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Posts Tagged ‘n-brain’

This is a nice post today on visualizing the participation of users in popular open source projects.

Good lead in for the study I’m going to do on the upcoming N-Brain competition.

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N-brain is back at it with coding challenges.  This time it’s public and not secretive at all.  Over Christmas last year, N-brain launched a stealth coding competition to lure job applications and introduce the dev world to their new software development platform, UNA.  I participated in and analyzed this coding competition, almost simultaneously.  

Since then I’ve chatted with the folks behind n-brain.  They don’t mess around.  These guys know their code and their dev process.  This new competition is even tougher than the first and the prizes are much bigger.

UNA is a special platform.  Anyone who knows how I code and run projects understand how bold a statement that is for me.  Why?  I very much believe in the solo hacking til it works.  UNA is about group – real time collab.  I usually hate group collab on code and design because the communication and miscommunication gets in the way.  UNA is different because the collaboration is weirdly seamless and actually real time – you all see the same things, you chat inline, code completion just works, everything is tracked, and never once does the group feature take precedence over just coding.

Anyway… the coding competition is something to pay attention to.  I’ll be analyzing this one as well as I try to uncover more about the how, what and why of developer and creative behavior.  For some insight into how big and serious these types of competitions can get check out this recent feature in Dr. Dobbs.

As a final note – i sure hope the Visual Studio, Netbeans, Eclipse, Zend, Codeworks, and Nusphere folks pay attention to this and either integrate or buy N-brain.  Seriously, the system is that cool.  Yes, i know visual studio has team services…. trust me the features, price and “lockedin-ness” don’t compare.

~R

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Summary (PDF of Draft Analysis)

What started for me as a typical “read Slashdot” for a minute has turned into a full blown research project into collaboration. The participation in solving the N-BRAIN Master Software Developer challenge delivered huge amounts of experiential as well as quantitative information regarding social collaboration on software projects.

This is a particularly good research situation because the stakes were reasonably high (potential job interview, Slashdot ego boost, public display of skill), the timeframe condensed, and the entire thing is trackable/auditable.

This blog post is the results of my findings so far (less than 12 hours after the solution to the challenge).

The Set Up

  • Unknown company posts a want ad on craigslist that includes an invitation to solve the challenge for a chance at an interview. Read here for launching point.
  • Full job posting here
  • Slashdot.org community picks it up quick and several developers/technical people set to work. Initially using Slashdot comments to post back and forth
  • The easy clues lead first to a Google Group, bringing together the challengers
  • The community forms of its own accord with no prodding or seeding (that we are aware of)
  • Google groups becomes repository of thoughts, questions, ideas, code samples, files, conversation, drawing board (please see for the final code samples and all that. Very impressive stuff)
  • Google groups tracks all contributions by login (handle), topic (community assigned), and datetime stamp
  • The Challenge urls
  • Background info for the layperson
  • Tools Used in Challenge
    • Programming Languages
      • Perl – character counts/frequencies encoder/decoder
      • Python – character counts/frequencies
      • Java – for encoder/decoder
      • Piet (npiet)
    • Software
      • Photoshop (to count pixels)
      • Npiet (for test analysis)
    • Sites
      • WhoIs.net
      • NetworkSolutions
      • Craigslist
      • SlashDot
      • Google Groups
      • Wikipedia
      • TinyURL
    • Historical Figures and Places and Times
      • Henry Ford
      • Samuel Smiles
      • Charles Buxton Going
      • Boulder
      • Servus
      • Flavian II
      • Turing
      • Van Gogh
    • Processes/Techniques (list from PeterOfOz, contributor)
      • Game playing (recognizing a Tetris like pattern)
      • Javascript, Perl, Python, and Java programming (probably others as well)
      • Knowing how to inspect HTML pages, and includes for javascript and
      • CSS
      • Web research (finding the original Ford passage, Pi lookups, Latintranslations, etc)
      • Lateral thinking and pattern analysis/recognition
      • Cryptographic analysis
      • Graphic formats
      • Numerical sequences (pi)
      • Byte code engines
      • Encoding/decoding engines

Questions

This analysis focuses on several questions:

  • Quantitative
    • How quickly was the problem solved
    • Relative percentages of general contributions to key contributions
    • Distribution of contributions over time and by person
    • Classification of contributions
  • Qualitative
    • Can a group solve things faster than a really talented individual (yes! We squeezed in 400 manhours in 18 real hours)
    • Is there any correlation between quantity and quality (hard to tell. This was a complicated challenge and the solution didn’t need to be anything more than a one off solution.)
    • Are there biases by contributor (80/20 rule, is 80% of the work done by 20% of the people) (yes! But different levels. Breakthroughs supplied by handful of people, grunt research supplied by another group.)
    • What makes a successful collaboration (solving the problem, of course! but doing it with fewer errors, better documentation, on time, on budget.)
    • What didn’t work (redundant work on encoder/decoder, multiple threads going at once, timezone differences without known “schedules” kept folks out of sync at the end… would improving these speed up this solution? improve its quality?)
    • What were some of the group dynamics (more to come on this in later posts… roles people filled…)
    • What schedules of reinforcement were at play (more to come on this… the feedback loop of the group and how code/solutions become reinforcers)
  • What I wish I had access to (Companies if you are reading this, please provide it will be WORTH IT FOR ME TO ANALYZE IN TERMS OF GOODWILL AND PUBLICITY. UPDATE 12/24 morning: N-Brain reached out to collaborate!)
    • Traffic Logs from Google
    • N-Brain (company behind it) assumptions
    • Traffic logs on N-Brain
    • Interviewees Invited
  • Follow Up Analysis (will follow up in January or sooner)
    • Traffic generated to the end site, n-brain.net (can tell in quantcast.com, compete.com, and alexa)
    • Traffic generated to http://wanted-master-software-developers.com/
    • Profiles of the contributors (get resumes/cvs/bios and/or some basic demographics)
    • Success of N Brain Product Release

The Analysis

Key observations

There was almost NO FLAME WARS/NEGATIVE COMMENTS AT ALL

Very little correlation to posting frequency/amount and breakthrough chance (biggest breakthroughs produced/cited by some of the least frequent posters)

Key Facts

Dataset

Over 600+ postings, 300+ real contributions, 25 breakthrus (less than 10% of contributions were breakthrus)

Took 18 hours and 132 people (73 contributors, 59 observers) to solve challenge.

No Slashdot comments were included in this analysis. It should be noted that several key findings appeared there first. The main finding being the google group to launch the real challenge. Many of the key postings on Slashdot were made by persons who migrated to google group, so it should not affect analysis too much.

Workload

Estimation that approximately 19 people put in 10+ hours. Approximately 400 man hours put in, with more than half by 19 people (analysis adjusted for sleeping time and by timing of contribution. E.g. if contributor had to sleep, discount 7 hours)

 

5.65 contributions per person. Max contribution count was 25. Minimum was 1. Most people contributed less than 5 times. It should be noted 3 of the key breakthroughs came from contributors with fewer than 5 contributions.

Peak activity and Peak breakthroughs not correlated

Classification of Workload

(classifications subjective to analyst. Probably could use a second eye)

Most of the contributions were research or clues. A lot of research chased down dead ends or irrelevant facts. Very little banter or small talk. No flames on Group. A few on Slashdot.

Breakdown of contribution classifications by Contributor.

Note: the data has been scrubbed for contributions/postings that weren’t mere banter or blank. (I full admit to likely misclassifying and even misassigning breakthrus and solutions to contributors. Please correct me if I did.)

Note: I considered breakthroughs as contributions that were sub solutions, code implementations that lead somewhere or key insights into clues.

Please SEE PDF FOR TABLE ON CONTRIBUTOR BREAKDOWN
(PDF of Draft Analysis)

Conclusion

N-brain got more than their money’s worth for creating this test. Beyond uncovering great talent, they learned a lot about collaborative development, especially in a wide open problem set.

Open style collaboration is incredibly efficient. We squeezed in 400 manhours into an 18 hour period on a holiday weekend.

There’s room for all types. Almost all contribution behavior that HELPED was quickly reinforced (follow up analysis of feedback loop to follow). Anything that was redherring or slightly counter productive was extinguished almost immediately. We had one instance of information withholding early on that was quickly eliminated and never resurfaced.

Tracking of projects happens quite naturally now with all our web based toolsets. No disruption of creativity or coding occurred and we have a fully analyzable project.

We need to analyze more of these situations to give businesses, organizations and individuals a strategy for existing in this flat global world. More on this later…

What do you conclude?

~Russ

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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:
http://developers.slashdot.org/developers/07/12/22/1746220.shtml

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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