Programming team builds on history of excellent performance

While UW-Madison is known for excellence in sports, fierce competitors can be found in more places on campus than just Camp Randall or the Kohl Center.

Programming teams within the Department of Computer Sciences--coached by Professor Dieter van Melkebeek--have an outstanding track record of qualifying for the world finals of a tough programming competition every year since 2001.  No other university in North America can match this sixteen-year streak.

The International Collegiate Programming Contest (ICPC) is run under the auspices of the Association for Computing Machinery and is the oldest and most prestigious competition of its kind.  Its scope is massive:  in 2015, over 40,000 contestants from 102 countries engaged in regional competition. Only top-performing regional teams make it to the World Finals. 

Says van Melkebeek of UW’s record, “I’m proud of the training program we have developed at UW-Madison—from getting students excited about algorithms and contest-level programming; to helping them grow as contestants, team players and coaches; and to seeing them set up similar training programs at the institutions they subsequently join.”

The location of the ICPC World Finals changes each year.  Countries to which Badgers have traveled in recent years include Thailand, Morocco and Russia.

The 2017 World Finals will be closer to home, taking place in Rapid City, South Dakota, where the UW-Madison team will be the same trio who competed in Phuket, Thailand in 2016:  Krittisak Chaiyakul, Ingkarat Rak-Amnouykit and Songwong Tasneeyapant.  Bryce Sandlund (at left), a graduate student and former World Finals competitor, and Prof. van Melkebeek are coaching them. (Pictured at top, L-R: Chaiyakul, Rak-Amnouykit, van Melkebeek and Tasneeyapant in Thailand in 2016.)

To reflect back on UW-Madison’s proud 16-year history of advancing from regional competition to the World Finals, we spoke to some past competitors to hear about their experiences.  Here are some excerpts from our conversations.

Scott Diehl (PhD ’08)
Current position: Tech Lead Manager, Google, Madison, Wis.
Competition year:  2004 (Prague)
Coached 2005-08

What was your most memorable moment as a competitor?

During regionals, our team [established] an early lead but we stalled out on solving the last couple of problems. The other UW-Madison team eventually caught up to us and then solved one more, leaving us in second place behind them with time winding down, and only one team per school can advance to the World Finals.

We decided to try a solution to one of the problems that we didn't think was right, but at that point we were desperate. After submitting our answer, Dieter excitedly ran back with the judges' response on a slip of paper: “wrong format,”’ which indicated that we had the right answer, but hadn't properly formatted it. We quickly hunted down a missing comma or period or something like that and resubmitted: “correct answer.” This put us back in first place with only a few minutes remaining, and our lead held as the clock ran out and we advanced to World Finals on our “Hail Mary.”

How did competing help you in the professional world?

Competing relates to interviewing for large tech companies.  [In interviews] you’re given difficult algorithm questions and you have to find the solution and try to code it correctly in one try.  The competition also helps you get in the door through the skill set you obtain and also by having the competition on your resume.  It shows a high level of skill and interest.

(Diehl is pictured above competing in Prague in 2004.  From left to right:  Diehl with teammates Akash Lal and Saurabh Goyal.)

 

Matthew W. Anderson (MS ’09, PhD ’12)
Current positon:  Assistant Professor, Union College, Schenectady, New York
Competition year:  2005 (Shanghai)
Coached 2006-09

How did your experiences competing and coaching influence your career?

My experience coaching encouraged me to go into teaching. I enjoy watching students learn and grow. Also, my experiences helped me really understand the material and how to teach others well. I’m trying to start a team here at Union College!

Participating in this competition was definitely a valuable experience and I encourage others to participate.

What memorable sights did you see?  You traveled to very different places!

In Texas, we went to the Alamo, a rodeo and a ranch.  In Sweden, the competition was in Stockholm City Hall, the same building where they host the Nobel Prize reception.  We also cruised some islands and saw a modern art museum.

(Anderson is pictured at right in Stockholm with the 2009 team he helped coach.  From left to right: Matt Anderson, and team members Chris Hopman, Mik Lysenko and David He.)

 

Brian Byrne (BS ’07)
Current position:  Founder and CTO of Datastrate, San Jose, Calif., and formerly with Google
Competition years:  2006 (San Antonio, TX), 2007 (Tokyo)

How did your competition experiences influence your career?

The competition got me fast-tracked to Google, and I got introduced to people. Competing is great for future opportunities. It also influenced me to go into industry rather than academia, which was the right path for me.

When you compete, saying no to a problem isn’t an option.  You learn about abstracting nuances, getting to the fundamentals of a problem and learning how to attack it.  Competing gives you a valuable toolbox to work with in the future, including in the workplace.  And the time limit pushes you to see the structure of the problem innately.

 

Thomas Watson (BS ’08)
Current position:  Assistant Professor, University of Memphis, Tenn.
Competition year:  2007 (Tokyo)

In what way did participating in the ICPC impact you?

The problems you encounter in competition are different from what you encounter in schoolwork.  After UW, I went on to graduate school [at the University of California, Berkeley] and received a PhD in computer science theory.

Competing was tons of fun.  You practice on your own, and also as part of a team.  Going to Tokyo to compete was my first time out of the country and my first time on an airplane. The finals were a lot of fun, about five days or so long. We got to see the Tokyo Disneyland, and they had an award ceremony and performers.  It was a really good experience.

I will also be coaching the ICPC team at the University of Memphis.  I’m looking forward to coaching the team so I can pass on what I love to the next generation.