U team programs its way to Tokyo

Teams use their handmade computer programs to solve 10 problems in five hours.

Mike Enright

Compared to conventional standards, Alex Dean, Erik Shimshock and Zi Lin will have an unorthodox spring break.

Foregoing the popular foray of sandy beaches in Daytona Beach or the night life of Cancun, the three University students will spend their vacation in Tokyo, competing in one of the toughest and most prestigious computer programming competitions in the world.

The team is one of 88 – narrowed down from more than 6,000 competitors from across the globe – invited to compete in the World Finals of the Association of Computer Machinery’s International Collegiate Programming Contest.

Doug Heintzman, the sponsorship executive for IBM, which has funded ICPC since 1997, said the company considers its support of the championship to be an investment in future innovation, plus it provides a great opportunity for its executives to meet some of the brightest young minds in the industry.

IBM also pays for the team’s travel expenses.

“This is truly a worldwide event now,” he said. “And the prestige that comes along with it, the opportunities that are opened up because of their accomplishments, are remarkable.”

Carl Sturtivant, the team coach and computer science instructor, said the competition combines three different skill areas: mathematics, abstract problem solving using algorithms and coding – writing the language of the computer program solution.

“It’s the composition of the team that plays into the art of playing this game,” he said.

During the competition, teams are given five hours to solve 10 problems using computer programs they create, on topics ranging from mathematics to physics to real-world situations, Heintzman said.

“The team that solves the most problems in the least amount of time wins,” he said.

Lin, a first-year doctoral student, said he has been interested in competing in the contest for several years now, and he looks forward to the challenge.

“In the real contest you have only one computer, so it’s really a cooperative contest,” he said. “It’s really intense; I really like it.”

Dean, a computer science senior, said he is excited about the trip, but he’s not sure the reality of the situation has sunk in quite yet.

“It’s still hard to picture that I am going to Tokyo in two short days,” he said.

First-year graduate student Erik Shimshock said he looks forward to “playing with some cool problems, and getting schmoozed by big industry people.”

As for expectations, the team of all ICPC rookies said they hope to do well, but are also trying to keep their goals realistic.

The top finisher, aside from being named the world champion, gets a $10,000 scholarship and IBM ThinkPad computers, Heintzman said.

Historically, though, it has been tough for teams from the United States to break into the top 30, Sturtivant said.

Lin said he expects the team to solve three or four of the 10 problems given.

ON THE WEB

For more information on the competition, go to: icpc.baylor.edu/icpc

For more information on the University’s role in the competition, go to: icpc.cs.umn.edu/index.php

After finishing just behind teams from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in regionals, Shimshock said the team looks to return the favor to the Big Ten rival.

He also said he would like to outscore the California Institute of Technology team because of a personal rivalry dating back to his days as an undergraduate student.

In the end, though, they are just happy to have made it this far, Dean said.

Since 1997, University teams have made it to the world finals twice, placing 30th in 2003 and receiving an honorable mention in 2004.

“Anything beyond this is cream on the cake,” he said.