CMU participates in programming contest

Last weekend students from Carnegie Mellon competed in one of the toughest collegiate intellectual contests in the world: the 33rd Annual IBM-sponsored Association for Computing Machinery International Collegiate Programming Contest. Current standings reveal Carnegie Mellon’s two teams, the Tartans and the Dragons, to have the top two spots in the Eastern Central North America Regionals. Winners from the regionals will qualify for the world finals to be held in Stockholm, Sweden in 2009.

Considered to be the most prestigious computer programming contest in the world, the ICPC draws thousands of students from all over the world to solve complex programming problems.
The Carnegie Mellon teams, consisting of both computer science and non-computer science majors, traveled to the University of Cincinnati and competed in the regional championships against other teams from the surrounding area.

For computer science professor and team coach Gregory Kesden, placing among the top teams was expected. “We’ve been really successful over the years. I think that’s because our students are so intellectually strong,” Kesden said. “You know that it can be done. There is a lot of understanding of what we need to do and how to do it.”
The event website brings out the intensity of the competition. As stated on the website, the purpose of the tournament is to promote “creativity, teamwork, and innovation in building new software programs [and] to enable students to test their ability to perform under pressure.”

The tournament format is simple. Each three-person team is given eight or more complex programming problems with varying difficulty and a five-hour time limit to complete them. The only tools allowed to solve these problems are a single computer, a choice of programming language (C, C++, or Java), and lots of paper.
As explained on the event website, each question is designed to be extremely mentally challenging, testing each team’s skills in “logic, strategy and mental endurance.” The team that solves the most problems correctly with the fastest time is declared the winner.

“My favorite part is that the problems are really hard, really interesting problems,” Kesden said. “You read them and think about them and say, ‘I don’t know how to do this.’ It’s ‘I don’t really know how to solve this problem.’ And you think about it and talk about it and find an approach that works to solve the problem.”

The challenging nature of these problems is evident from the problem presented during last year’s finals.

Last year, the competitors had to write a password cracking program given a certain set of conditions. Upon the completion of the test, the teams would have completed a semester’s worth of programming problems in a couple of hours. Last year, Carnegie Mellon placed 31st in the world, with St. Petersburg University of Russia and MIT winning first and second place, respectively.

This prestigious tournament was started in 1970 by Texas A&M’s Alpha Chapter of the UPE Computer Science Honor Society, the only international honor society for computing and information disciplines.
Since then, the tournament’s popularity has increased exponentially, spreading from nationwide to worldwide, especially after IBM became the new event sponsor in 1997. On the event website, IBM claims that their overarching goal is to “stimulate open-source programming skills to develop a more competitive IT workforce capable of driving global innovation and economic growth.”

Only the most gifted students are given the opportunity to compete in this 1821-university, 83-country contest. The real prize, besides awards and “bragging rights,” according to Kesden, is to make it to the finals, which consist of 100 teams, in Stockholm, at the KTH Royal Institute of Technology. Not to be forgotten, those who do compete have the greater advantage for finding a good job upon graduation. Those who make it to the finals represent some of the sharpest college-level programming minds in the world.