWest security conference won $10,000 for discovering a vulnerability in the WebKit HTML rendering engine, which powers the Chrome and Safari browsers, among others; Apple promptly fixed the bug. Since then, other firms have offered even bigger bounties. In March, security vendor TippingPoint -- now a subsidiary of Hewlett-Packard -- offered up to $100,000 for bugs found in mobile and desktop browsers.

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