Battle of the Brains

The results are in from the World Finals of the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) International Collegiate Programming Contest! (Don't pretend you're not excited.) And the winner is: Saratov State University in Russia. Ivan Romanov, Igor Kulkin, and Roman Alekseenkov managed to solve 6 out of 10 highly complex, real-world programming problems within the competition's 5-hours time limit.

A team from Jagiellonian University, Krakow, took second, and another Russian team, Altai State Technical University, came in third. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology was the only U.S. team to make the top ten (eighth). But two other Russian universities made it: St. Petersburg State University and Moscow State University took sixth and ninth place, respectively. And another Polish school (Warsaw University) took seventh.

There's a picture of the winners and links to the final standings at the World Finals Web site.

This year's competition was held last week (April 9-13) in San Antonio, Texas, and drew 83 teams from around the world. It's called a programming competition, but the event affectionately known as the ''Battle of the Brains'' is really about problem solving, says sponsorship executive Doug Heintzman, who's day job is Director of Strategy for IBM's Lotus division. Consequently, each member of the three-person teams brings different skills to the contest.

''There's always at least one top-flight programmer,'' Heintzman explains, ''but often the rest of the team consists of mathematics and physics students. They're solving problems like what would be the optimal distribution for cell towers in a given metropolitan area, taking into consideration population densities and obstacles like mountains and buildings. You need the programmer to figure out how best to build the logic to solve these problems, but you also need students with expertise in grid and series math, and various physical principles. Most of the teams have a balanced skill base.''

IBM has been the exclusive worldwide sponsor of this event for the past nine years, and the company just signed up for another six. The event represents a significant investment of resources for Big Blue. The company kicks in for things like machines for the competition, prizes for the students, food, accommodations, team jerseys, and backpacks full of swag. And about 100 IBMers help out at the competition.

''We take this very seriously,'' Heintzman says. ''We feel that it's very important to focus the spotlight on the best and the brightest in the fields of computer science and advanced problem solving. This kind of potential is so important for, not only the future of our industry and our company, but for our economy. This group of people is the true innovative potential that we will all depend on in the future.''

Duke University was one of 17 U.S. schools to send a team to the world finals this year. The coach, computer science prof Own Astrachan, told me that, although the members of the Duke team do bring individual strengths to the competition, all three have high-level coding skills.

''Everybody on our team codes,'' he said.

I couldn't help wondering what motivated his students to compete in this event. Is it about career building? Making contacts at IBM? Bragging rights?

''These people aren't just smart,'' he said, ''they're competitive. The fact that you competed in the world finals is a good line to put on your CV, and it's great to get to talk with real live IBMers who have chosen this type of career path. But these students are doing this for the same reason other students get into basketball tournaments: to pit themselves against the best of the best.''

Astrachan ought to know: when he was a grad student in 1989, he was a player-coach on a team that went to the world finals, and then again in 1990. His team was ranked fourth in the world in '89, and seventh the following year.

Duke fielded three teams for the first round of competition this year, which involved some 1,400 teams. Although the schools are allowed to send more than one team to that preliminary competition, only one team from each school can compete in the finals.

Interestingly, the Duke team that made it to the finals included the only female member to compete from the U.S. Kshipra Bhawalter is a sophomore math and computer science major, as are her teammates, senior Ben Mickle and sophomore Matt Edwards. She told me that she has been interested in math since she was a girl growing up in Pune, India, and she says that compared to what she does in the math department, computer science is easy. This is her second year in the competition.

''I really do like very much to compete,'' she said. ''Competitions are a way to access how good you are. Things don't happen unless you have goals, and getting into this competition was a big goal that I could work hard toward and test myself.''

The Duke team earned an honorable mention in this year's competition. They're pictured here, in the heat of battle.

IBM is, of course, not doing all this out of the goodness of its corporate heart. This is a classic case of what Dwight Eisenhower or Robert Kennedy (I can never remember which) called ''enlightened self-interest.'' And it's worth noticing.

BTW: The winners of this thing got more than a trophy and bragging rights. First-place team members took home a $10,000 scholarship and some computer gear from IBM. The three gold-medal runner-up teams each won $3,000. The three silver medal teams shared $2,100. And four three bronze-medal winning teams shared $1,050.

Oh, and if you'd like to check out the competition's final problem, it's here.

About the Author

John K. Waters is a freelance writer based in Silicon Valley. He can be reached at john@watersworks.com.

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