Programmers travel to Shanghai

Every year, university teams from around the globe compete in the International Collegiate Programming Contest to see who wins the honor of being the finest programmers. This year, Carnegie Mellon is one of those lucky teams. This annual ?convergence of code monkeys? in Shanghai, which runs from Sunday, April 3 to Thursday, April 7, is the final step in the International Collegiate Programming Contest.
Carnegie Mellon has appeared in the World Finals several times during the competition?s history, most recently in 2003 when its team tied for 21st place in the world. The school?s team this year is particularly noteworthy because it contains two sophomores and one first-year, said the team?s co-coach, Greg Kesden, a lecturer in computer science. ?We are very junior as far as CMU?s World Final teams have been,? said sophomore team member Glenn Willen.
A programming competition may seem inexplicable to most. In order to qualify for the World Finals, teams of three ? in this case, first-year Evan Danaher, sophomore Thomas Quisel, and Willen ? compete regionally. One of these regional competitions is held in CMU?s own Wean Hall.
?The basic process is that you?ve got teams of three at the computer, you?ve got [about] nine word problems,? Willen explained. ?You?ve got five hours among the three of you to come out with solutions to as many problems as you can.?
Co-coach and doctoral student Eugene Fink added that judges return incorrect solutions to the teams. The teams can still work on the problems, but they receive a time penalty.
The success of such a young team might be due to the addition of a new course this semester: 15-295, Competition Programming. ?The school has recognized that there?s a lot of academic merit to what you do [at competition],? said Kesden. Beyond the coursework, the team practices about three to five hours outside of class, according to Kesden.
?There really is a scary amount of strategy in this contest,? said Willen. Part of the Competition Programming course centers on acquainting students with the strategy involved in solving the types of problems they will see at regionals and the World Finals. The course also helps teams cope with the complications of having three people to one computer. ?There?s a good deal of teamwork, of course,? said Quisel. Fink noted that one of the hardest things to teach students is how to get accustomed to the three-to-one person-to-computer ratio.
Kesden has his own theory for what might make the three students so skilled at programming. ?[They are] smart, motivated people who were exposed to it early,? he said. Willen was given an introductory programming book as early as age eight or nine. Despite Willen?s early exposure, the team teases Danaher for presumably ?reading the book?? meaning Introduction to Algorithms by Cormen, Leiserson, and Rivest (known as CLR), the course book used for teaching algorithms to seniors in college or first-year graduate students.
?...[The book] was actually a gift. I was an assistant [systems] administrator in high school. As a gift they gave me CLR.... Over the summer I was bored and it looked interesting,? said Danaher.
Not everyone has had the tenacity to read the coursebook taught to seniors in college, but all three team members have had at least one semester concentrating on problems and situations similar to those seen at World Finals.
In addition to academic merit, Fink pointed out how beneficial being in World Finals can be for a student?s career in the computer industry. To those inside the profession, he said, the competition is well-known and an impressive addition to a programmer?s resume. However, there is no monetary prize for winning World Finals.
The World Finals, Kesden noted, provide a much more professional competing environment than regionals. The team doesn?t really expect to win, because, as Willen noted, teams from other countries are often playing in World Finals with a lot more at stake, such as their future livelihood. That does not prevent the team from being excited, however.
?I?m still in denial,? said Willen of leaving the country. Quisel added, ?I?m not going to get any sleep tonight.?
The competition will be all over by this Thursday, when the results will be in on this year?s overall World Finals program.