U computer programmers to compete in world finals

by Jenna Ross

As the new member of the University’s computer programming contest, Vishal Shah was a little nervous.

His teammates, Stefan Atev and Elliot Olds, competed in the contest in past years, and Shah, a computer science senior, was not sure what he could contribute.

“I was curious and worried about where I fit,” Shah said.

But the three clicked, and their teamwork brought a fourth-place finish at the regional Association for Computing Machinery International Collegiate Programming Contest on Nov. 8, 2003. The team will compete in the contest’s world finals this weekend.

“Regionals helped us understand each of our strengths and weaknesses,” Shah said. “That will help us at world finals.”

The contest brings the 73 teams that placed in their regional competitions around the world to Prague, Czech Republic. There the teams will solve programming problems in a five-hour contest.

“Real programming is just part of it,” Shah said. “It takes analytical and mathematical skills to even know what to program.”

The three team members gather around one computer, working through the problems and creating and coding computer programs to solve them.

The team that solves the most problems in the shortest time wins, said the University team’s coach Bobbie Othmer.

“Our team knows when to work individually and when to work together,” Othmer said. “That kind of teamwork is effective.”

To encourage this cooperation, Othmer brought the team together early in the fall and organized practice times. Lecturer Carl Sturtivant worked with the team on programming problems.

“He’s more involved with the programming,” Othmer said. “But he doesn’t like to talk to people, so I do that side of things. The partnership works out well.”

After the team placed in the regional contest, the members began practicing more on their own than as a team.

Shah said he works online, answering practice problems and uploading his coding to the computer. The Web sites dedicated to this kind of practice evaluate his responses.

“If a problem’s tough, I go to the message board where people will work through the problems and help each other,” Shah said. “It’s almost a community.”

IBM, the contest’s sponsor, works to create this sense of kinship, said Gabby Silberman, the program director of IBM Centers for Advanced Studies.

IBM brings the computers, connects the systems, provides some of the event’s staff and gives prizes to the winning 15 teams. Last year, the top teams won Thinkpads, IBM’s notebook computers.

Although he said the company sponsors the competition mainly to expose its new technology and tap into talented people, there are less obvious outcomes.

You can see it in the T-shirts, he said.

IBM provides each team with a different color T-shirt. The first day, people are clustered by these colors, Silberman said. By the second day, Silberman said, he sees one or two blues mixed with the greens.

“By the end, it’s multi-colored,” Silberman said. “It’s fun to see how that progresses.”