UChicago to host North American programming contest April 14-15

Computer programming teams from across North America will compete for $12,000 in prize money, including a $4,500 grand prize, at the University of Chicago Invitational Programming contest April 14 and 15. The invitational is a tuneup for the 22 North American teams that qualified for the 2012 World Finals of the International Collegiate Programming Contest, which the Association for Computing Machinery will hold May 17 in Warsaw, Poland.

Various institutions have held regional invitationals in previous years, but the UChicago event will be the first to include all World Finals teams from the ICPC North American Super-Region.         

“Since 2000 the top team in the World Finals has always been Russian, Chinese or Polish, so the idea is that an event like this will help to collectively raise the profile of all the North American teams,” said Borja Sotomayor, lecturer in computer science, who coaches the UChicago programming team.

Only 110 teams have qualified for the World Finals, out of more than 8,000 teams from more than 2,000 universities in 88 countries. Representing UChicago is the “Whiteboard Erasers,” which consists of three second-years: mathematics major Joe DiCapua, computer science major Naren Hazareesingh and physics major Kevin Wang.

Harvard, Stanford, Carnegie Mellon and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign are among the institutions sending teams to the UChicago Invitational, which is sponsored by Palantir Technologies. The teams will participate in a five-hour practice contest on April 14, followed by the actual contest on April 15.

Hackers move forward

“Hosting the invitational this weekend marks a major step forward in the development of our undergraduate hacker community, and the Computer Science Department is very proud to be able to provide space and support for it,” said department chairman John Goldsmith, the Edward Carson Waller Distinguished Service Professor in Computer Science and Linguistics.

In computational circles, a “hacker” is someone who enthusiastically enjoys learning about computers, programming and technology generally. “Crackers,” on the other hand, are those who put their technical knowledge to misuse, although they are more commonly known as “hackers” among the general public.

“The students who are involved are quite amazing: energetic, focused and enthusiastic, and Borja has done an outstanding job as coach and manager,” Goldsmith said. Many of our hackers are majoring in computer science, but many are in other fields — math, of course, but also biological, physical and social sciences. Whatever field they go into after Chicago, they’ll bring with them the skills that they have honed in their ICPC competitions.”

UChicago teams have competed annually in the Mid-Central USA regional programming contest for more than a decade and previously qualified for the World finals in 2011, 2010, 2009, 2002 and 2001.

Interest has grown steadily in programming competitions at UChicago in recent years. When Sotomayor began coaching the teams in 2007, “We actually had trouble finding teams for the regionals,” he said. “We usually get three slots at the regionals, and sometimes we would have trouble filling those slots.”

Tryouts for regionals

But during tryouts last spring, six teams competed for UChicago’s three slots at regionals.

“We have lots of people trying out and believing that they can make it to the World Finals,” said Louis Wasserman, a fourth-year in mathematics and the programming team’s assistant coach.

“That’s very exciting for the team, for the Association for Computing Machinery and for the Computer Science Department. We’ve been going to the World Finals year after year where we know what we have to do to get there and to do well.”

Some students find programming contests almost addictively fun, but ICPC can provide more practical benefits as well. When Google representatives make recruiting visits to campus, sometimes they ask specifically to meet with ICPC veterans.

“Doing ICPC actually can make you more attractive in the job market,” Sotomayor said.

The more immediate focus for ICPC World Finalists, though, is on solving problems. The championship teams typically solve seven or eight problems out of 11. “Nobody solves them all,” said Wasserman, who became assistant coach after using up his two-year eligibility at the 2009 and 2010 World Finals.

At the 2009 World Finals in Stockholm, Sweden, the UChicago team failed to solve a single problem.

“That really told us that, yes, we can make it to the World Finals; no, we didn’t practice enough,” Wasserman said. That year the team spent no more than an hour a week practicing for the finals. “We didn’t have much idea of what we were getting into or how to go about practicing for it,” he said.

Wasserman noted that UChicago teams have progressively improved, solving one problem at the 2010 World Finals in Harben, China, then two problems at last year’s competition in Orlando, Fla. “We’re hoping that this year we can solve three,” he said.