U computer programmers take first place in contest

Dan Haugen

Jimb Esser said his parents always doubted their son was the competitive type.

“I wasn’t competitive in sports,” the first-year graduate student said last week after his team’s first-place finish in the regional International Collegiate Programming Contest. “But getting in a competition like this, I can end up being pretty competitive. It’s just like any other sport, I guess.”

Only this sport has more to do with algorithms than athleticism. The International Collegiate Programming Contest is a sort of Olympics for amateur computer programmers from around the world. The Association for Computing Machinery has been organizing the contest since the 1970s. Since IBM signed on as a sponsor six years ago, annual participation has tripled to nearly 17,000 students this year.

Esser and his teammates, senior Jonathan Moon and junior Elliot Olds, beat hundreds of programmers last weekend when they finished first in a field of more than 140 teams in the North Central regional competition. Now they will represent the region and the University at the contest’s world finals in March in Beverly Hills, Calif.

In the competitions, teams spend five hours designing computer applications to solve eight complicated problems. Scoring is based on how fast the problems are solved, with penalties given for submitting any defective programs.

The regional battles are held simultaneously at several different sites, each electronically linked to track results at other sites. Esser, whose team was one of four from the University with home-field advantage for the regional bout, said the atmosphere is pretty friendly.

Competitors meet mid-morning to familiarize themselves with the computers and environment. Then they break for lunch before coming back and buckling down for a long brain-racking session. Teams rarely finish every problem – the University team that advanced was one of two in its region to solve seven.

Coach Bobbie Othmer, a computer science lecturer, said the team will face tough competition in Beverly Hills, where they will compete with 63 other regional winners from around the globe.

“These are teams that had to solve quite a few problems to get there,” Othmer said.

Othmer drilled University programmers with sample problems at several practices since recruiting teams last spring. Esser said he and his teammates also practiced using weekly competitions at Topcoder.com.

Since its start-up less than two years ago, Topcoder.com has attracted 21,000 users to its Web site, said Tom Longo, vice president for membership. It also retains a handful of clients – employers seeking potential recruits – who pay to post job openings and access information about individual users.

Current clients include Microsoft and the FBI, which is using the site to recruit special agents with computer-science expertise, Longo said.

Demand for computer programmers has cooled since the burst of the so-called dot-com bubble, but that doesn’t mean there is not still a significant market for them.

The U.S. Department of Labor predicts computer programming jobs will grow as fast as the average for all occupations through 2010. According to the department, computer programmers held approximately 585,000 jobs in 2000 with a median annual income of $57,590.

The National Association of Colleges and Employers reported last year that the average starting salary for graduates with a bachelor’s degree in computer programming was $48,602.

On Friday, a California-based game company interviewed Esser for what could be his first post-college job.

“I think they like me. The only thing is that they are looking for me to start in January, which would mean not being a student next semester, which would mean probably not being able to compete in the world finals,” Esser said. “So I might have to make a decision between my dream job and the once in a lifetime experience going to the competition.”

Dan Haugen covers University research and technology and welcomes comments at [email protected]