Nov 19, 2012 · 2 minutes

It is for hackers the ultimate battle of ego. For Y Combinator-grad HackerRank, it’s hopefully the beginning of a new community.

Today, HackerRank, a coding challenge site that pits programmer against programmer in tournament-style competition, is coming out of invite-only mode. Fresh off a national tour of universities around for the HackerGames, which attracted 1,400 participants at more than 20 schools, HackerRank is also announcing the launch of a Thanksgiving hackathon.

HackerRank launched in private beta at TechCrunch Disrupt in September, but now it’s ready to go out to the public. The nine-person team hopes to be able to solve real-world problems by luring hackers to its site for programming challenges set by professors, other top hackers, and tech companies that can provide real data. For instance, Palantir has an ongoing real-life big data challenge that it uses to screen prospective hires, thanks to HackerRank’s previous iteration, a code-challenge service called Interviewstreet. HackerRank intends to attract similar challenges for its fledgling community.

Part of HackerRank's appeal is that programmers can code directly into the browser via the website, but it is the competitive aspect, embodied by the leaderboard, that keeps people coming back.

“Our mission is to become the place where problem solvers from across the globe and different domains of computer science hang out,” says HackerRank co-founder Vivek Ravisankar.

For now, the company is starting with artificial intelligence, where hackers can code a bot that'll play with other bots in the system. Right now, there are 10 bot challenges that are live, including Tic-Tac-Toe and Anti-Chess. The Thanksgiving challenge, for which the winner gets a Thanksgiving meal for 10 people, is the first new addition in what will be a weekly series.

HackerRank is at first keeping the focus tightly on artificial intelligence because it realized in its closed beta that its initial scope was too broad. “We were too ambitious and tried to do all the kinds of challenges in computer science right at the start,” says Ravisankar. “So we’re going back step by step.” Later steps will include machine learning, big data, and databases.

For now, HackerRank is not concerned about money. Ravisankar and his team are bringing in cash thanks to Interviewstreet, which lets companies set coding challenges for prospective recruits so they can quickly find top talent. Facebook, Amazon India, Quora, and Evernote have all used Interviewstreet’s CodeSprints as a recruiting tool, and most continue to do so. Last year, too, the company raised $3 million in a Series A round led by Khosla Ventures.

The team wants to keep the focus for HackerRank on building a community of hackers, without involving the recruiting angle. Ravisankar says he’s not even sure how the monetization aspect will work out, and that the startup is just worried about doing what’s best for hackers. “We're fairly confident of making it a huge business if we get a lot of active hackers,” he says.

HackerRank distinguished itself by being the first India-based startup to get accepted into Y Combinator. It joined the incubator in 2011 after twice being rejected. After getting the call from Y Combinator boss Paul Graham, Ravisankar flew all the way from India just for the 10-minute interview. He has since relocated to Mountain View. His cofounder, Harishankaran Karunanidhi, remains in India.