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03/19/2003 08:00:00

Caltech Coders Vie for World Title

PASADENA, Calif. – Wags call it the "geek Olympics," but to the three California Institute of Technology undergraduates involved in the finals of the Association for Computing Machinery International Collegiate Programming Contest, the phrase is a badge of honor.

After all, the trio--senior Nate Paymer, and freshmen Jacob Burnim and Adam D'Angelo--is one of 70 teams representing 70 universities that are still standing out of what was originally 3,850 teams from around the world that were entered in various regional competitions. The Caltech team now goes on to compete in next week's finals in Beverly Hills.

The teams, comprised of three students each, tackle eight or more complex, real-world programming problems within a tight five-hour deadline. Under the scrutiny of expert judges, a team must rank the difficulty of the problems, deduce the requirements, design test beds, and build software systems that solve the problems. The students are given a problem statement and an example of test data, but they do not have access to the judges' test data and acceptance criteria. The teammates must share a single computer, so, along with programming skills, the contest also involves teamwork.

Each incorrect solution submitted is assessed a time penalty. The team that solves the most problems in the fewest attempts in the least cumulative time is declared the winner. Tackling these problems, the event organizers say, is equivalent to completing a semester's worth of computer programming in one afternoon.

For D'Angelo and Burnim, though, such high pressure contests are old news. "Jacob and I were teammates on the U.S. International Olympiad in Informatics team (IOI) last summer," says D'Angelo. The IOI is a high school computer programming competition in which, says D'Angelo, "each country sends a team of four. I had known Jacob since we were both high school sophomores through the U.S. team's summer training camp and finals. We both got to know Nate through the team selection here at Caltech."

Both D'Angelo and Burnim received silver medals in that event. Now they will team with Paymer for the world's finals from March 22 to 25 at the Beverly Hilton Hotel. For the Southern California regional competition that took place in November, the three went up against 70 other teams. Caltech had three teams competing, finishing in first, second, and thirteenth place. While all the teams were competitive, says Paymer, "I was most afraid of the other Caltech team."

"Participating in the contest is a great way to showcase the strengths of Caltech's computer science undergraduates," says Ben Brantley, a computer science staff member and coach of the Caltech team. "The students who participated did so mostly out of self-motivation. They enjoy the heat of competition and fast-paced problem solving."

The ACM International Collegiate Programming Contest traces its roots to a competition held at Texas A&M in 1970. It quickly gained popularity as a way to assist in the development of top students in the emerging field of computer science. IBM became the contest's sponsor in 1997. Since then, the contest has nearly tripled in size. Participation has grown to involve over 23,000 students from more than 1,329 universities around the world.

Is there any fear on the part of the students that they may be forever tagged as the ultimate geeks? "Around Caltech, I think this is generally something that's respected, not looked down upon or made fun of," says D'Angelo. For his part, Burnim says, "I would love to earn this title. However, I suspect there will always be many other geeks with more skills and a better claim to the title than I."

Contact: Mark Wheeler (626) 395-8733

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Written by Marcus Woo