How good am I?


College students and young professionals from 25 countries recently converged on the Mirage hotel and casino in Las Vegas for four intense days.They weren’t in Sin City to play blackjack or visit strip clubs. They were there to write computer code — specifically, to emerge as champions of one of the most prestigious gatherings of hi-tech talent on earth.

The TopCoder Open is an annual tournament organised by a company that is revolutionising how software is created. More than 116,000 programmers are part of the TopCoder community. It allows talented young people to answer a question that should be on the mind of anyone who is serious about his or her career: “Just how good am I, really?”

Many of us think we’re pretty hot stuff. But we’ve also woken up to the fact we are in competition with other smart

people. So how do we stack up? And how do we improve? TopCoder lets tens of thousands of talented programmers ask and answer those questions.

“Great performers tend to be competitive,” says Jack Hughes, TopCoder’s chief executive. “If you ask any top person in any field, ‘How do you improve?’ they will tell you, ‘By working with people who are better than me.’”

Similar competitions have emerged in many different fields like business schools, advertising agencies. Netflix is offering a $1million award to any team of engineers that can improve the quality of its movie-selection software by 10 per cent. The Netflix Prize now has more than 24,000 contestants from 153 countries. These opportunities to compete and learn aren’t limited to the left-brain worlds of business and technology. Every August, the Edinburgh Fringe Festival — the world’s biggest arts festival brings together thousands of actors, comedians, and musicians. It is a no-nonsense competition among artists to generate a buzz, attract audiences, and win awards.

“If you’re a true athlete, you want to be at the Olympics,” says former artistic director of Fringe Paul Gudgin. “Even if you know you’re not going to win the gold medal, you want to see where you rank against your peers. The same goes for performers.”

So how good are you? And how do you know?

Whatever your field, find a competition and enter it. Even if you don’t win, you’ll see where you stand — and learn ways to improve.