This startup thinks competitive programming could be more popular than college football

Competitive coding, where programmers race to be the first to come up with the solution to complicated code challenges, has exploded in popularity as a place for Silicon Valley firms like Facebook and Google to find top talent.

But CodeFights, a startup with 150,000 users founded by ex-Google and Oracle engineers and backed by Quora CEO Adam D’Angelo, thinks competitive coding can go a step beyond just a recruitment tool:

CodeFights thinks that programming can become a real, actual, competitive spectator sport on college campuses and beyond.

Right now, on college campuses, the most popular sports are things like football and basketball — a focus on physical sports that CodeFights CEO and co-founder Tigran Sloyan describes as a “disservice” to students who are there to learn.

“Something more relevant to getting an education should be more popular,” Sloyan says — something like CodeFights.

Basically, the idea behind CodeFights is that framing programming as a competition makes it a lot easier and more fun to learn how to code, an idea that comes from Sloyan’s time at MIT.

Tigran sloyan codefightsYouTubeCodeFights CEO Tigran Sloyan

He enjoyed learning to program, and wished that he could make getting that kind of education more accessible to everyone.

“I wish it could be like that for everybody, sort of fun,” Sloyan says. The question then became: “Can we do better than the standard education?”

So far, CodeFights has raised a relatively modest $US2.4 million seed round since its 2014 launch, including personal investments from the likes of D’Angelo and GoDaddy VP of Engineering Marek Olszewski. Some of that cash has gone into a site redesign that went live recently.

Unlike the programming challenges from places like HackerRank and TopCoder, which give you hours, days, or months to finish a challenge, CodeFights pairs you up with a fellow programmer and gives you miniature challenges that only take three minutes to finish.

“It’s designed to be more for everybody,” Sloyan says.

Codefights challengePlay GIFCodeFightsA CodeFights challenge.

The way it keeps the challenges short is by asking you not to write code, but rather to debug existing code — whoever can figure out what’s wrong with the program you’re given first wins the round. Sloyan says that CodeFights is working to add more intensive programming challenges that actually require you to write code.

If you want to practice your coding skills, there are robots, but the real value comes from going head-to-head against humans in tournament-style play, says Sloyan.

Because rounds are so quick, and automatically scored, the rounds keep moving, and things stay exciting and addictive, Sloyan says. It’s that speed and adrenaline-rush element that give CodeFights so much potential as both a sport and an education tool, Sloyan says.

Ultimately, he’d like to see people watching and cheering on college campuses, with fans decked out in regalia and flags like they do for NCAA Football today.

“This is exactly the movement we’re looking for,” Sloyan says.

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