Waterloo ekes out medal in programming contest

The University of Waterloo clutched the top spot of three Canadian teams and a bronze medal at IBM Corp.’s 35th annual Association Computing Machinery International Collegiate Programming Contest (ACM ICPC) in Orlando, Fla.

Waterloo was also the second ranked North American school and 12th overall in a field of 105 teams from around the world. More colloquially called the Battle of the Brains, this contest calls on students to accomplish what for many would be a worst nightmare – finish a full semester’s worth of computer programming problems in five hours. Waterloo managed to finish seven out of the 10 questions provided, and winning school Zhejiang University from China won it with eight correct answers.

For the trio of students on Waterloo’s team, crunching this code was actually a good time.

“The main reason I’ve participated in mainly for fun,” says Hanson Wong, a third-year undergraduate computer science student. “I’ve had enough competition experience, so applying for a job isn’t really a problem for me.”

Though still finishing his bachelor’s degree, Wong worked at Facebook Inc. last summer and is back in Mountain View, Calif., this summer working for Google Inc. His employer let him off for a couple of days to take part in the competition.

For IBM, the decades-old contest is a top-notch recruiting tool. Big Blue estimates that as many as 96,000 students get involved in the competition at regional levels around the world, but only the top 315 students make their way to the finals.

“It’s a very attractive potential labour pool for us,” says Douglas Heintzman, director of strategy for IBM Software Group. “By the time you get to this group of students here, you are talking about a very elite group.”

IBM considers the gold medal teams so hirable that they give them blanket job offers. The company has created a special channel to hire its top contestants that bypasses its human resources department, and is different from its normal hiring process.

But the job offers aren’t akin to pro sports teams throwing money at top college players and wooing them away from their studies before they earn a degree, says William Poucher, director of ICPC. “IBM wants to let them fully develop.”

Nonetheless, the students on Zhejiang University’s team can expect job offers soon enough, including female contestant Luyi Mo, a rare sight among the teams at this computer science competition.

“I’m really excited and I want to thank my team mates because they helped make this dream come true,” says the fourth-year undergraduate student in computer science.

The team was thrilled to score its eighth and winning answer because it wasn’t confident with the answer it had for the problem, Mo says. “We tried many different arrays to solve it, and finally we answered it.”

For the past decade, IBM’s competition has been dominated by mostly Chinese and Russian teams taking the top spots. The University of Waterloo last won in 1999 and is the most recent North American team to win the top spot. University of Michigan at Ann Arbour came a close second in this year’s contest, but bucked the trend compared to other U.S. schools. Only five of the American teams solved more than two problems.

The success of Eastern bloc teams for the past decade has created a bit of a mythology among competitors, says Ondrej Lhotak. The coach of the Waterloo team was a contestant when the school took top spot in 1999.

“At first it was the American teams that did very well. Then for awhile it was Canadian teams that did well,” he says. “In the last 10 years or so, the Russian teams and Chinese teams started to really pick up.”

Rumours about the rigorous preparations by these schools are well known by the Waterloo squad. Brain Bi, a second-year mathematics student, says studying computer science isn’t stigmatized in other parts of the world the same way it is in North America.

“The have the most insane training regimens I’ve ever heard of,” Bi says. “I’ve heard the Chinese type out their libraries until it becomes muscle memory.”

Each team is allowed to bring a 25 page book containing pieces of code that might come in handy in many different situations. Since teams are required to type in the code when they think it would be useful to solve a problem, knowing how to type it very quickly could be an advantage.

IBM’s current contract to sponsor the contest expires in 2012, but it announced a new contract to renew the sponsorship deal until 2017. The firm doesn’t disclose the dollar value of its investment, Heintzman says, but it is “a very significant amount of money.”

The University of Alberta finished in 42nd place and solved four problems during the competition. Simon Fraser University finished with an honourable mention.

This is the 17th year in a row the University of Waterloo has made the finals. Only the University of Warsaw has matched that track record.

 



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