PRAGUE — Bartholomew Furrow is not a computer science student. He does not know much about the IT industry, and has little interest in where it’s going. His career plans, after his PhD, consist of “”becoming a prof, or something like that.””
And yet Furrow, now in the fourth year of the
physics program at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., has a burning desire to see his team outwit their rivals this week at the Association of Computing Machinery International Collegiate Programming contest (ACM-ICPC). Queen’s, along with the University of British Columbia (UBC) and past winner University of Waterloo are among 73 teams who have gathered here for a three-day event which asks students to solve real-life IT problems by developing software programs on the spot.
Furrow said he got involved with the Queen’s team after wandering into his campus math building and seeing a sign advertising a programming challenge. “”I saw the word ‘competition’ and I thought, ‘Oooh, I like competition,'”” he said. “”Doubtless I’ll use (what I’ve learned through the contest) in physics, but that’s what drove me to it.””
Practice for the World Finals, which take place on Wednesday, involves two five-hour sessions each week for Furrow and his teammates, Gary Lindscott and Daniel Trang. The problems vary in complexity, but last year’s ACM World Finals asked students to write a program that would determine the optimal configuration for a bridge being built in a fictional city, as well as a simulation of the dissemination of the Euro throughout Europe. Each team will be given eight or more problems and about five hours to solve them. Judges will give them a time penalty for each mistake, and the team that solves the most problems with the fewest mistakes wins.
When the Queen’s team competes in these kinds of contests, Furrow said he and Lindscott start with the first problems while Trang works starts from the back. They’ll look for a problem that seems relatively straightforward and, if they have a sense of what to do, will begin working at it on the computer.
“”There’s only one computer,”” said Lindscott, who competed at the World Finals two years ago. “”You can have three people on the team that are really good and they all want on there. You can have personality conflicts if you don’t resolve them beforehand.””
The team might spend only two hours coding, for example, with the rest of the time devoted to simply figuring out the right solution. “”We’re what you call a second-half team,”” said Furrow, recalling a regional competition where all the other teams had figured out five problems while his team had solved only two. “”Suddenly by the end we had as many as everyone else.””
About 40 people tried out for the Queen’s team this year, according to Amber Simpson, a PhD computer science student who is one of three coaches for the team. Making the cut means not only being good but working well with others. In some cases, she said, being part of the team can bring out the best among those involved.
“”When we first started, Daniel was a really quiet guy,”” she said. “”It’s a community. When we have practice, we invite other people, we order pizza and there’s a big social component. Programmers get a bad rap for that.””
According to the team, Furrow brings the math capability, Trang the implementation skills and Lindscott the greatest programming proficiency and experience with the ACM World Finals. In comparison with Furrow, who only recently started programming, Lindscott said he got an early start at age five, using a computer book for children that allowed him to type in answers to a game.
Although he’s destined for a life in physics, Furrow said he is considering a job opportunity with Google this summer, Lindscott has already spent a summer at Microsoft and hopes to continue in programming. Trang, who is majoring in biomedical physics, hopes to use his talent as a researcher in emerging life science disciplines like genomics or proteomics. “”You learn a lot of algorithms here,”” he said. “”More than you normally learn in class.””
Even if they’re not all headed for IT careers, the Queen’s team said they place a great value on the opportunity to meet the other competitors, including those they’ve only met online through a solo contest called TopCoder. Once the World Finals begin, however, the gloves come off, even among the teams themselves.
“”If you put a tape recorder next to them (during the Finals), you’d swear there was going to be violence,”” said Christopher Wolfe, one of the other Queen’s team coaches. “”Eventually, though, the team starts to gel.””
According to IBM, which is sponsoring the ACM-ICPC World Finals, participation in preliminary and regional contests increased by 10 per cent this year to 2,873 teams from 75 countries on six continents. The World Finals will take place in Obecni Dum, the old municipal house within Prague.