© 2024
Virginia's Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Virginia Tech Team Heads to World Finals for Computer Coding

The International championship of competitive coding is happening this week.  A team from Virginia Tech will be there after beating 177 other schools in the regional competition. Robbie Harris has more.   

The world championship rounds of the computer programming competitions take place in large sports arenas. Last year it was in Thailand. This year, it’s South Dakota. 

They started small, in the late 70s, and were for American teams only but they’ve become a worldwide spectator sport - thanks to real time live streaming of the event.

The arena gets pretty quiet as teams work to create problem-solving code faster than their competitors. Even the play-by-play commentary by reporters covering the event, is, well, subdued.

Andriy Katkov a senior is on the 3 person team. “They do make a bit of a spectacle out of it when you solve a problem, so they’ll bring balloons to you. Different colors as a visual representation of your solution being correct.”

Teammate Peter Steel adds, “One of the most fun aspects of the competition is that there is a live scoreboard so each time any other team submits a problem, you can see if they got it right or they got it wrong.  So if you see a problem that has a tremendous amount of incorrect submissions then you should be extra aware that maybe there’s something you’re not seeing in this problem."

But just because there’s a hush over the room, doesn’t mean it’s not exciting. 

Chris Wu, who just graduated from Tech and is headed to a job with Facebook as a software engineer, is also on the championship team. He says, “I think that doing programming contests is one of the funnest way to practice programming.  They’ve made me a faster thinker and more accurate thinker. And doing technical interviews with companies (for potential employment), I think for those, the interviews are probably a lot easier than the ones we solve in contests.”

These guys have been practicing on hundreds of different problems together for months.  Now they’ll have to choose about a dozen to solve. As Andriy Katkov explains, the goal is to create computer code to solve common, real world problems.

Find more information and live stream the competition.

“So, if, for example, a delivery driver has to make 10 deliveries around the city, you would use a classic formulation of that that we solve in programming competitions called the traveling salesman problem and you may solve that by figuring it out by hand or guessing, but we have these rigorous techniques that we can apply using code in order to determine the best way to do it.”

It’s the kind of thing we now take for granted, like driving directions by GPS, but someone had to create that code. And if the navigator on your phone sometimes takes you to nonexistent streets or suggests taking a left off a bridge, to succeed at the international competitive coding event, your code has to be perfect, not just close -- or no cigar.

Computer Science Professor Godmar Back coaches the coding team. "And I think it takes a tremendous amount of nerve to be able to be able to sit in such an arena and solve really, really challenging problems and a number of teams just fold and give up trying to do that, so fortunately our team, during the last years did a better job and was able to solve a number of these problems.” 

Three years ago, Back began organizing coding competitions for Virginia high school students. Like their big brother, they started small.

Then, there were about 20 teams, but now there are more than 100 participating.

Back says, “We’ve had some students now join Virginia Tech because they participated in this competition and liked it so much so that they came to VT.”

And there's more - you can get details about the next Virginia Tech High School coding contest coming up in December.