To Russia with Code: Tech Students Make World Finals in Computer Programming

Only 120 teams of 10,000 worldwide are going, and Michigan Tech is one of them. They earned the right to go to Russia to compete in the world finals of the International Collegiate Programming Contest next June by finishing fifth in the North Central regional qualifying contest.

Computer science students Tom Holmes and Eric Rinkus and math major Ryan McNamara will be making the trip to Ural Federal University in Ekaterinburg with coach and computer science PhD student Jason Hiebel.

According to longtime coach Dave Poplawski, professor of computer science, it is a great accomplishment just to get this far, especially given the quality and size of other universities that have qualified and the number of schools Tech had to beat. US teams the likes of MIT, University of California-Berkeley, Carnegie Mellon, University of Michigan, Virginia Tech, NYU and others will be crunching 0s and 1s in Russia.

It’s becoming a tradition. This is the fourth time Tech has sent a team to the international finals since 2004. In the regional they had to compete with teams such as the University of Wisconsin-Madison, whose teams took first and second, and Iowa State, who placed third and fourth.

“We thought we were out of it,” Poplawski said. “We were in sixth place when the contest was over, but apparently there was a glitch in the system because a few hours later we found ourselves in fifth, which virtually guaranteed us a spot in the finals.”

Holmes said their work ethic paid off. “We practiced a lot. We spent a lot of time in computer labs working on problems, so when we got there, we did much better. We started and just kept solving them.”

The North Central Region is big: some 200 teams from eight states and two Canadian provinces. Michigan Tech hosted 21 teams from Algoma College in Ontario, LSSU and NMU as a satellite site, and thanks to cooperation between the computer science department and Information Technology, it was a success, Poplawski says.

It’s tougher when they get to the finals.

“The Eastern European and Chinese teams are really good,” he says. “It would be like them coming here to compete in our NCAA Final Four in basketball. That’s how seriously they take it.”

So, what’s the contest like?

“The team will get eight to 10 problems, one or two pages each, and they have to share one computer with no Internet connection and no outside help, including the coach,” he says. “They are only told whether their programs work or not, and if not, they don’t hear why.”

That’s what they do for five hours.

“They are basically algorithms, and you have to solve the equations first, then go and program a solution to it,” Holmes says.

“They’ve been close to qualifying for the finals in past few years,” Poplawski says of the team. “And they are all graduating, so it was their last chance.”

“This was my fourth year of trying,” Holmes added. “We’ll be practicing a lot with Jason, and Dave has been really helpful, too. We want to go there [Russia] and solve a decent number of problems. We want to get Tech’s name up there.”

Published in Tech Today, by Dennis Walikainen, senior editor