Archive for December 23rd, 2007

Man, whew! had a great last 18 hours DORKING OUT.  i’ll admit it.  i just participated in one of the biggest dorkouts ever.  It’s relevant to business, behavior and media because it represents EXACTLY what is so crazy and different about doing business in a connected world.

Sometime around 10am PST this story hits slashdot.org:

In this post developers are keyed off to a mysterious job posting for Master Software Developers.  The job posting contains a list of attributes and then a challenge to find out who the company is and what the significance of the date 1/18/2008.

The initial solving the challenge begins in the comment threads on slashdot but quickly migrates to Google Groups as the first piece of the challenge is solved – a URL is uncovered in the posting of the job title based on a base64 encoded string at the bottom of the fake job posting AND a redirect URL to a google group is “encoded” in the main style sheet of the found website.

Those of us first arriving at the google group work quickly to port loose threads on slashdot and get an organized thread/conversation going on the google groups.  We quickly uncover a huge amount of clues that are related to current tasks in the challenge and future tasks.  A few javascript gurus educate and code the group through the first task which is a test driven development of a javascript function.  Some of the rest of us reverse engineer the site uncovering an image which clearly has an encoded message or a useful pattern.  We also uncover an interesting css file that, again, looks as though it has an encoded message.

In fact, it’s quickly realized by the group that this challenge is going to be a long series of encoded messages, each one getting more complicated than the first.

At this point, the group starts showing strengths in different areas.  We find some folks that are well versed in ciphers (encoding messages), some that are quick coders, others with great eyes for clues and patterns and so on.

The first message we uncover is the word “collaborate”.  This was found after decoding a message embedded in the original test page which was only revealed by cleaning up and “indexing” a snippet of text about Henry Ford found from completing the javascript function successfully.  One person posted a great javascript function, several folks indexed the quote, and several other folks found the hidden message.    At this point we were pretty good as a group, but definitely not all working100% together.  Some folks had gotten ahead.

But then bam.  it got hard. real hard.  No one splintered off to go their own way.  the group converged on one thread in the google group and a someone started maintaining summary pages of “What We Know”.  The real work began.

A couple of people set out to decode the hidden message in the CSS file.  I, personally, set to work on the code in the image file.  On suggestions from others I chased down some image analysis that went no where.  Someone solved the css file which lead quickly to get us to the final task, without us yet fully completed the second task.  It was extremely useful though because we got a bigger view of the problem set.  this continued on for sometime…

It got absolutely amazing when everyone collaborated on decoding the image file.  An amazing amount of work went into finding patterns.  People posted a variety of analysis.  finally someone noticed, for the second time!, PI.  Pi was somehow involved in the image and PI had been hinted at earlier.  it was a great tip that lead quickly to uncovering a difficult-ish cipher for our last 2 puzzles.

A few code gurus pounded out a decoder based on that cipher. (that was impressive to me!).

The clues came forth.  Most of the rest of the task was clue hunting, not coding.  it took about 6 man hours to finally put it all together and uncover the final answer.

sometime between 4-6am PST the answer went in to the challenge websites.  SOLVED.

Early in the task speculation bubbled up about possible association with a movie coming out on 1/18/08.  We shirked that speculation early (though it came back up a lot), which proved to be right.

The challenge was put out by a Boulder, CO company, N-BRAINN-BRAIN produces Collaborative Development tools for programmers… go figure!  the answer happened to be the release date of their software.

This was such an unbelievable collaboration.  I was personally engrossed enough to take my laptop and cell phone modem to my child’s gymnastics practice and to make sure I was connected at a holiday dinner via my smart phone.  I put in at 12-14 straight hours myself. and for what?  THE CHALLENGE and the exhilaration of working with other people equally excited.

No doubt N-BRAIN will get some good tech press for their new product.

I suggest picking through the Google Group: http://groups.google.com/group/wanted-master-software-engineers

You’ll get a full view of the story and threads and approach.

There are many interesting learnings here.  The big one for me is… collaboration on challenging problems where the approach can grow organically can be extremely powerful.  i.e. this group had a goal.  the method was not prescribed.  use any language, use any tactic… just go.  The second big thing… how much more quickly did 50-100 people working together solve a difficult problem than one would do on their own.  This problem wasn’t limited to one domain – it involved ciphers, image analysis, pattern recognition, HTML/CSS, basic research, javascript and more.  In other words, you’d have to be EXTREMELY talented in a huge amount of things to really solve this independently this quickly.  Sure, all the knowledge is out there, but as an individual it’s hard to find and absorb it all quickly.

I also learned a ton about ciphers, using eclipse quickly (that java encoder), piet interpreter, samual smiles, henry ford, history of boulder…  really a huge scope of learning for the saturday before christmas!

I owe this story a follow up.  Really, there’s some incredible behavioral analysis possible here and I want to ferret it out.

For now, I must return to the other world of Christmas, family and all that.  this time without a smart phone under the table!

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