Why did Google close its coding competitions after 20 years? Exclusive details.

Originally published on 2 March 2023.

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On 22 February 2023, Google announced its coding competitions are coming to an end:

The visual that accompanied the announcement of the end of Google’s coding competitions.

What were these competitions?

Code Jam: competitive programming. The program ran for 20 years, and was the longest-running one at the company. Competitors worked their way through a series of online algorithmic puzzles to earn a spot at the World Finals, for a chance to win a championship title and $15,000 USD.

  • Qualification round: an online heat lasting about a day. To progress, contestants needed a minimum score.
  • Online Round 1: consists of three sub-rounds. The top 1,500 contestants in any of the preliminary rounds proceed.
  • Online Round 2: the top 1,000 make it through.
  • Online Round 3: contestants get a limited edition T-shirt. The top 25 make it to the World Finals.
  • World Finals: up to 2020, it was held in a location in the US or Europe, and has been online since. Pretty incredibly, Gennady Korotkevich has won the title every year since 2014 – except once.

Google also ran other programs:

  • Kick Start: algorithmic programming. A program that ran for 10 years. The top competitors from the Kick Start rounds were sometimes invited to interview at Google: this series served as a direct recruitment tool. See all past problems, scorecards and analysis.
  • Hash Code: team programming. Another contest that ran for 10 years. Students and professionals picked a team and programming languages, and were assigned a problem to solve. Problems were modeled off a real Google engineering challenge.
  • Google Code Jam I/O for Women: algorithmic programming. Hosted at Google’s Code Jam conferences, the top 150 contestants from the online round were brought to compete at Google’s annual I/O conference. More details about this conference on its website.

Looking through these competitions, I really liked how the challenges for the Hash Code competition related to real-world problems. For example, in 2019, the online round featured a challenge relating to a problem with Google Photos:

Introduction: As the saying goes, 'a picture is worth a thousand words.' We agree – photos are an important part of contemporary digital and cultural life. Approximately 2.5 billion people around the world carry a camera – in the form of a smartphone – in their pocket every day. We tend to make good use of it, too, taking more photos than ever (back in 2017, Google Photos announced it was backing up more than 1.2 billion photos and videos per day).

Task: Given a list of photos and the tags associated with each photo, arrange the photos into a slideshow that is as interesting as possible (the scoring section below explains what we mean by 'interesting')

Scoring: The slideshow is scored based on how interesting the transitions between each pair of subsequent (neighboring) slides are. We want the transitions to have something in common to preserve continuity (the two slides should not be totally different), but we also want them to be different enough to keep the audience interested. The similarity of two vertical photos on a single slide is not taken into account for the scoring function. This means that two photos can, but don't have to, have tags in common.”

But now, Google has laid off the staff who organized these long-running competitions. I asked Googlers the reason why these events have been canceled and one thing became clear: most of the program managers who worked on the coding competitions were recently let go in Google’s historic job cuts. A month ago when analyzing the layoffs, I noted:

“Profit centers seem to have been impacted far less than cost centers and experimental projects. (...) I did not hear of many people being let go from Ads, Search or YouTube, which are considered revenue generators at the company. At the same time, Google’s in-house incubator, Area 120, was heavily impacted by layoffs.”

When considering whether coding competitions were a cost center or a profit center, they do fall into the cost center bucket.

The decision to cut the coding competitions was made very recently. I talked with an organizer in a Google Developer Group chapter. This person told me:

“At the beginning of 2023, we still had Hash Code officially on the timeline. In the beginning of February, Google announced the delays in the registration process. When messaging Google what the delay means, they replied saying the website will be updated soon. That was the first sign of trouble for Hash Code.

When we asked our Google contacts about the situation, they told us to postpone (but not cancel) the event until further notice.

So knowing these lead up signs, the cancellation of the event is not that surprising, considering the info we had beforehand. However, what is very surprising is how the event was scrapped a month before it should have been held.”

What does Google gain by canceling its coding events? Based on information from insiders, Google’s coding competitions engaged more than 300,000 software engineers external to Google, annually. These coding competitions assisted in the hiring of thousands of software engineers each year, who were directly sourced from these events.

The obvious gain is a reduction in the cost associated with the ongoing organizing of these events - the cost of Google’s staff, travel for participants, venue expenses and prize money. And what does Google lose by cancelling this series?

Looking at it in a hard-headed way: Google won’t lose so much because its brand is so high-profile in the tech community. Two decades ago – when Google was still a smaller company, employing only 3,000 people in 2004: 60x fewer than today’s headcount of 186,000. Back then, hosting a competition and enticing software engineers with prizes, while building up a reputation for the competition as challenging but fun, was definitely a smart tactic. It developed Google’s algorithmic-heavy engineering brand, and led some better-performing contestants to apply for jobs there. However, in 2023 Google has no shortage of applicants, which is especially true if we consider the tech giant is likely to slow hiring like the rest of Big Tech.

There’s an additional perspective to consider: branding and marketing. This competition associated Google strongly with competitive programming (Code Jam,) algorithmic programming (Kick Start,) real-world challenges (Hash Code,) and diverse hiring (Code Jam I/O.) This marketing benefit is now gone. And although marketing investments are hard to measure, there’s a reason the likes of Coca-Cola keep spending big on marketing and advertising, even though almost everyone knows what Coca-Cola is.

Today, every software engineer in the world knows of Google, and most know there’s challenging and interesting challenges to solve at the company. Could this awareness shrink from now on, in the absence of these competitions and the 300,000 students and software engineers who won’t engage on a yearly basis with Google via these events? Even more importantly, over time, will such a decrease compound and affect the type of talent Google can attract?

This was one out of the five topics covered in this week’s The Scoop. A lot of what I share in The Scoop is exclusive to this publication, meaning it’s not been covered in any other media outlet before and you’re the first to read about it.

The full The Scoop edition additionally covers:

  • Stricter performance reviews? A follow-up. More confirmation that performance reviews are stricter than usual, and low performers are exited at some companies. A scaleup founder also shares candid details about why this is happening, and why it’s likely to continue in places where headcount budgets have shrunk. Exclusive.
  • Coinbase: formerly high equity awards now taking their toll. In 2022, the company issued 3x as much average equity to their employees, than Google did, and spent 10x as much in equity compensation, compared to revenue, than the search giant did. Why the imbalance? And what can other companies learn from Coinbase spending more than 60% of their revenue on stock compensation? Analysis.
  • Instacart reducing equity awards. The company made a large change on how it issues equity. I go into the details of what this change means, and the implications. Could more companies follow suit? Exclusive.
  • Developer portals: market insights. How will developer portal markets evolve, in a segment with Backstage as a major open source player? I talked with the founders of developer portal startups Cortex and Port. Exclusive.

Read the full The Scoop here.

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