CMU programmers compete in international contest

The 30th annual ACM International Collegiate Programming Contest (ICPC), sponsored by IBM, has gathered the world’s brightest computer programming talent for an all-out “battle of the brains” in San Antonio, Texas, until Thursday.

More than 5600 teams, representing 1733 universities from around the globe, participated in the regional competitions last fall. The top 83 teams earned coveted spots on the 2006 ACM-ICPC World Finals roster. Carnegie Mellon’s Dragons team consists of sophomore computer science majors Jeff Schroder, Evan Danaher, and Andrew Warshaver, and Charles Defazio, a senior computer science major. They are one of only 17 U.S. teams scheduled to compete in the World Finals.

Teams of three students will be challenged to use their programming skills and to rely on their mental endurance to solve eight to 10 highly complex, real-world problems — a semester’s worth of curriculum — under a grueling five-hour deadline. Programmers must tackle algorithmic problems, such as determining the best travel routes to minimize traffic and ensure cost-effectiveness or developing a network strategy to determine the optimal placement of cell phone service towers to cover as many customers as possible.

“These problems are not classic algorithms,” said Eugene Fink, a systems scientist in the School of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon and one of two advisors to the team. “All the textbooks in the world couldn’t help you. The programmer must be innovative and creative. It’s like solving research problems on the fly.”

“These are quite literally the hardest problems in the world,” said Greg Kesden, a professor in the School of Computer Science and the other advisor to the team. “You are solving problems of such high caliber, so it gives you a real-life application — the algorithmic part of computer programming will not be as hard of a challenge in the future.”

The finest problem-solvers from every continent will compete for bragging rights to the “world’s smartest trophy” during the ACM-ICPC World Finals, hosted by Baylor University. The team that solves the most problems correctly in the least amount of time will emerge as the international champion, earning scholarships as well as awards from IBM.

Carnegie Mellon had a team make it to the world finals last year as well. They were ranked in the top 40, solving two out of the eight problems. Danaher was on the team last year; students are only allowed to compete in the world finals twice, so this will be his and Defazio’s last chances to make Carnegie Mellon proud.

In order to prepare for the competition, the team met every Wednesday evening for five hours to practice problem sets. For the competition, the team could only use a single computer, so effective cooperation and teamwork were crucial. “The time we spend solving real-life problems will certainly help in other situations,” said Danaher. “The fact that we are using a single computer gives us a sense of teamwork and community.”

The Carnegie Mellon programmers competing in the contest will reap great benefits. “From my experience, real-life problems produce very good programmers and researchers. This sort of training improves people’s capabilities of incredible magnitude,” Fink said. “This is the first step to greatness.”

The Dragons have been very satisfied with the dedication and guidance they have received from their advisors. Each has added to the team’s preparation and success in a unique way. “Eugene is smart with algorithms because of all his research experience,” said Schroder. “Kesden is good at ‘hacking.’ He makes everything work — he’s good at solving problems without well-defined borders.”

Since the ICPC began 30 years ago, the world of technology has evolved significantly: The personal computer is no longer a costly machine that uses an eight-inch floppy disk to store information, and now portable laptops with wireless Internet capabilities are commonplace. This contest gives young computer programmers experience with the world’s most advanced technology, an experience that will pave their developing career paths.

“This event offers collegiate programmers the opportunity to become familiar with Java, Linux, Eclipse, and other open computing platforms being adopted by industries around the world,” said Doug Heintzman, a director of strategy at IBM Software Group and sponsorship executive of the ICPC. “Open source and open standards are driving the next great innovations in the industry, and this contest challenges students who will be responsible for that innovation for decades to come.”

IBM’s sponsorship of the ACM-ICPC is an important component of the company’s many academic initiatives, designed to stimulate open-source programming skills to develop a more competitive IT workforce capable of driving global innovation and economic growth. IBM has significantly aided in the competition’s popularity. Contest participation has increased seven-fold since IBM began its sponsorship in 1997.

This competition has attracted the most dedicated, computer-loving students that universities have to offer. “There is a reason we are here. In reality, these are the best, brightest, most agile students we have,” Kesden said. “You always hear about sports —- basketball, soccer, and football athletes being in it for the game. Well, them [the Dragons team], they are here for the fun of the game too — for computer science.”