Q&A: Can coding games progress developer careers?

Tigran Sloyan, CEO of CodeFights, explains how training developers with gamification helps everyone

The internet is full of information, services—and a whole host of other weird and wonderful ways—to help individuals learn particular work skills. And one niche that is particularly thriving is competition sites for coders which gamify the skills needed for a developer career. These promise a fast track for potential developers and easy pool of trained talent for companies. Tigran Sloyan, CEO of one such site, CodeFights, explains more.

How and why did the idea for this come about?

As a middle and high school student, I participated in a lot of math[s] competitions. During that time, I thought I was born to do math and for some strange reason I really enjoyed math, unlike most of my peers! However, that enjoyment gradually faded away once I started studying math at MIT because all of a sudden, the competitive aspect of learning math was gone. But this gave me the initial idea that it’s possible to take critical skills like math and programming and build a system around them that turns learning and practicing those skills into an addictive game.

How does it work in practice?

The core value proposition of the site is that it creates a platform for developers to practice programming in a fun way. We do this through several different modes. Some modes are single player, like Interview Practice the Arcade, where you have questions of increasing difficulty grouped by topics. As you solve the easier questions, you earn XP points, coins, and badges, and you also unlock the harder questions.

We also have some multiplayer modes where you can face off against your friends or other developers and practice your skills in a more competitive environment.

Who is currently using your platform?

While people come to CodeFights for a number of different reasons, including to practice new languages, prepare for interviews, or just to have fun, the unifying factor is that they’re all passionate about programming and want to become even better at it. We have users who are in junior high, we have users who’ve been in the industry for 25-plus years, and we’ve got users at all points in between.

How many individuals are registered?

We have over 500,000 users from all over the world. Most of them are in the United States, but we see a healthy portion of users from Europe and Asia as well.

What are the benefits of a platform like this for employers and employees?

At a high level, I think that both employers and employees benefit when the employees are fantastic programmers! Really, companies should have their employees sign up for CodeFights and complete a task or two a day to keep them in peak performance. I’m kidding, but only partially!

The biggest gap in technical recruiting today is a reliable and trustworthy skill assessment that isn’t too costly. Most recruiters have to work off of limited information, like resumes. If they want to get a better understanding about a candidate’s skill, they resort to a coding challenge or a technical phone interview, which in aggregate takes a lot of time away from their engineering team—which is hiring more engineers because they have a shortage already. We’re able to bridge that gap by creating an environment where skill-based recruiting is possible.

More specifically, companies that use us to find new developers benefit hugely from our services because we save them time, effort, and ultimately money because they don’t need to waste time searching through the résumés of candidates who only look good on paper. And since we provide assessment on a candidate’s technical skills rather than just looking at pedigree, we’re able to surface diverse, interesting, and highly qualified candidates that companies would have had a hard time finding on their own.

Can you explain how you’ve helped people find jobs at Uber, Asana, and Drobox?

We’ve connected some amazing programmers with a lot of great companies, including Uber, Asana, and Dropbox, among many others. Our partner companies use our platform to list on the roles that they want to fill and the skills that they want their ideal candidates to have. Then the system matches up their needs with people from our huge pool of qualified candidates who have the desired skills and experience level, and who are actively or passively seeking new opportunities. Since we become this direct connection between companies and candidates, we’re able to save both parties a lot of time and effort. And because our process focuses on people’s skills rather than on what school they went to or what their last company was, we are able to place really great candidates who would probably have been overlooked in a traditional recruiting process.

You’ve raised $12.5 million in funding with your last round in November 2016—do you have plans to raise more?

We have no such plans at the moment, because we haven’t used most of the funds raised in the last round and our revenue numbers are climbing fast.

There are other similar platforms out there—like CodeWars, for example—how do you differentiate yourself?

Our platform focuses on practice as a way to build skills, and this practice comes from solving programming tasks that are specifically oriented towards skill development. I think that where we really shine, and where we’re much different from our competitors, is the sheer amount of tasks that we have for users to solve, and the diversity of the topics that we cover in those tasks. We’ve got a whole team of content engineers who work on creating these really engaging tasks, and our users also contribute a lot of tasks. Our platform also supports over 30 programming languages, which means that developers of all stripes can practice their skills with us in the language of their choice.

What is the most important piece of career advice you’d give to developers?

Keep practicing! You’re never so good at programming that you can’t get better.

There are times when you’re building a skill that it’s going to feel uncomfortable or annoying. Since CodeFights gamifies the learning and practice experience, this is minimized, but you might still get frustrated when you try to master a new concept or skill. You have to push through that frustration and be persistent—that’s the only way that you’re going to break through to the point where you’ve mastered the skill and it feels effortless.

What is the most important piece of career advice you’d give to senior IT professionals looking to hire the next generation of developers?

There’s been this tendency to focus on where someone went to school or where they’ve worked, because in a lot of people’s minds this is a good proxy for skill. Unfortunately, that’s not always true, and I think that anyone who’s ever had to hire for a technical role can attest to that. And this kind of thinking has also led to a situation where a lot of the tech workforce looks really similar—very white, very male, and very straight.

So my advice to people who are hiring new developers is to basically ignore pedigree—it’s just noise, and it obscures a huge pool of amazing, qualified candidates. Instead, focus on skills, which is what you’re really after anyway! That way, you minimise hiring biases, bring more diversity into your company, and get the best possible candidate for the role.

Is a coding bootcamp as good as (or better than) a computer science degree?

I don’t have a personal preference on whether someone has a college degree or has completed a coding bootcamp—as long as they have the skills to get the job done! In general, though, I do think that bootcamp grads have to play catch-up in terms of learning algorithms, coding patterns, and data structures, simply because a computer science grad will have spent four years working on that stuff versus the three to six months spent in a bootcamp. But it’s definitely doable, and I’ve met some amazing programmers who’ve come out of bootcamps. They just need to be willing to spend a lot of time practicing and focusing on the material so that they can reach the necessary level of skill mastery.

This story, "Q&A: Can coding games progress developer careers?" was originally published by IDG Connect.

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