Varsity Programming Teams Competition Last Weekend

That time of year came again when the fastest and fittest at TWU get set and ready to compete against the elite varsity teams of Canadian and American universities and colleges in the Pacific Northwest.

These brave men and women have spent countless hours training to get at this elite level of competition. Their brains and fingers are in top shape  as they head into an exhausting day of fast programming and problems solving.

On Saturday November 15, 2008, TWU participated in a varsity computer programming competition, held every year by the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM).  This year, the contest was held across town at UBC.

This is how it works:

Students compete in teams of 3.  They are given around 10 (11 this year) programming problems to solve over the course of 5 hours.  The difficulty of the problems range from slightly complex to near impossible. (You can see the problem set of the 2007 contest here.) Points are awarded  for programs that produce the correct output, but there are no part  marks: the slightest mistake in your output will earn you 0 points.  The speed of the competitors is also a factor in the scoring, and a wrong submission adds a penalty of 20 minutes to your time, which leads itself to an intense competition environment. The team with the most problems solved by the end of the 5 hours wins. In case of ties, the team that took the least time to solve them wins.

TWU competed against teams from universities and colleges in British Columbia, Washington, Alaska, Oregon, Illinois, N. California, and Hawaii. Ours is probably one of the toughest regions in the world to compete at since we face oponents from elite computing science schools like Stanford, Berkeley, U. Washington, SFU, and UBC.
All undergraduate students, or graduate students in their first two years of study are eligible to compete. Each school can send up to 3 teams to the competition. The top two teams (only one per school) are eligible to compete in the 2009 World Finals in Stockholm.

For the last 5 years I've had the pleasure of coaching the TWU programming teams. This being such a small school, some years it is difficult to even have one team at a competitive level. However, this year we had three excellent teams:

  • TWU WAM: Our senior team and third time participants in this competition, composed by 4th and 3rd year students, Winston Ewert, Alan Trick, and Megan Rintoul (only female participant in the entire Canadian site this year).
  • TWU TBA: First time participants, composed by 2nd and 3rd year students Tom Duncan, Ben Pence, and Andrew Chell.
  • TWU Remainders: First time participants, composed by David Somers-Harris, 3rd year student, and Jeremy Rintoul and Ian Trick, 1st year students.

This year there were 87 teams competing. After a warm-up practice contest, around 1:30 pm, the teams went to their computers as we coaches headed to the expectators room. During the competition there was a very fast start out of the gate, with the first problem being solved at the 4 minute mark by Stanford Red, quickly followed by UBC^ and UBC* at minute 5, with 8 other teams submitting correct answers just 10 minutes into the contest. At that moment we knew were were in for a tough competition. TWU teams had a slow start. TWU WAM had a false start with problem C, and eventually submitted their first correct problem, B, 14 minutes into the competition. However, from that point on they had a steady progress. TWU TBA also had a false start with problem A, but they were able to correct it and submit a correct solution also by minute 14. TWU Remainders submitted their first correct problem on the first try an hour and a half into the competition. In this type of competition a team with 1st year undergraduate students is almost unheard of as they compete with some teams with graduate students in them. So, they being able to solve at least one problem is actually really good.


Speedy Stanford Red, UBC^, and UBC* made a fast run to 7 problems.  TWU WAM, on their steady pace solved their 7th problem 3 hours and 17 minutes into the competition seting themselves in 5th place. TWU TBA solved their 4th problem also at 3 hrs and 17 minutes, sitting at 33rd place. TWU Remainders didn't complete any more problems.
To keep the intrigue until the end, the scoreboard freezes for the last hour and we only know the results until the competition is finished. With 1 hour to go, TWU WAM remained in 5th place in a 10-way tie with other teams who also solved 7: Stanford Red being the only one to breakthrough to 8, and Stanford White and Berkeley Blue chipping away on F with one and six bad runs respectively. (You can see the frozen scoreboard here.)

I must confess that I was a totally excited and that was a VERY LONG hour. We were at a one problem shot to the world finals!! The other coaches in the Canadian site just couldn't believe it either. TWU has always been an underdog in this competition so seeing them go head to head with the top teams of UBC, Stanford, and Berkeley, and surpassing SFU and the rest, was beyond anyone's imagination.

Finally the contest was over and we got the results. Sadly the final scoreboard did not change much in the last hour.  Here is a summary of the last-hour action as narrated by the SFU coach:

  • Stanford Red solved H and I for an amazing total of 10/11 solved. They were the only team to solve these problems, and they made a total of 5 [incorrect] attempts on C.
  • Stanford White and Berkeley Blue solved F for a total of 8/11 problems.  Berkeley Blue solved F in the last minute(!) of the contest after 12 attempts total, inflating their total penalty minutes to 1026. Setting themselves on 3rd place and bumping UBC out of the world finals.
  • No other teams solved an 8th problem.  This was the break TWU WAM needed, within striking distance of 2nd or 3rd, but it was not meant to be. However, their performance was spectacular.

In the final standing, TWU WAM ranked 6th (highest standing for a TWU team since they ever started participating in this annual competition) tying with UBC in problems solved and only surpassed by teams from Stanford and Berkeley; TWU TBA ranked 38th (placing on the top half as a first time competitor is no small feat) and TWU Remainders ranked 83rd. (You can see the complete final standings here. ) Stanford Red and Berkeley Blue will be the teams representing our region in the 2009 world finals in Stockholm.

It was an exciting weekend and I am extremely proud of my students. Good job, guys!

Last updated Nov. 20th, 2008 at 6:14am by Alma Barranco-Mendoza