Sharing your working

The recipe for perpetual ignorance is: be satisfied with your opinions and content with your knowledge. – Elbert Hubbard


In the book ‘Crowdsourcing‘ by Jeff Howe, he quotes a wonderful example of the community of MATLAB users working to solve a problem:

Contestants were required to solve what is commonly called a “traveling salesman problem,” the classic example of which asks for the shortest possible round trip a salesman can take through a given list of cities. Participants submitted a solution in the form of an algorithm, or computer code that directed the salesman through a number of steps. The contest ended after ten days, at which point the most efficient algorithm would be declared the winner.

But [Ned] Gulley added an extra twist: Participants were allowed to steal each other’s code in order to create a better solution. Every time a new solution was sent in, it was quickly scored, ranked and posted to the Web site. Every other contestant could then see the programming code, in full. They could cut-and-paste the best bits and resubmit it with any improvements, however minor. If the tweaks, as Gulley calls them, created a more efficient algorithm, it vaulted the contestant into first place, even if he or she had only changed a few lines of code.

When I used to speak about development, I would often use this example. What fascinates me is not the open approach to solving the problem – this approach is used the world over. What fascinates me is how successful it was: 

But the extraordinary aspect of MATLAB isn’t the fervor it inspires, but the fact that the ten-day hurly-burly—in which all intellectual property is thrown into the public square to be used and re-used at will—turns out to be an insanely efficient method of problem solving. The contest has been held twice a year since its inception in 1999. On average, Gulley notes, the best algorithm at the end of the contest period exceeds the best algorithm from day one by a magnitude of 1000.

Is this how you approach problem solving? Do you open up your working to others? This is after all, how the world works. As Isaac Newton remarked, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants”*. We all make use of the findings of others, but how prepared to share are we? Is the goal the finding of the solution, or the kudos of being the winner? In a time when the majority of information we require is at our fingertips, are we good at sharing? How much do we personally contribute to this melting pot?

If you’ve not read ‘Crowdsourcing’, I’d highly recommend it. You can get your own copy from

Image credit: Evan_Terada.

* – I love the quote from Newton – but I love the circumstance even more. His comment could easily be taken to be a barbed insult to his rival Robert Hooke – widely believed to be the originator of some of Newton’s ideas, and a man of somewhat short stature.

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