‘March Madness’ of coding contests highlights two trends

If you’re not familiar with the Association of Computer Machinery’s (ACM) International Collegiate Programming Contest (ICPC) sponsored by IBM Corp., just think of it like the “March Madness” of computer programming.

Just like the NBA recruits top basketball talent from the top teams that compete in the annual NCAA tournament, the world’s top software companies will recruit the students taking part in this contest that was spawned in 1970. Also, there are a lot of confusing acronyms that confound newcomers. Indeed, IBM has sponsored this event since 1997, dubbing it “Battle of the Brains” and uses it as a recruiting mechanism, giving blanket job offers to the teams that finish in the top 10 – and may other competitors as well.

Under Big Blue’s guidance, the contest has exploded in the level of involvement and competition. There are regional competitions leading up to the world finals that 30,000 students and 2,2000 universities participate in. The 122 teams here at the University of Warsaw for this year’s finals come from 85 countries across six continents (they’re still trying to find an organizer for Antarctica).

The main event involves a gruelling, five-hour programming contest in which the teams of three students gather around a single workstation and solve problems. There are typically about 10 problems available to solve, which would normally constitute an entire semester’s worth of work, yet the winning team will solve around 80 per cent of them in this brief period. The teams compete in close proximity to each other in a large, arena area, complete with a spectator booth and score board. The teams also collect a balloon for each problem solved, tying their visual bragging rights to their workstation.

Brian Jackson, Associate Editor,
Brian Jackson, Associate Editor,

The finals are a big deal. Last night the opening ceremonies held in Warsaw’s Palace of Culture featured dignitaries such as the mayor of Warsaw, and Poland’s president was scheduled to attend, but ended up sending a representative instead. The finals are even streamed live to the Web so spectators can cheer on their home team, and the broadcast production level is equal to that of many professional sports events. This year, viewers will be able to choose from multiple feeds to stream, including individual Web cams at each work station.

It’s a real culmination of the best computer programmers in the world. Contestants are either Master’s level in computer science, or some are senior-year undergraduate students. The sampling of talent is representative of upcoming worldwide talent pool for software programming, and allows us to take the pulse of the industry. Here’s a couple of the trends apparent this year:

Lack of female competitors

During the opening ceremonies, each team was introduced on a large video screen. You could literally count the number of female competitors on one hand. Though it was more common to see female coaches, as is the case with the University of Toronto’s Carolyn MacLeod.

Last year’s winner, Zhejiang University from China, had a female student on its team and that was likely a the first time a girl won the trophy. The lack of female competitors here underlines the overall dearth of women choosing computer science as a field of study and career choice.

North America’s decline in computer science

The ICPC competition became much more international after IBM began sponsoring it in 1997, and 1999 was the last time a North American school won the top spot – Canada’s own University of Waterloo. Last year, the University of Michigan at Ann Arbour surprised many by coming in second place overall. But North American schools have occupied the top 10 spots less often in recent years, with teams from China and Russia dominating the contest.

It makes sense that the Asia region schools are more competitive, as they must rise above more competition to make it here. Although there are proportionally more students in the Eastern continent competing to get here, they do not get a matching number of teams entered. In order to make space for other teams from around the world, they get squeezed out.

But the trend also reflects a cultural difference that should concern North Americans. While computer programming is considered “geeky” and socially undesirable in the U.S. and Canada, the contestants from China here actually have fans rooting for them back home. The other contestants often speak of the Chinese students’ reputation for rigorous practice schedules and ability to write out sections of code on pure muscle memory.

It’s almost as if those students are taking this contest as seriously as basketball is taken in the U.S. during March Madness.


Brian Jackson
Brian Jackson
Editorial director of IT World Canada. Covering technology as it applies to business users. Multiple COPA award winner and now judge. Paddles a canoe as much as possible.

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