36th edition of ICPC dominated by varsity teams from Eastern Europe, China

Three hundred and thirty-six of the brightest young computer programmers from across the world, representing 112 university teams, assembled in Warsaw University on May 17 for the 36th edition of the Association of Computing Machinery-International Collegiate Programming Contest (ACM-ICPC).

The St. Petersburg State University of Information Technology, Mechanics and Optics, which won the competition in 2008 and 2009, won the event this time. The University of Warsaw, which had also won the competition earlier, was runner up in the competition, dubbed the ‘Battle of the Brains.' Since 1997, IBM Corporation has sponsored the event and maintained a hands-on relationship with the competition, even offering jobs or internships to the winners.

The rules of the gruelling five-hour competition were deceptively simple. Participants were given a set of 12 problems; the team solving the most number of problems within this time period was to be adjudged the winner. Teams used programming tools to address the problems posed to them. Each wrong submission by a team resulted in a 20-minute penalty. This separated teams that may be tied, as was the case this year when both teams from Warsaw and St. Petersburg solved nine problems each, but the team from Russia won because of its time advantage.

Testing multiple skills

“This competition is not only a test of problem-solving skills, but also requires that they do strategic thinking because of the several constraints they face,” Doug Heintzman, Director of Strategy for IBM Collaboration Solutions and ICPC Sponsorship Executive, told The Hindu. Apart from the obvious time constraint, teams are also constrained by the fact that they had just one monitor and keyboard to work with. Thus, even if the individual team members were attacking separate problems, they needed to cooperate and divide judiciously the time each of them had with the computer.

Mr. Heintzman, who has attended several finals, said the problems were designed in such a way that every team in the competition could solve at least one problem; significantly, no winning team had ever solved all the problems. The nature of these problems range from ‘classical' — such as the one pertaining to the Fibonacci sequence that was posed at the Warsaw event — to geometric or grid problems. “The idea of having a diverse problem set is to make the team members act like a triad, which requires a division of expertise of individual team members,” said Mr. Heintzman. “The finite resource of a single computer also sets limits because if all three find a solution at the same time, they stand to lose time in actually submitting the correct answer,” he observed. “This is where strategic thinking counts,” he remarked. None of the 112 teams could solve two problems at this year's event.

The selection

The 112 finalists were filtered from more than 25,000 participants in ‘regional finals' conducted through 2011. Five Indian teams participated — three from the Indian Institutes of Technology at Chennai, Delhi and Kanpur, and from the Chennai Mathematical Institute and the Indian Institute of Information Technology, Hyderabad. However, only the team from IIT-Delhi found a place in the final rankings — joint 18th with 17 other teams in the competition. The two other IITs and the Chennai Mathematical Institute got ‘honourable mentions'.

Many leading programmers, including past winners said the problems had become tougher over the years. The winner of the contest in 2006 said the competition had become more difficult since he won the championship. He said he would have found it difficult to compete against the teams that attended this year's event.

Chinese presence

The event itself had become much bigger in scale. Heintzman recalled that in 1997, when IBM started sponsoring the contest, there were only 40 teams competing. Moreover, the main teams were from the North American region, unlike in this year's event where there were not only a large number of Chinese teams, but also many U.S. teams, including those from Stanford, being represented by Chinese students. “Until this year, we have not had very many Indian teams participating, but this year it has changed,” he remarked.

Chinese teams, which won the competition from 2009 to 2011, were very visible at the competition.

However, teams from Eastern Europe, although smaller in number, have traditionally done very well at the competition.

Poland's excellence

Jan Madey, professor of Computer Science, Director of the Centre for Open and Multimedia Education, University of Warsaw, and Director of the ACM-ICPC Finals 2012, explained that the excellence in the field of computer sciences in Poland and several of the countries in Eastern Europe resulted from the fact that they had traditionally nurtured excellence in the mathematical sciences.

Prof. Madey, who has also made significant contribution to the advancement of scientific education at the school level in his country, observed: “Nurturing problem-solving skills at the school level is what delivers top-quality programmers at the university level.”

Hardly any women

A glaring feature of the competition was the almost complete absence of women in it. At the finals in Warsaw, there were just four women; long-time attendees at the event said this year was no different from the previous years. However, most senior academics this correspondent spoke to said the problem appears to be “perplexing” because the poor participation of women was not confined to a geographical region or to those societies that were socially and economically more backward. “The almost token participation of women seems to reflect a deeper sociological problem that inhibits the participation of women in the field of cutting edge programming,” said the coach of a top-ranking team.

The next edition of the event is to be hosted by this year's winner, in St. Petersburg. Although a private Indian university was seen attempting a bid for the event in 2015, the organisers told The Hindu that it was too early to decide on this, even though they were unanimously of the view that bringing it to India would give the competition a big boost in the country.