Contests to Become Better Programmer

Every night my sleep is spoiled by my room-mate working late nights before the comp keying in at terrific speeds, sighing and grumping. Later I came to know that he is a hardcore-coder, working on his way to the top of the TopCoder’s list. So, the next question arises, ‘What is this TopCoder thing?’

For the amateurs’ sake, there are a number of online programming contests administered by several firms. If you have had the chance to watch the movie ‘Social Network’, the next thing that would have popped up in your mind is the ‘Hackathon’ shown in the feature. Well, this is not anything of the sort ‘Hackathon’ cos Hackathon is conducted by IT firms among their programmers not for the public. If you take Hackathon and change the entry requirement part to ‘any geek’ then you get online programming contests!

There are a lot of these dynamic contests hosted around by many IT firms including Google(code jam), Microsoft (Code4Bill), Sun(Java 4K), Facebook(Hacker Cup) and by firms that are dedicated to host online programming contests such as TopCoder, CodeChef and HTML5. The main focus of these contests is to bring the best coders out there to limelight.

Winning in any of these contests (hosted in a different span) puts you on the spotlight and there is a great chance of hearing a knock on your door by leading IT firms offering you a high profile job. So that’s what the fuzz about these contests is rather than the prize money offered on winning such a thing.

The top 20 coders who top the rest in the Code4Bill contest earn an internship Microsoft Research Center and later offered a job at Microsoft India upon completion of the internship. Moreover, a top lucky winner of the contest will get to work with Bill Gates Technical Assistants team and that’s called glamour. Facebook too, has something similar called ‘Puzzle Master’ where puzzles are posted in regular intervals and solving of which can get you hired by Facebook directly!!

Though there is a connotation that firms in the big league get their work done for much cheaper money through the coders who compete in these contests, the number of aspirants who participate in these contests have never gone down and stays increasing. More than the money involved, the fame and later the future chance of getting a high profile job matters to the coders in most cases.

Besides these contests hosted by firms there are several other coding contests hosted by premiere institutes and universities alike that bring you the fame and put on the wanted-list of recruiters. If you are game, then there are a thousand ways to get in the big league of firms.

Web Design-Impact Beyond Measure

Like a ‘mind-boggling’ yet enthralling Pablo Picasso painting, it is essential for websites to create captivating and thought-provoking material to lure an audience and, secure a solid fan base. Naturally, abstract paintings require quite a bit of out-of-the-box thinking when deciphering the artists’ vision, thought and message. This is the kind of allure that a website needs to uphold so that it can become successful over time. By ensuring that users are sufficiently stimulated on a continual basis companies will eventually attain devoted subscribers. This is what every company desires, though the trick is to develop a site that is not clad with complicated design elements (which could affect usability) and bland content that’ll bore browsers to tears, but to establish an effective balance.

Of course, if a website does not contain substance one cannot expect a great response or loyal following, now can you?

According to research, a website that has relevant and informative content can help to position a company as professional in view of the interested and targeted consumer. If a website can clearly and efficiently show a potential customer that the company is knowledgeable and up to date in their field of expertise, the consumer becomes confident and trusting of the services offered. Take into account that a web site is multi-functional entity that serves as a communication tool, thus it plays a central role in improving the impact and image of a brand. Consider your website a personal interaction with both current and potential consumers. Because of this very notion, even the slightest ‘balls-up’ can jeopardize a company’s reputation. Yet, however gripping a website’s content may be design elements have a dramatic, if not crucial impact and contribution to make.

There are a few prominent aspects of a website that is greatly influenced by web design. Keep in mind that web design’s influence on the success of a website runs deep. These are but a few significant and fundamental elements that are magnificently affected by web design.

Usability is key

When a user punches a few keywords on a keyboard, instant and relevant information and a no fuss policy is expected. Instance coffee and fast-foods bears testament to how today’s world has evolved into a fast-paced, ‘I want it now’ society. The Internet is certainly a result of this mindset. Life has become easier, like baking a cake from a box. Most users have a short attention span, when it comes to finding the information that they need and want. Because of this very reason, usability is a vital. As far as making content easy to find, with good web page design, a user should not have to wonder what to do next. Navigation is there for a reason and, makes thing easier and get information to the user ASAP!-which is what you want. The next step should always obvious. The easier it is for customers to find what they are looking for the likelier they’ll buy or enquire.

It’s like being stuck in the queue at customs at the airport, waiting for your turn to be serviced. Frustrating isn’t it?

It’s been noted that too often web sites are focused on looking attractive without considering the user. Many have won prestigious design awards, yet perform extremely poorly and as a result lose customers by the thousands. According to research 50% plus of online sales are lost because visitors aren’t able to navigate through a website and find what they are looking for. Another factor that plays a major role is how long it takes for a website to load. Research states that it makes good sense to ensure that a website loads fast. Studies have shown that if visitor are forced to wait for more than 8-10 seconds for a page to load, clients run a serious risk of losing potential consumers.

As a rule of thumb, every single web page should load in at least 8 seconds or less, preferably on a 56k modem.

Flash has been named as a huge factor when it comes to the usability of a website. However, Flash has become a popular tool in internet marketing and is now widely used across the web. But, there can be drawbacks so it needs to be carefully determined whether or not a site will benefit from its use. One of the benefits of using Flash is the visual appeal of it. It can be used with navigation, by adding interesting visual graphics. Although, one disadvantage about using Flash is that not all internet browsers have a Flash player moreover, not all users may want to download it. Needless to say, Flash technology tends to discourage usability for very apparent reasons. Flash can cause bad design, break the Web’s fundamental interaction style and it also consumes resources that would be better spent enhancing a site’s core value. Approximately 99 % of the time, the presence of Flash on a website hampers the usability and distracts the attention from the site’s core value and purpose.

Perhaps, Web designers interested in enhancing usability and their site’s overall business presence should use Flash sparingly?

By focusing on improving usability, web designers are able to keep users interested, for the long haul.

Our lives are filled with colour. What would the life be like if we lived ‘black and white’ lives? Colour adds interest and can determine whether a website is fresh and alive looking or it can also create a dull and dreary image, which is not what any client wants. In the world of web design, bad colour schemes can make a site look unfriendly, amateurish, and inaccessible. So, it comes as no surprise that over 80% of visual information is related to colour. There are various reactions to colour which are instinctual and cross universal and cultural boundaries. According to a 1997 survey by Cooper Marketing Group, Oak Park, IL, power is represented by the color scarlet red for 25% of respondents, black for 17% and bright violet blue for 13%. More than 55% of those surveyed chose one of these three colors out of 100 colors. Fragility was most represented by pale pink (27%), white (9%), and pale lavender (9%).

Note that colors can be perceived by people as different moods and emotions. When designing a site one should consider the mood that needs to be portrayed. These moods can vary from person to person, depending on their life experiences. Web design which achieves successful marketing results is sensitive to the cultural, instinctual and iconic meanings of colour in relation to the product or service being promoted. More importantly, it also considers the cultural backgrounds and gender of the targeted clientele. Avoiding the extremes of sheer garishness and boredom, effective design displays symphonic colour arrangements of shades, tints, tones and complementarities to tantalise and maintain interest. Adding textures too can alter colours – a roughly textured surface makes a colour seem darker, while a smooth surface lightens the same color.

Although, it also stands a designer in good stead to know what colours signify. Different shades of colours work well in different situations. For example, using very saturated colours all the time is not always good, by using shades that can make certain things stand out more or less than others. For example, it would be good to have elements in the main content stand out more than in the sidebar, because that is where you want to draw attention. When making sites you have to use your common sense when picking colours. For example, if you were making a business site you wouldn’t use bright pink, because this would look childish and unprofessional. Another example, if you were making a laser eye clinic site, you wouldn’t use red as this would imply danger and blood. Scary.

These days computers support millions of colours (16bit or 32bit) meaning the compatible colours between systems have increased. The new palette, based on 16bit systems, is the web smart palette which supports 4096 web smart colours. When changing colours you must ensure the contrast between the colour and the text on it is enough for people with poor eyesight to see, or at least offer a high contrast version. There are sites with grey text on slightly greyer background making it very hard to read, this is bad accessibility wise. Also note some colours can be annoying together, for example some people have difficulty looking at green and red together, green text on red would be a very bad idea. In most instances, finer details are forgotten and falls by the wayside – consider color blind people on the web, ensure they have options to see a version they can actually read.

The Impact of Web Design on Conversion Rate
A simple description of conversion on the web reads as follows; Conversion refers to the form that an interested party fills out in order to buy a product from a company. A Web Site Visitor Conversion occurs when a user takes key action to do so. Conversions can be macro (the most significant action) or micro (one of the many actions that precede the macro conversion). For most sites, conversions are what can be directly or indirectly traced to a financial return. Spending money on search engine marketing or online advertising might be a waste of your resources if a site is a poor converter. Inevitably, conversion determines website profitability.
Once again it is essential to make a web site to easy to use. If not the less chance there’ll be of people buying.

Interestingly enough, making a site accessible is a legal obligation in many countries. Inaccessibility can affect sales, as visitors will find the site impossible to use and go elsewhere. Apparently a typical inaccessible site could be losing 5% of potential sales because of this. Many designers only pay attention to Internet Explorer. The justification for this is usually that 99% of the site’s users use IE. It never seems to occur to the designers that perhaps the reason they have so few visitors with other browsers is that their site is fundamentally broken – it doesn’t work in anything else.

Percentages of people not using IE varies from site to site.
Approximately 80-85% of web users are using IE on Windows, which means that an average site that does not work in anything else could stand to lose 15-20% of sales. Visibility is also an important factor. For instance, when a user decides to buy a product, they add it to a shopping basket. How do they add it? By clicking a button or link. But what happens when they can’t see the button? They go elsewhere. There are plenty of sites out there with buttons that are too subtle, or don’t say the right thing, or are hidden away at the bottom of the page. “Add” is considered an ineffective button text. “Buy” is fairly successful. “Add xxx To Your Basket” is great. “Add xxx to Your Basket” in big letters on a big, bright button, near the top of the page, is even better. Calls to action, like this, don’t have to be bland but they must be obvious and clear.
Sites which are just call to action according to research could earn a 1% to 30% increase in sales as a result.

The impact the web design has on SEO (Search Engine Optimisation)

It is a known that having a Web site rank well in search engine results for searches on specific keywords/phrases. If a Web site doesn’t have a page appearing in the top 10 search engine result positions (SERPs) the chances of someone clicking on the listing, and actually visiting the site, will drop dramatically. Optimizing a site and content for a search engine, for a better ranking in SERPs, is known as Search Engine Optimization (SEO), yet many Web developers/designers either don’t take time to code a site properly or don’t know how to do proper SEO. The basics of code optimization are just sound HTML coding practices; when followed, they go a long way toward SEO. There is a lot you can do to optimize your Web site for search engines from the code level.

The first rule of SEO is not to design your site in such a way that the code prevents a spider from being able to index it. This means avoiding pages which are 100% graphics and no text, such as pages that contain all images, or are Flash-only. Furthermore, if the first thing a user encounters is a log-in page, before being able to see the site’s content, then that’s what a spider will see and it won’t go any further, either. If you’re planning to build a Web site entirely in Flash, Don’t. If you have no choice, then read my previous column, Search Engine Optimization and Non-HTML Sites. To find out what a spider sees on your site, run a spider simulator on a given page. The simulator will show you what text the spider sees and what links it finds. There are many good ones on the market at various prices. If you’re looking for something that’s free, I’d suggest Search Engine Spider Simulator.

There’s certainly plenty of room for further impact, depending on the subject matter, in regards to information architecture, copy writing, interface coding as part of web design or the layer of graphic design (usability). Web design encourages confidence and trust in the site as it is able to look legitimate and “professional”, depending on the design elements chosen. Web design can maintain a clear, consistent and unified message and operation. Obvious as it may be, a good site should be memorable. Being memorable, and making sure you stick in the user’s mind, is dependent on a lot of factors. It’s no good if your visitors remember why you are great but don’t remember your name.

Evidently, web design is much more than just a pretty picture.

Playful Parenting – More than Just Fun and Games

Early childhood educators have called play “children’s work”. Many parents believe their children should be doing something more productive than merely having fun. But, actually, play fosters physical, emotional, intellectual and social development. Encouraging your child to play is vital for his development as well as his happiness.

What is Play?

The dictionary refers to play as recreation. Recreation is a very significant word in building and sustaining strong families. If you capitalize and hyphenate this important word it becomes Re-Creation. This is exactly what having fun with your family by playing games and sharing activities can do. Playing together can recreate your family. It can revitalize, rejuvenate and inspire with energy, life and laughter. It can offer the whole families another chance to connect on a level that you perhaps are not connecting on right now.

We frequently consider play only as the opposite of work, thus we can only have fun when the work is done. I propose that we incorporate play into work sometimes and other times we spend time re-creating ourselves before or after the chores have been accomplished. It is amazing how energized everyone will be after a game of tag in the yard. You will be astounded at how quickly the dishes get done when everyone knows it is a Monopoly or UNO night.

Use Imagination and energy to have fun

In past generations, kids learned to create fun by using personal resources-imagination and energy. We were outside running, jumping, building and creating for hours and hours. Our play usually ended only when our mothers called us in for dinner or a bath.

Today’s child is generally programmed with a fully scheduled week of lessons and highly competitive adult managed and supervised sports. Any free time is spent passively watching television leaving little opportunity to develop creativity and initiative.

By establishing a time to “play” you are stimulating your children’s creativity and imagination. Children who learn early to take initiative for providing their own entertainment are less likely in the future to depend on artificial stimulants to “turn themselves on.”

Establish a Family Fun Night

Many of us are employed in highly stressful jobs and the list of stress-related illnesses grows daily. The more stressed and cranky we are, the less our children want to be around us. By planning quality time spent just fooling around with our kids, the whole family will come out a winner.

As the characteristics of the family have changed over the years with more mothers working outside the house and fathers expected to play a greater role in the child rearing, it is a perfect opportunity to incorporate with the whole family a special time. But how about the many step-families, one-parent families and transient families who move frequently and live far from extended family? This is a method for creating unity and making the most of time together.

The family unit defines who we are and shapes our character. It is in the family dynamic that we learn the important lessons of self-discipline, the art of compromise, cooperation, forgiveness, honesty and fair play. By sharing activities on a regular basis we can teach by example as well as with verbal and non-verbal clues. There is a sense of safety in learning life skills in the family setting and then incorporating them into the real world. We know we will always be loved, even if we do strike out or make a mistake or look foolish sometimes.

Many children are being raised by the television.

Oh sure, they might have moms and dads who pay the rent, fix the meals, and drive them to sports practice, but essentially they are learning their standards, morals and ethics from a 24 inch box in their bedroom or the family room.

Mary Pittaway, registered dietician who heads up the WIC (Women, Infants and Children) program in our community has said “children spend eight hours sleeping, two hours eating, five hours at school, 6 hours watching TV, less than one hour in physical activity, three hours engaged in other activities and five minutes in meaningful conversation with their parents on any given day.”

Kids who spend too much time in front of a TV or video game are at risk for a great many health concerns, especially type II diabetes, which is skyrocketing among young children. Overweight children are more vulnerable to high blood pressure, gall bladder disease, asthma, and bone and joint problems.

What happens when children don’t have play time?

The most devastating result of inactivity and obesity in our children is an emotional cycle of low self-esteem. The less they like themselves, the less likely they are to participate in sports or be active physically-the very thing that could help them. We can lecture them about the benefits of activity, but they will listen and participate more readily if the whole family is involved and it doesn’t single them or their problem out.

For a free report on “Helping Your Child Fit In” go to my website http://www.ArtichokePress.com. In that report you will find that one of the major problems facing left out kids is the inability to play with others. Many classroom and playground problems of fitting in, being clumsy, perceptual-motor skills, social and emotional inadequacies, may be prevented or lessened by parents developing a time to do movement activities, which means in common language, play with their infants and children on an on-going basis.

Will play help your child succeed in life?

The games and activities you share as a family does not automatically guarantee better communication, healthier bodies and minds or a close-knit family. However, being available, approachable, and willing to step out of your comfort zone will insure a higher chance of children who succeed in life.

All of these activities are just vehicles to bring you and your child into close contact for a period of time where barriers are down and talking and laughing are up. Conversations and meaningful dialog will follow, maybe not right away, but kids recognize that you are willing to relax and spend time with them.

They don’t want you as a pal but they do need you as a friend. Best friends play, laugh and hang out together frequently. They build bonds of loyalty, respect and love that last forever. Playful parenting is more than just fun and games. Come on; let’s go kick the ball around the back yard.