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Tuesday, October 26, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
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Google's geeky contests aid search for tech elite

The Associated Press

Contestants compete in "computer code jam," a competition at Google's headquarters in California for hard-core computer programmers who vie for cash prizes and possible employment.
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MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. — Google locates almost anything on the Web within seconds, but finding the brainy engineers who program the company's lightning-quick search engine takes more time — and a quirky bit of ingenuity.

As its rapidly growing business creates hundreds of new jobs, Google is trying to lure premier talent with offbeat tactics, including a computer-coding competition and a brain-twisting aptitude test that mixes geek humor with a daunting mathematical workout.

The Internet search giant is going one step further in Microsoft territory. It's opening a new office in Kirkland next month, likely hoping to attract Microsoft developers who don't want to relocate to Silicon Valley. The company already has a sales office in Seattle.

Plenty of people want to work at Google, company that takes great pride in an employee-friendly culture with free meals and generous helpings of lucrative stock options.

But the Mountain View, Calif., company remains picky about whom it hires, even as its payroll has ballooned from nearly 700 employees at the end of 2002 to about 2,700 workers today.

In its quest to identify the programming elite, Google recently inserted an unusual aptitude test in such magazines as MIT's Technology Review, the Linux Journal, Mensa, Dr. Dobbs and Physics Today.

The 21-question test includes such geek brain twisters as, "How many different ways can you color an icosahedron with one of three colors on each face?" and "On an infinite, two-dimensional rectangular lattice of 1-ohm resistors, what is the resistance between two nodes that are a knight's move away?"

The test also includes more subjective, tongue-in-cheek requests like "Write a haiku describing possible methods for predicting search traffic seasonality" and "What is the most beautiful math equation ever derived?"

Google has received an enthusiastic response to the test, said Alan Eustace, the company's vice president of engineering research and systems, though many of the people sending in their answers are economists, professors and other intellectuals more interested in a mental challenge than a job.

Google launched a similarly nerdy recruiting stunt during the summer.

Without mentioning its name, it placed billboards in Silicon Valley and Harvard Square that read: (first 10-digit prime found in consecutive digits of e).com.
Anyone who figured out the correct answer wound up at a Web site that posed another puzzle; if solved, it led to a Google-branded site seeking résumés.

Google isn't always so subtle.

During the past two years, Google has offered cash prizes to computer engineers who compete against each other to solve complex coding problems.

The battles are an increasingly popular way to recruit skilled programmers away from a number of high-tech companies, including two of Google's biggest rivals, Yahoo! and Microsoft.

The companies stage the events in conjunction with Glastonbury, Conn.-based TopCoder, which has an automated system for scoring the competitions.

TopCoder, formed in 1991, now boasts 43,000 members who enter the competitions looking for extra cash, bragging rights and a little more cachet on their résumés, said President Rob Hughes.

"These are people who generally aren't into self-promotion and feel a little intimidated going to formal job interviews," Hughes said.

"If they do well in a code-jamming competition, they don't have to put on their Sunday best and they have more credibility before they even walk in through the door."

Google's latest competition, completed earlier this month, attracted 7,500 entrants — a field whittled down to 50 finalists through a series of elimination rounds.

"When you can get together 50 of the most talented computer scientists in the world, there's a chance that you are going to hire some of them," Eustace said.

The company gave a total of $50,000 to the finalists, who also received an all-expenses-paid trip to Google's headquarters, workplace for the hundreds of millionaires who have struck it rich on the company's high-flying stock.

This year's $10,000 first-place prize was won by Sergio Sancho, 30, who already has a programming job in his native Argentina but said he might consider working at Google.

Company spokesman David Krane wouldn't reveal what newly hired programmers are paid.

After finishing 14th place in last year's competition, Bartholomew Furrow landed a summer internship at Google and helped it develop programs that improved the technology used to search the text of books.

Furrow, 20, recently returned to the University of British Columbia to pursue a doctorate in physics, a degree he never considered using in computer programming until he spent some time at Google.

"I have always planned on becoming a college professor, but (Google) has kind of opened my eyes to other opportunities," Furrow said.

Information about Google's Kirkland plans was provided by Seattle Times technology reporter Kim Peterson

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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