U of C team headed to world programming competition

  • By Peter Sachs
  • Staff Writer
  • March 18, 2009 @ 11:30 AM

For the third time this decade, a team of computer science students from the University of Chicago will head to the world championships of an elite programming competition, facing off against 100 other teams from schools around the world.

It was an unexpected victory for the University of Chicago team, which garnered the championship spot by coming in third out of 150 teams in a regional competition in November.

“There’s always a little bit of pressure in these kinds of competitive events, but I think just making it to the world championship is a notable achievement for them,” says Borja Sotomayor, a Ph.D student in computer science and a team coach. Computer science professor Michael O'Donnell is the other coach.

The three members of the team are sophomore Ian Andrews, junior Lauren Ellsworth and freshman Louis Wasserman.

The annual competition, which is sponsored by IBM, aims to find the smartest up-and-coming programmers in the world, says Douglas Heintzman, an IBM executive in Somers, N.Y., who is one of the directors of the company’s software group.

“Bright, young, talented, computer-savvy problem solvers are the lifeblood of our industry,” he says.

The world championship takes place in late April in Stockholm, Sweden. Winning teams get scholarships of up to $10,000 and prizes like laptops and GPS units, Heintzman says. But for many teams, the stakes are much higher, as the competition can be an entry into a computer programming career.

“We have, frankly, a very pragmatic goal of recruiting the very best and brightest in the world,” Heintzman says.

Sotomayor says the competition is designed to put teams under a time crunch to solve a set of programming problems as quickly as possible. In the regional event, the teams had five hours to solve as many of the eight programming problems as they could.

The work usually involves writing a program from scratch that solves a hypothetical real-world problem, like how long it would take a group of people to cross a series of rope bridges, each with different weight limits.

There are other constraints, too. While each team has three members, there is only one computer per team. That means the teams have to split up the work and find ways to work on problems without relying on a computer the whole time.

As the competition progresses and teams submit their programs to be judged, they get colored balloons added to their workstations, giving everyone in the room a way to see how other teams are doing.

The goal of the competition isn’t to come up with novel ways to write computer programs or to come up with the next top-flight consumer application, Sotomayor says.

“This is mostly about solving a set of problems with a very constrained set of specifications that makes them solvable in this five-hour event,” he says.

But that has its purpose as well, Heintzman says.

“Obviously we’re not going to solve climate change issues in five hours,” he says. He adds, “There are some kinds of basic fundamental problems in mathematics and computer science and physics, and you need to develop strategies to analyze the problems, break it down into its component parts.”

Daily News Staff Writer Peter Sachs covers higher education. He can be reached at 773.362.5002, ext. 18