Waterloo takes bronze at programming challenge

STOCKHOLM — For a while, it looked like they just might win.

University of Waterloo’s team in the world finals of the Association for Computer Machinery’s International Collegiate Programming Contest took an early lead, solving one of the 11 problems teams were charged with in an unheard-of 10 minutes.

One hundred three-person teams from universities around the world were locked in the library of Stockholm’s KTH Royal Institute of Technology for five hours under tight supervision, handed 11 complex word problems and told to create programs to solve them.

Canada was also represented by the University of British Columbia, McGill University and University of Alberta.

Waterloo led the field for the first hour-and-a-half of the competition, submitting five solutions in a row without incurring penalty time for an incorrect solution. “That’s very unusual,” said team member Konstantin Lopryev.

But Lopryev, Malcolm Sharpe and Andy Tsz Yin Kong hit a wall after that. They slid to third, then eighth, as they were leapfrogged by teams that managed to crack a sixth question.

A last-minute solution to a sixth problem salvaged 10th place for the team – good enough this year for a share of the bronze medal.

The problems were submitted to a board of judges, and even conference organizers didn’t know what they were until the day of the competition. ICPC executive director Bill Poucher said there was a wide range of difficulty in the questions. Upon seeing them for the first time, his reaction ranged from, “Any child could solve this problem, as long as he’s had three years of (university) mathematics and computer science,” to, “That (problem) is a corker … if a team can solve that one, they’ll probably be seeing me on the stage.”

St. Petersburg State University of Information Technology, Mechanics and Optics (ITMO) did.

The ITMO team defended its 2008 world championship by solving eight questions. While three other teams shared the gold medal – Tsingshua University of Beijing (identified by Waterloo assistant coach Richard Peng as “the scariest team in the competition”), ITMO’s crosstown rivals St. Petersburg State University, and Saratov State University, also from Russia – ITMO was awarded the championship because the team posted a better time.

Silver medalists were University of Oxford (U.K), Zhejiang University (China), Altai State University (Russia) and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which won North American bragging rights with a seventh-place finish.

Waterloo shared the bronze with I. Javakhishvili Tbilisi State University (Georgia), Carnegie Mellon University and South China University of Technology.

University of British Columbia tied for 34th with 14 other teams, including host KTH. Alberta and McGill didn’t make the Top 50. (After the medalists, teams are ranked simply by the number of problems solved.)


Waterloo came out of the gate quickly, solving one problem in an “unheard of” 10 minutes, according to Doug Heintzmann, director of strategy at IBM Corp.‘s software group and sponsorship executive for the competition. Several teams had solutions in hand within 15 minutes.

“That’s what’s great about working with students,” said Poucher, who’s a professor at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. “They don’t know any better. We know it takes two years (to solve the problem).”

IBM contributed “a number of millions of dollars” to help pull off the competition, but that paled in value compared to the “enormous” international volunteer effort, Heintzmann said.

In return, IBM gets “substantial payback” in terms of locating talent. The company hires “aggressively” from the ICPC community, Heintzmann said.

Aside from programming skills, success in the contest demands skills in risk management and prioritizing with finite resources, said Heintzmann. While the teams had access to a single PC, said Poucher, “there are three computers on each team and one machine … the problem-solvers are the people on the team.”

Since students can use a variety of tools and programming languages to code their solutions, “no two programs in this competition (are likely to) be the same,” Heintzmann said.

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