Column: Connecting Barracuda, Coin Flips

A glimpse at one way a tech company recruits employees

Early in October, Barracuda Networks invited a bunch of University of Michigan students to a “hackathon” at the computer science and engineering building, where they programmed computers to play games against each other.

Barracuda Networks game

Figure 1.  Participants in Barracuda’s hackathon programmed their computers to play a game based on a 7×7 grid of squares. The game can also be played between human beings using pen and paper. The basic idea can be described as trying to join two opposite sides of the grid with a connected path consisting of squares you “own.” This image depicts the state of a game board resulting in an agreed-upon draw between an Ann Arbor city councilmember (pink squares, horizontal) and Chronicle editor Dave Askins (green squares, vertical). (Grid by The Chronicle.)

And 24 hours later, the winning team of programmers was handed one of those goofy Publishers-Clearinghouse-style giant checks – for $3,141.59. Second place was $1,414.21. And third place was $602.21.

Those dollar amounts might strike you as funny – because you think they make no sense, or because you think they make perfect sense. But a regular Chronicle reader might look at those numbers without laughing, and calculate as follows: The sum of the prize money is $5,158.01 – which divides perfectly (12 times) into the estimated 61,896.12 total value of a five-year tax abatement recently granted by the city of Ann Arbor to Barracuda. Uncanny, no?

It’s the tax abatement that has resulted in relatively frequent mentions of Barracuda in The Chronicle over the last few months. The process for granting such an abatement includes four separate actions by the city council. So it was the council’s action that The Chronicle was covering, more than anything Barracuda itself was doing.

Now, I confess that I fudged the estimated value of the tax abatement, to get the math to work out. The numbers provided by the city of Ann Arbor’s financial staff pegged the value of the tax abatement at around $61,000 – nothing so precise as $61,896.12. Still, there is an actual connection between the tax abatement and the roomful of UM students who were participating in Barracuda’s 24-hour competition.

That connection relates to a condition of the tax abatement. To receive the tax advantage, Barracuda must add another 144 employees (a perfect square? seriously?) to its Ann Arbor operation. And to make room for all those additional employees, Barracuda’s operation is moving from its current Depot Street location to the old Borders corporate headquarters in downtown Ann Arbor – off Maynard Street, under the parking structure.

The hackathon event was part of the company’s strategy to recruit new employees.

I had to miss the hackathon, but still wanted to offer Chronicle readers a sense of the kind of game the students were programming their computers to play. So I asked Barracuda for the rules and invited an Ann Arbor city councilmember to play a pen-and-paper version.

It’s a familiar kind of game where you find yourself focused sometimes on playing to win and other times on playing not to lose.

The game was made up by Barracuda software engineer Jeremy Bowers. It’s played on a 7×7 grid of squares. Without giving away precise details of game rules – because Barracuda would like to use the game at future hackathon-style recruiting events – each of two players tries to get control of squares in an effort to join opposite sides of the board with a connected path of squares. One player is trying to connect the sides of the grid horizontally; the other is trying to make the connection vertically. The first player to connect wins. (Barracuda has not named this game.)

It was Ward 1 city councilmember Sandi Smith that I invited to play a pen-and-paper version of Barracuda’s recruitment game – for a couple of reasons. Mainly, I wanted to set myself up with an excuse in case I lost. The game is at least partly about claiming “real estate.” And Smith is president of Trillium Real Estate, so she should plausibly have some kind of advantage with whatever expertise she has as a Realtor. The “connecting” aspect of things is also right up Smith’s alley. As an Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority board member, she’s working on a projected called Connecting William Street – an effort to master plan an area of the downtown that includes five city-owned properties, all of which are currently used for parking.

In the paper-and-pen version I cobbled together, I thought it would be useful to color the squares as a way of keeping track, given that neither of us are computers. The image in Figure 1 above is a re-creation of the state of the board when we stopped – after about an hour of play, including discussion of the rules.

At that point, we each had $8 left in our respective banks, and there was one square remaining that was of any interest to either of us. The square – in the fourth row, sixth column – would have completed a connection, winning the game for whoever claimed the square. On the next turn of the game, the only rational play for each of us was to attempt to claim that square, using all of our remaining funds –$8. And the rules would have awarded that square to the winner of a coin flip.

Smith summed it up by characterizing our extended gameplay as just a very complicated way to flip a coin. And we agreed to a draw – because we are human beings, not computers.

There’s probably a lesson in there somewhere for local Ann Arbor politics.

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  1. By David
    October 30, 2012 at 11:01 am | permalink

    The prize numbers jumped out at me in a different way:
    3.14159 is pi
    1.41421 is square root of 2
    6.0221 (x 10 to the 23rd) is Avogadro’s number

    No coincidence, certainly.

  2. By Kip
    October 30, 2012 at 12:05 pm | permalink

    Chemistry was too long ago for me to make the connection on the 3rd number. Thanks!

  3. October 30, 2012 at 12:37 pm | permalink

    Hi Dave, thanks for the article. I’ve have written a follow up with more info about our Annual Hackathon here – [link]


  4. By DrData
    October 30, 2012 at 8:19 pm | permalink

    Pi and the square root of 2 jumped out a me as well; I struck out on the last prize. However, I was going to check my memory out but the intrepid Chronicle readers saved me from the effort.

  5. By Observatory
    October 31, 2012 at 1:37 am | permalink

    Pi jumped out … even to an English major.

  6. By Rod Johnson
    October 31, 2012 at 10:25 am | permalink

    But, Christine, who won!? I have lots of current and former students in that video, but I can’t find any info on the winners.