The connection point between Old Town and the more modern side of Prague is St. Charles Bridge, a Gothic stone structure whose builders, legend has it, used egg yokes in the mortar to make it stronger. Every few steps you’ll find Baroque statues, but the most famous is that of St. John of Nepomuk,
a Czech martyr saint who was executed during the reign of Wenceslas IV by being thrown into the Vltava from the bridge. The plaque on the statue has been polished to a shine by countless people having touched it over the centuries. Touching the statue is supposed to bring good luck. I’m not sure if any of the Canadian students competing in this year’s ACM World Finals would have had time to make the trek, so I touched it on their behalf.
A programming championship might not seem like much of a spectator sport, but catching a glimpse of the action from the balcony of Obecni Dum, the municipal building where they took place, was oddly riveting. Each time a team successfully solved a problem they received a balloon that is tied up next to their shared PC. The balloons are not always an indication of success, since the judging is also based on how many mistakes were made along the way, but they do provide a necessary visual element to complement the standings as they change on a monitor for the audience. While I was there, towards the end, there were still several teams on the far side of the room which hadn’t any balloons at all. Some students were all sitting with their heads close together, poring over a page and working with pen or pencil. Others were standing, gesturing, or eating absentmindedly. I kept trying to feel all that brainpower working, impatient for something to happen. It must have been even worse for the coaches.
Unlike other forms of competition, coaches at the ACM World Finals are not involved once the actual game begins. Their role is largely preparatory, and here at the games it often seems to consist of strategist, moral support and chaperone. I talked to several teams while I was there, and it was remarkable the degree to which their attitude seemed to be influenced by that of the coach. One team’s head coach was relaxed, affable and nurturing, and those students were more lively and sociable than any
I spoke to later. Another coach seemed to exert a more Svengali-like control — before any of the team members answered any questions, they would carefully look at the coach first to get a cue of some kind. They seemed like they were waiting to be told ‘jump,’ at which point they would quickly have asked, ‘How high?’
This relationship with the coach is an important one for these students, who are among Canada’s brightest IT problem-solvers. To some degree, it will shape their attitudes with future IT managers, CIOs or other supervisors once they’ve entered the enterprise. Today they’re competing with other teams, but in the years to come they’ll face other forms of competition, whether it’s for customers, senior management’s attention, or resources.
The good thing about the ACM World Finals is it tries to create a form of competition that reflects the values of the business community. Mistakes aren’t merely penalized for the sake of judging, for example. As the competition’s fact sheet says, ‘You don’t want to waste your customer’s time.’ Many of the problems are structured around business challenges like creating software for a large computer-operated marquee sign or helping manhole manufacturers determine whether their covers are large enough. In some cases, they sound like case studies waiting to happen. Throw in the deadline pressure, the hazards of working as a group and a lack of desktops (one PC for three people?) and you have as close a simulation of real-world IT projects as you’re likely to find anywhere else.
There are still a few elements these students won’t encounter until they’ve either graduated and found work or have started on an internship opportunity, of course. Most of these problems are fairly rigidly defined: there is little chance the scope of the project will go beyond what they’ve already been asked to do. This is related to the second difference, in that their instructions are communicated in one or two pages for each problem. What IT manager wouldn’t crave such clarity? Finally, the students’ work is essentially done once they’ve written the proper code and handed it in for judging. They don’t have to implement their solutions and watch the impact on real-world users. That’s often when the real work begins, with all its confusion and uncertainty. That’s also when you really need luck, wherever you can find it. After all, we can’t all go to Prague. And St. John of Nepomuk can only do so much.