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Jiazhi Wu: Programming's Crack Competitor

This coding champ won 39 out of 45 TopCoder programming matches in two years.

By Eric Lai
July 9, 2007 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - What kind of trophies do they give to programming champions? Jiazhi Wu would know. As an undergrad at Zhejiang University in China, Wu won a record 39 out of 45 programming contests held by TopCoder Inc., a Glastonbury, Conn.-based software development and recruiting firm. Winning those global contests  which generate actual software that TopCoder turns around and sells to its corporate customers  also won Wu a cool $155,000.

Jiazhi writes code very fast. In most cases, his code doesnt need much debugging, says Chao Yang, a former classmate of Wus and a fellow competitive coder. Based on my observations, I cannot see any weaknesses in him as a programmer.

Im not good at sports at all, so programming was the most competitive aspect of my life, says Wu, who counts Java, C++ and C# as his favorite languages.

Champion coders tend to burn out early or move on to real jobs. Thats the case with the 26-year-old, who says he has retired from competitive programming and now focuses on his role as vice president of technology for the Chinese subsidiary of TopCoder.

His mission: to serve as chief architect for software components produced in China, as well as attract more burgeoning talent from Chinas deep technical well.

There are a lot of talented Chinese programmers around, but they need a platform to present themselves, he says. TopCoder provides that platform.

Already, 10% of the 112,000 programmers that are TopCoder members are from China. They tend to duel with developers from Eastern Europe for the top prizes at contests such as last months TopCoder Open in Las Vegas. That competition offered prizes worth $260,000, along with exposure to top IT recruiters.

Wu is based in Beijing, where Chinas equivalents of Harvard and MIT  Beijing University and Tsinghua University  are located. But Wu still crisscrosses the country to find the cream of the crop. On the day of this interview, Wu was in the southern port city of Zhuhai, where more than 300 university students were expected to come listen to him lecture.

Wu says TopCoders contests mesh well with the mentality of young Chinese developers, who appreciate the spirit of competition. And TopCoders business model  winners get a percentage of the revenue from any sales of the software by TopCoder, in addition to prizes and job contacts  helps shorten the distance between clients and programmers and sidestep language or cultural barriers.

And what about those programming trophies? Do they depict a man hunched over a keyboard, coding? Wu laughs. That would be too complicated to manufacture, he says. Most of my trophies have very abstract designs.

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