Computing whizzes go for broke in battle of the brains
Student team vies for first place in this week’s international programming championship in Hawaii

By Fernando Quintero

20 March 2002 | Call them the “Cal Bears of computing,” competing for the world title in a battle of the brains.

A Berkeley team of computer science whizzes is one of 64 regional championship teams — from 27 countries on six continents — challenging the brightest computer talent around the world in the Association for Computing Machinery International Collegiate Programming Contest this week in Honolulu.

The competition, which began March 20 and lasts through March 24, involves solving eight or more complex, real-world problems. IBM, which is sponsoring this year’s competition, estimates that these problems are “equivalent to completing a semester’s worth of computer programming in one afternoon.”

Huddled around a single computer, teams of three students race the clock to solve the problems within a grueling deadline of five hours. Teammates have to collaborate to rank the difficulty of the problems, deduce the requirements, design tests and build appropriate software systems — all under the intense scrutiny of expert judges.

Berkeley’s team consists of electrical engineering and computer sciences students Lior Abraham, Mark Goodman and Patrick Davidson.

“The fact that we’ve advanced to the finals in a contest that has become distinctly international in the last decade is a testament to the quality of our students,” said Paul Hilfinger, associate professor of electrical engineering and computer sciences and coach for the Berkeley team.

Playoff against Stanford
The Cal team got to the finals after surviving a playoff, held last November in Fremont. There, Berkeley was pitted against its archrival, Stanford. The programming contest drew more than 17,000 college participants — that’s 3,082 teams from 67 countries. Berkeley came in second place, behind Stanford.

One problem posed to the contestants was to determine the file download size of a Web page, Hilfinger said. Another asked the teams to calculate how frequently a server was being attacked by hackers each hour.

“I sat on the sidelines being fidgety,” recalled Hilfinger, sounding every bit like the head of a college basketball team.

Despite the stiff competition from Stanford, Abraham and Hilfinger agreed that the former Soviet Union would be the most formidable opponent in the finals this week.

“I think our major competition will come from St. Petersburg,” said Abraham, 21, who admitted he was a little nervous about the upcoming event. “They’ve shown they can consistently win.”

Hilfinger said he first got the idea for running his own programming contest on campus in 1991, shortly after he joined the electrical engineering and computer sciences faculty. It was such a success that four years later, students from his department entered the Association for Computing Machinery competition for the first time and, lo and behold, became world finalists.

For competition, Hilfinger said he prepares students by having them do things like run “code sprints” — “to see who gets the most problems done in the least amount of time.”

Says Abraham, “The best thing I could have done [to prepare] was to take Professor Hilfinger’s problem-solving class last semester. He has a reputation for being one of the hardest professors on campus.”

Contest’s beginnings
The international competition began in 1970 as a contest held at Texas A&M University and quickly gained popularity in the United States and Canada.

It has since evolved into a competition fostering creativity, teamwork and innovation in building new software programs. Hilfinger said it has gradually grown in stature, as more colleges and universities around the world have developed their engineering departments.

The programming competition also helps students gain exposure in the industry, as corporate sponsors often recruit top students at the annual event. This year’s sponsor, IBM, will probably have its eye out for some of that talent.


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