March 6, 2008

C.U. Programming Advances to IBM’s Spring Competition

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Correction Appended

The oldest and largest programming contest in the world, IBM’s Battle of the Brains, will include a team of three students from Cornell who will compete with the world’s finest student computer programmers. The Cornell University Computer Whizzes, the University’s delegation to the competition, has beaten 6,600 teams in local and regional competitions to advance to the World Finals.
This April, they will travel to Canada for the 32nd annual Association for Computing Machinery International Collegiate Programming Contest World Finals. Hosted by the University of Alberta and sponsored by IBM, the Battle of the Brains will challenge 100 teams from all over the world to solve the most programming problems correctly in the least amount of time. The winning team will receive awards, prizes, scholarships, and, of course, bragging rights.
Representing Cornell, the team members are Hooyeon Lee ’10, Anand Bhaskar grad and Dustin Tseng grad. The Cornell Whizzes have been practicing for five hours once or twice every week and attempts to replicate the contest conditions as they prepare.
At the Battle of the Brains competition, teams of three receive nine complex problems of varying levels of difficulty to solve within a five-hour deadline. Teams are given a problem statement with input and text files, then, with all three team members sharing one computer, they must write a program in C++ or Java and solve the problem. They do not have access to the judges’ test data or acceptance criteria and receive a time penalty for each incorrect solution. The team that solves the most problems in the fewest attempts and in the least amount of time wins the competition.
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With such a stringent time constraint, the Cornell team members have learned how to maximize their efficiency.
“If I’m coding and I’m stuck — that’s bad,” Lee said. “Before you touch a keyboard you should know how to solve [the problem].”
As the five hours, colored balloons representing each assigned problem are hung by the teams’ workspaces to indicate which problems they have completed.
“It’s a little intense, but not too bad,” Tseng said. “You get to know how well everyone else is doing. It’s intense because you’re constantly checking. But there [are] three of you, so it’s not that bad because there’s a team.”
According to Lee, one of the biggest challenges of the competition is the fact that the team of three must share a single computer. In order to cope with this obstacle, the members of the Cornell Whizzes have learned to work together effectively.
“We know each others’ strengths,” Lee said, adding that this is a critical factor in the team’s success.
Bhaskar explained that Lee “can code really fast,” Tseng is “good at everything” and that he likes to focus on the math.
An extremely rigorous competition, the ICPC requires teams to use knowledge of programming, coding, algorithms, probability, linear algebra and more in order to solve the complicated problems, all while working under a grueling time constraint.
If the team can solve four problems in the finals, “that’s fantastic” Bhaskar said. “Five is incredible. If we solve six problems, we’ll be within the top 15 teams.”
Since problems vary in difficulty the team must “figure out which [problems are] easiest and solve [them] as quickly as possible,” Bhaskar said.
Tseng said, “As a team, [staying] together during the competition is very important. You might run into a problem you can’t solve or get stuck for a bit, the other teammates guide you and make sure you don’t get mentally defeated.”
The problems often involve real-world challenges. For example, one standard problem involves seeking treasure using a treasure map indicating holes, wells and other dangerous traps.
Tseng said, “Given the map you’re supposed to find the treasure and be safe and not die.”
However, with the real-life scenarios, “Sometimes you just want to get straight to the problem,” Bhaskar said.
According to Doug Heintzman, IBM Software Group director of strategy and sponsorship executive of the ICPC, making it this far in the competition should be a source of pride for Cornell.
“For the regionals, it is finding out what it takes to compete with the best of the best. For the World Finals, it is knowing that you can compete with the best of the best. Finally, for the World Champions, it is knowing that from 6,700 teams representing 1,821 universities in 83 countries, no team could best your efforts,” Heintzman stated in an e-mail.
“I am so excited,” Lee said.