February 9, 2017 10 Valuable Things I've Learned In 10 Years Through Topcoder

“A lot of good love can happen in ten years” – You couldn’t be more right, Jim Carrey.

It was a February, the second month of the year 2007, when I joined Topcoder. That shy and naive young man was searching for opportunities to learn anything related to computer science, absorbing any kind of technology information found on the interweb. Today I realize this is my 10th anniversary as a Topcoder member and what round beautiful number. Ten times more shy and ten times less wise; there are still a lot of things to learn!
I must confess that my first reaction was: that’s lot of time dude, you’re old! Of course I proudly am older, happier, and more experienced, so you shut up envious inner voice. I followed up, as I never let my panicking inner reaction voice control myself, except when she has something very good to offer, like free food for instance. If Topcoder was a lady, I’m sure my mother would congratulate me and remind me that this has been the longest and most committed relationship I’ve ever had.


After absorbing the news and the aging crisis, a lot of remarkable events came to my mind that happened in the last ten years around the world, such as Apple releasing their first version of the iPhone, Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt breaking olympic records, the sadly famous world economical crisis, first African-American president of the US, revolutions in various countries, growth of social networks, and many others. But then, automatically I was thinking about all the things that have happened to affect/change my life triggered by being part of the Topcoder Community. With the help of the TCO Dancing Queen, I managed to find access to this public space on the web to share some of these valuable lessons with my dauntless readers to join me in this odyssey.
I have to warn you that this will be a long article to read, full of stories, professional learnings, nostalgic memories and insights about Topcoder; all the dirty little secrets might come out. I had to rule out the R-rated lessons though, unfortunately the most fun ones have to be kept secret or revealed under the appropriate supervision. You still have time to hit Ctrl/Cmd + W and leave the room, I would totally understand. But if you have 5 minutes and a community spirit this is for you. So here we go, the ten magical things I’ve learned through this journey.
Back in 2007 I barely spoke English. I could read and understand 70% of a basic vocabulary text or speech, but I couldn’t talk at all, I couldn’t wrap a sentence without thinking during one minute how to assemble it. Thanks to Topcoder competitions, I had to force myself to learn more the language. All the challenge requirements and all communications (forums, emails, etc) were written in English. Since I was very excited about the competitions, I tried my best with Google translator to learn new words and the technical vocabulary. After a couple of years and a few visits to the US (thanks to TCOs), I could really improve my English, to a professional level, which opened many opportunities for me inside and outside of Topcoder. Well, who am I kidding? If it wasn’t for Jessie who fixes my scary grammar this text would be a mess ~ so embarrassing.
There is a fun language-related story I remember, one of my favorites. At my first TCO (2008), due to universe conspiracy, I missed my flight to Las Vegas. I called Jessie (AKA TCO Event Manager, TCO Dancing Queen, Mama bear) to let her know what happened and ask for help, maybe change the flight. Right, that was all in my head, so fluent. But from the moment she said – Hi, who is this? – I could only say – Hello, I am Luis – then it was impossible to come up with a sentence to explain my situation, null, zero, undefined, nothing. Luckily she knew my mother language is Spanish and immediately made me talk with someone who happened to work for Topcoder at that moment who speaks Spanish too. Another fun fact, this random guy by then ended up becoming one of my friends and business partner for years.
When I first started in Topcoder Studio (nowadays known as Design), I had one week that I had started fooling around with Photoshop, I was learning. I entered a badge design challenge and won 4th place, which motivated me to keep trying. When I look at the submission I delivered at that time and honestly, from the bottom of my heart today, I think it was a piece of useless work. I’m not proud of the quality but the effort. Which was good, because I needed to learn, and how did I polish my skills? By selfishly looking/copying other designers’ work. By then there were solid designers as yiming, maxsense, oton, and others that were really good. I took a lot of inspiration from them while I was learning how to use Photoshop.

First submission to Studio in Feb 2007 ~ 4th pitty place winner

After I started improving and taking placements in some competitions, I received a note from a fellow designer telling me he had learned a lot from my design references. I was shocked – is it possible to learn something good out of me? This guy must be high – I thought. I understood that sharing knowledge was important to grow as altruist human beings and to help build a strong community. By then, all design competitions had public views of the submissions, any registered member could see the designs. I’m sure it didn’t help me, it helped a bunch of other rookie enthusiasts like me at the moment.
I’m a bit stubborn by nature, but after experiencing a life of competition through Topcoder, I became a full time stubborn by choice.
I remember one of my favorite winning challenges was one where I didn’t get any checkpoint placement. Designers are allowed to continue working for final rounds in these conditions. I felt sad somehow and at a disadvantage because I didn’t get a milestone placement. However, I saw it as an opportunity to have some fun and learn, to practice. I read the feedback other designers received and tried to get the essentials of those directions. And then, surprise, surprise, guess who won?
I apply this lesson in life generally. In moments that I feel sad or I find something difficult to do, I use this lesson as shield and remember we can always push forward as long as the universe gives us a tiny little chance. That’s an opportunity and must be embraced.
A long time ago I used to think sleeping was overrated. I do wish our bodies wouldn’t need to rest that much though, as specialists suggest, eight hours during night time plus one hour naps during the day. It seems like a lot of time that could be used to do something productive instead of laying there producing eye boogers.
I think it would be excellent if our bodies needed only one hour of sleep to fully recharge, unfortunately we’re not there yet, we’re not that good. However, there was a time I wasn’t having enough sleep due to a TCO qualification period. It affected me really badly, both in work performance and health. After taking a break and sleeping more, I started having better ideas and fresh thoughts. I finally understood that creative work requires a clean state of mind. If my brain was tired I wasn’t doing anything, period. I had a serious negotiation with my body, we agreed to have more sleeping hours for the sake of our relationship, it worked. Not only work wise, but health wise. Even though I couldn’t execute as many projects as I wanted, I could get better results due to the quality. Happy lesson!
There is a whole world of psychology around taking risks and textbooks to read about it, but I learned something through Topcoder about making risk-based decisions. Even though I haven’t been 100% active the whole ten years, there was a point when I decided to put all of my eggs into this basket. Which seems to be a very risky decision considering the environment of work, competition based. There was one day when I decided to fully dedicate to Topcoder competitions, leaving behind all the safety of monthly paychecks, health insurance, and all those perks a regular job offers. I replaced those perks by self administration and freedom, basically. At the beginning it felt a bit scary but incredibly good, to feel some fear, to let your body receive some raw nerves action and push you to have discipline, self respect and good judgement. And believe me, it feels even better when time proves that point, I was right, it was a risky decision but it was great.
It’s no secret that everything is not rainbows and unicorns at Topcoder once you choose to make it your main income source in life. It’s a serious commitment and responsibility with yourself (and family in some cases). As a competitor, I didn’t get a placement in all challenges, which leads to frustration and sadness if we don’t handle it properly. This intense rhythm might require some pause sometimes.
With Topcoder I learned that in order to be successful at losing ~ accepting defeat ~ you must also be successful at having fun. It seems easy when you see it written down but it’s tricky. In those weeks when I was very successful at losing, I took refuge for one week doing fun activities, playing soccer, going out with friends, sleeping more, and anything necessary to recharge my batteries. I got to the point when I missed the competition feeling; at that moment I knew could come back stronger.
As a copilot, I had to re-adjust some of the bad habits that I had when I was a part time competitor, such as being very independant (communication wise) and creating schedules that work for me only. Having the opportunity of dealing with a role that required skills to communicate with clients helped me improving my systematic approach to problem solving as well as understanding how an efficient management process worked.
I apply some of these useful management techniques I’ve learned to daily tasks outside of work, and they work like a charm! Things that might seem simple but they are effective, such as setting deadlines (for me and clients), using task management tools (e.g. wunderlist), using time management techniques (e.g. pomodoro). There are more tools and habits that have helped me become more organized towards to clients, and to that point I’ve attended several online courses about project management in different areas. It’s good to keep learning.
When I first heard of this terminology, I never thought I could be part of it. Especially because I didn’t understand, it all sounded to me like online mystery since I didn’t really know the people I was talking to were real, or they were what they said to be, are they bots? All of those rational questions that could come to our minds when we face something new.
After I realized I could really collaborate with other people, even if they were in Russia, Indonesia, USA, Argentina, no matter where, I was interacting with people at the same time as I was contributing with solving problems. Additionally, what came next was even better, building meaningful friendships. I don’t have enough extensions of my body to count the great friends I’ve made through embracing this online community, through Topcoder.
Anyone familiar with TCO (Topcoder Open) knows that this is a meaningful event to the community. Members struggle hard to try to qualify and attend. When I first landed a TCO I thought I was going there to exclusively compete and leave. I was SO WRONG! There are multiple reasons why to attend a TCO, but one of my favorites is because there are incredible opportunities to embrace; unexpected good things can happen to a John Doe member in a TCO besides showing off skills during the onsite competition.
I, have personally witnessed friends getting their dream jobs at Google or Facebook, making new friends, getting to know those rock stars they admire in the community, and as I have said multiple times, putting faces to those handles. Once you step into a TCO you will want to come back to embrace those opportunities.
I heard Disney is building Star Wars Land attractions, but I seriously need to talk to their chief to consider adding Topcoderland in those parks. Who wouldn’t want to ride the exciting Javascript Rollercoaster or feel the Incredible Winner Ceremony Rush? Real business opportunity here, ask these guys if they didn’t have a blast while doing this in TCO11.
One of the most important lessons Topcoder taught me is that I know nothing. It’s crystal clear to recognize that I am relatively nothing compared to the talent that I’ve had the opportunity to see in action at Topcoder and TCOs overall.
The capacity and achievements of many members of this community can be mind blowing, not only inside Topcoder but outside the arena. I am happy I’ve had the pleasure to shake hands with members and get to know their stunning stories. It makes me feel so insignificant but it motivates me at the same time to keep pushing, learning, and creating a better version of what I can become. Keeping my feet on the ground is one of the best life lessons I could have received.

To end this fabulous long unreadable blog post, I want to take advantage of my Topcoderversary to sincerely thank to all the community and staff members who have been crazy enough to share their time with me along this journey, as well as the opportunities for friendship, learning, and working. I feel proud and I am truly grateful for being part of this weird welcoming family. Thanks Topcoder, may the next ten years be even better. Do we have a challenge? 🙂



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