September 17, 2020 The Unconventional Journey: Learning English At Topcoder

Most people who learn a foreign language do so by attending a school, listening to music, falling in love with the foreign teacher, and maybe playing video games. Some learn by competing at Topcoder. 

At any point in a career in Topcoder, one must realize that this is not just an experience-building or money-amassing factory; it’s also a language school, a business school, a remote work school, and a school for life. I’ll raise my hand as a sample of the latter myself. 🙋🏽‍♂️

I know it sounds atypical, but consider for a moment how unconventional the nature of Topcoder is — working from anywhere? Making a living while traveling the world? Who would have thought of this? Topcoder has been allowing it for two decades already. It’s also possible to learn a language, and this is how I learned.

Why am I writing about my educational journey? This is not just a pompous manifestation of my ego; there are tips for those having difficulties understanding technical requirements in English and how to approach those specs.


Last year, during a visit to Indonesia, I was hanging out in a hotel with Ravi and PereViki. By a random event of the universe, an old email popped up. These guys burst into tears after reading it.

Several days later, at a dinner with Harshit, we shared the email. His immediate comment was “And you became a copilot after that? As someone who needs to communicate super clearly, they would have had second thoughts back then; dude, you have come a long way!” In a friendly tone, of course.

I feel dreadfully embarrassed about unveiling the content of that message. It gives the impression a toddler wrote it. The year was 2008, and I was having difficulties getting my papers to compete in the TCO08 finals.

The child who wrote the following letter to Jessie spent approximately forty minutes to write four paragraphs, using translation tools, dictionaries, and whimsical spells to be understood. Don’t laugh too hard:

A seven years old child writes a letter to Topcoder

How is it that a person so poorly educated in English could then become a copilot? Copilots need to read, write, and speak fluent English.


When I joined Topcoder, I could decently read English as long as it wasn’t technical jargon. However, this humble servant couldn’t correctly write. Speaking wasn’t even an option; I couldn’t utter intelligible sentences even if I tried in slowmo (as seen in this story’ #1 item).

After years of digesting specs in competitions, meetings with staff, clients, and other members, I unlocked the great skill of speaking another language fluidly on a technical level. 

Frankly, to deliver this content to you, it must be proofread several times and corrected until it doesn’t sound like a toddler wrote it. English is not my mother tongue after all; however, I have learned to communicate effectively in professional environments.

In my opinion, English is not a barrier but a step ladder depending on the lens through which you watch this situation. As Mark Twain puts it, don’t let schooling interfere with your education. There is a big difference between attending school and learning. 


How can you deepen your knowledge and practice of English? Good question, Watson.

It’s known that all of the specifications and communications are written in English. What options do we have as non-native speakers? 

Today, my grand wish is that this post encourages the foreign-word-warriors struggling out there to understand specs. With the right mindset and approach, it’s possible to deepen the knowledge and practice of English for competitions and for life. Let’s wrap this up with these final lessons:

1. Loosen up

The crucial advice is making a broad mind-shift. Do not be afraid of failing and making mistakes when you write or speak.

Fear is a cognitive obstacle when learning languages. I know it can feel scary to be judged by others but think about the fact that you are learning. The effort makes you a hero. English is not your mother tongue; others will appreciate the effort.

When you make mistakes, it transforms situations into opportunities to learn. If you write something utterly wrong, you will be called out on a typo, then you learn. 

2. Dissect the hindrances

If you are struggling with translating the specs, you must tear the spec apart. Normally, you can highlight the areas of the spec you have the most trouble with. It allows seeing the spec in small chunks instead of a whole, which reduces the perception of complexity.

It can be compared with a divide and conquer strategy. The smaller chunks make it easier to manage, then assemble it all together again. Now you have topics. Bring them to the forums in individual threads, people will help.

3. Cry out

A baby will die of hunger if she doesn’t cry. Mom won’t know her baby is hungry. Similarly, ask for help. To whom?

In my case, I used three options. Number one, you can ask admins and managers in forums. 

Number two, ask a professor in your area for help. Who knows if she may like the challenge? I have a friend who is a professor in a school who helped me at the beginning. She said it was cool learning about design while helping me out.

Number three, ask a fellow competitor that speaks your language to help. If you know that the copilot speaks your same language, jackpot!

4. Simplify requirements

Ultimately, in step two, you created topics so you can ask your copilot to simplify, not to translate. That would also help to make the content more straightforward, more understandable. Often, technical jargon has a fair translation of simple language.

5. Online translators

Last option, read well: online translators should be the last resource. I’d possibly avoid them in the first instance. The main reason is laziness; it will make you lazy, you won’t make an effort to learn. There is a dangerous trade-off to keep in mind when you translate a full spec in an online translation tool; it often seems to lose context.


Are you living the gig economy lifestyle at Topcoder? Want to join fellow members? Share your story, your travels, and experiences about the ultimate goal of working at Topcoder; the freedom, the flexibility, and the earnings that make it happen! Join Topcoder Nation.

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