Ken Vogel wasn't looking for a new job; he was perfectly content working in Boston designing back-end systems for Fidelity Investments. But word got out that Vogel's skills prop him up amongst the elite in the software development community. That's when UBS came calling.
Vogel gained recognition as a member of TopCoder (Glastonbury, Conn.), an online software development competition administrator and software developer community that hosts online algorithm and software design and development competitions in which participants are ranked on efficiency and skill. The company also holds large-scale tournaments and offers commissioned component software development by its community members, who compete to develop individual pieces of software, the best of which are licensed or sold to clients.
While some developers join TopCoder to display their skills to the highest bidder, Vogel says he started competing in 2001 just for fun. He has participated in numerous online algorithm competitions and has become a member of the TopCoder internal review board. There currently are more than 93,000 TopCoder members participating in competitions and development initiatives, representing 200 countries.
When Will Sterling, managing director and global head of equities electronic trading at UBS, first heard of TopCoder, he understood the value behind this massive pool of development talent and how bringing on top-rated developers could affect product quality. "Arguably, the most important thing in building technology ... is finding the right technologists," he says. "The difference between a good developer and a great developer -- a good technologist and a great technologist -- can mean the difference between night and day."
So UBS approached TopCoder for access to its member community. The firm signed up as a major sponsor (the first from the financial services industry) for the flagship TopCoder Open tournament in May. And, along with Bloomberg, AOL and the National Security Agency, UBS plans to sponsor November's TopCoder Collegiate Challenge. Event sponsors get first crack at the highest-skilled members.
But bringing the best and brightest into the fold isn't merely about the number of zeros on the offer sheet. Sterling believes that luring top talent such as Vogel requires a developer-friendly environment. "One of the things that can be difficult for a firm like UBS is that large financial firms are generally just a train wreck at managing technology. They centralize it, they treat it like it's a cost center and then they're somehow shocked that the technology isn't competitive with the smaller firms that are best in the market," he explains. "It's really tough to hire and retain the best developers without understanding how they want to work and how to really maximize the benefit and the impact of those developers. If you stick a great developer in a process-oriented IT factory -- which I think is what many big firms run -- they're not going to last long."
Vogel agrees, noting he likely wouldn't have uprooted himself to become a director in equities IT at UBS' Stamford, Conn.-based U.S. headquarters had he not been so impressed by the firm's technology organization and if he wasn't going to be able to do what he does best -- program. He currently works on back-end systems and architectural components as well as front-end user interfaces for traders. "There was a noticeable difference coming here in terms of how they manage and run technology," says Vogel. "They recognize great producers without forcing them to become managers. That really opened my eyes to a new playground, as if it were a new place to work and have fun."
A Rough Road
In the financial community, TopCoder also has had placement and software development relationships with Alliance Bernstein, Citigroup, ING Americas, JPMorgan Chase and Merrill Lynch. But paving the inroads to the industry wasn't easy. "The financial services community is fairly risk averse at trying new things. It took us a while to break into that sector," says Mike Morris, VP of software development at TopCoder. "What really got us onto the map there was our relationship with UBS." <<<