Jul 27 2013

Learning Algorithms with TopCoder – Getting Started Guide

I have lots of friends who are passionate developers and every so often we discuss about
algorithms design and how important this is. The TopCoder platform offers a very good opportunity to put yourself under test, improve your skills and compete among other coders around the world. Everyone is pretty excited when I explain them about the platform and they seems willing to try it out but for some reasons this does not happen.
Let me be clear now.
Do you know what is the reason?
The answer is that…
They are frightened!
Saying that you don’t have time is not an excuse because a competition is just 90 minutes long and everyone can give it a try. They are coders so why should they be scared of coding?
The reason is because they “don’t feel ready to compete“. They fell they need to do additional learning before actually competing otherwise they hurt their reputation and self-esteem. This is perfectly reasonable and I completely understand these feelings because this is how I constantly feel. TopCoder problems are usually very difficult and this fear of failing is completely blocking them.
So what?
What they don’t consider is that TopCoder is not only a competing platform but also a learning platform. Once registered you have access to all the exercises from previous competitions with solutions completely explained, you can try them on your own without competing, you have access to lots of tutorials. There are tons of materials. You will be never ready so after trying few exercises I recommend to try a SRM (Single Round Match) competition. Competing really change the game and makes you more aware of your true skills. You are then able to identify areas of improvement, practise and then compete again. At the end of the day, you are always and constantly learning!
TopCoder is a learning platform!
Competitions can be seen as just a way of learning but you are not forced to compete.
However, if you are ambitious and you are truly committed to becoming a great coder, like I am sure you are, competing is the best way to put yourself under test and really find your potentials and limitations.
If you are scared you probably are not really serious of becoming a great coder.
It does not matter how strong you become compared to others. What matters is constantly learning and improving yourself.
This idea is also clearly expressed by the founder of TopCoder, Jack Hughes:
“TopCoder intends to help developers increase their skill level as well as increase their value to employers”
Then what?
If you read so far, it means that I convinced you to try TopCoder and in this post I would quickly introduce you to the platform.
First of all, you need to register.

Open the following website and click on Register Now in the top right cornerhttp://community.topcoder.com/tc

TopCoder allows you to learn and compete in many different areas. If you want to practise your algorithmic skills just select “I want to compete on TopCoder” and then follow the procedure where you will be asked to provide all your personal details.

Once registered, you can login into the website.

Expand the Competitions menu item and enter into the Algorithm category and then into the Single Round Matches section. It is probably a good idea to read the Overview page and then the Algorithm Competition Guide.
You can access to all the past problems clicking the Match Archive link under Statistics. In addition, you can also read the code submitted by all the people who participated to the competition. This is a lot of stuff!
There are also an interesting set of tutorials about algorithms that you can find in the Tutorials page.
However, there is nothing better than actually trying a problem yourself.
If you want an experience that is similar to a rate event, you can launch the Arena clicking the O(n) image in the top-left corner or the Launch Arena link.
The Arena is written in Java and you need to have it installed.
In the arena you enter a practice room and you can submit your code to a problem and get a score of how well you did it. The biggest value of the practise room for a learning point of view is the ability to run the system tests and discover bugs in your algorithm. You can also challenge the code written by other coders to find bugs in their implementations.
More information here: Practising in the TopCoder arena.
You can code using one of the following languages: C++, Java, C#, VB or Python.
The platform has been recently updated to the latest version of the languages.
If you decide to compete, you will get a score and you will be ranked against all the other top coders. You can find statistics about your performance clicking on your login name in the top-right corner.
For example, the followings are my current statistics. As you can see, I am still quite weak.



I hope with this post that I have stimulated your curiosity.

Happy coding and see you in the arena!

See how to configure the TopCoder Arena for C# developers.


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