[Paleopsych] CHE: Code Warriors
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Fri Apr 8 19:16:24 UTC 2005
The Chronicle of Higher Education, 5.4.8
Young computer programmers battle for fame, money, and the love of
By JENNIFER JACOBSON
Santa Clara, Calif.
The nerds have taken over the Marriott. On a Thursday morning in
March, eight college students stand shoulder to shoulder in a brightly
lit conference room, readying their brains for battle. Seconds from
now, they will sit down at computers and fill their screens with lines
of code that few other mortals could comprehend.
So begins the fifth annual TopCoder Collegiate Challenge, a
computer-programming tournament in which contestants write algorithms
to solve complicated problems while racing the clock. To survive,
contestants need to master geometry, number theory, and formal proofs.
For academe's cyber set, this is March Madness.
Run by TopCoder Inc., a Connecticut-based software company, and
sponsored by Yahoo, the contest and its $20,000 prize for first place
bring together some of the world's top young programmers. The two-day
event, one of several programming contests held each year, also
attracts recruiters from leading technology companies, who come to
dangle lucrative offers for jobs and internships before young computer
After all, it is not easy to find students who can write a super-fast
computer program to solve a problem like this: "Determine how many
different character strings of a given length can be created using the
letters A, B, or C."
Nearly 1,300 students entered the competition, the first two rounds of
which took place online in January. Only 24 finalists earned a trip
here to Silicon Valley. Some have come from the nearby California
Institute of Technology, others from as far away as Poland.
As the first group of eight contestants prepares for combat this
morning, a computer-generated voice introduces each of them to a small
crowd of spectators. One by one the students step forward, smile at
the applause, then walk to the stage, where desktop computers await.
"The semifinal competition is about to begin," says the voice,
programmed to sound like a British woman. "Good luck."
The challengers here will need plenty of luck to beat Tomasz Czajka,
the tournament's reigning champion and No. 1 seed. A 23-year-old
doctoral candidate in Purdue University's computer-science program, he
won three major tournaments last year, two of which were open to
professional programmers. He has earned nearly $100,000 on the contest
circuit and feels as mighty as a mainframe.
Mr. Czajka (pronounced chee-ka) believes that his ability to relax
during the contest gives him an edge over more stressed out
competitors. "This is really like a holiday to me," he says.
Still, the during the competition he seems a bit hyper. He walks fast
and talks faster. As the contest begins, his rivals show little, if
any, emotion, but Mr. Czajka tries to psych them out by flashing a big
grin and pumping his right fist into the air.
In his native Poland, Mr. Czajka is a superstar. He has swigged coffee
with Aleksander Kwasniewski, the Polish president, and garnered plenty
of attention from the nation's press. In his homeland, he says, people
treat him like a star athlete.
Tall and thin, Mr. Czajka liked to play volleyball in high school, but
he admits he was not very good. In coding contests, however, "he is
scarily good," says James McKeown, TopCoder's director of
communications. "He is the man."
Programmed for Victory
The son of two computer programmers, Mr. Czajka grew up in Stalowa
Wola, a town east of Krakow. After his parents bought him a computer
for his 10th birthday, he and his father would sit and write programs
together. At 13 he started entering math competitions and attending
science camps, where he learned the mathematical roots of computer
science, like algorithms and beta structures.
At 14 Mr. Czajka entered his first high-school computing contest, in
which students had to solve three problems in five hours. He did not
win, but the competition thrilled him. He knew then that he was
hard-wired for cerebral combat. "It's like sports," he says. "You
either run fast or you don't."
He won several computing contests and TopCoder events before
graduating from Warsaw University last year with a bachelor's degree
in computer science. Upon earning a Ph.D. from Purdue, he might seek a
job at a research laboratory. Perhaps he will return to Poland. Who
knows? For now, his passion is cranking out code at warp speed.
On the first day of competition, Mr. Czajka -- better known by his
nickname, Tomek -- sits at his computer, alternately chewing on his
pencil, scribbling calculations, and typing furiously. He and the
seven other contestants have been given three problems to answer in 85
minutes. Points are awarded for the accuracy of their code as well as
The remaining 16 contestants, who will compete later today, huddle at
the edge of the stage, watching a computer monitor that displays what
Mr. Czajka has typed. The room is silent, save for the click-clacking
One of today's problems asks contestants to write an algorithm with
which to calculate how much water would spill out of an x-sized
container if a y-sized object (that may or may not float) were dropped
To get started, students must work out some basic geometry. Mr. Czajka
The waiting contestants are so transfixed that they do not dig into
the dishes of candy and potato chips scattered throughout the room.
They have no time to ogle Nalu, a curvaceous, green-eyed mermaid who
swims on a computer screen in a corner of the room, courtesy of
Nvidia, a Santa Clara-based computer-graphics company. Nobody plops
down on the big, comfy purple couch that Yahoo provided.
Among the contestants watching Mr. Czajka's code unfold is Ralph
Furmaniak, a mathematics major at the University of Waterloo, in
Ontario. Mr. Furmaniak, the 39th seed in the tournament, jots down his
own calculations to the problems on a pad of paper, for practice.
He concludes that he could write the proper programs for each of the
problems, but plans to return to his hotel room and code them on his
computer, just to be sure. He hopes that such geeky diligence will pay
off -- and that Mr. Czajka is beatable. "No one can deny that he is
consistent," Mr. Furmaniak says.
Only halfway through the round, the champion needs a bathroom break. A
"minder" escorts Mr. Czajka to and from the men's room. A few minutes
later he hurries back to the stage.
After a sweat-inducing hour, it is time to see whether Mr. Czajka's
codes work. The disembodied voice of the MC announces that the coding
phase has ended. Now comes the challenge phase, in which the eight
contestants can win points by finding flaws in each other's solutions.
The catch: If their challenge is wrong, they lose points.
Mr. Czajka submits one challenge that fails, then a second. The crowd
gasps. "He's in trouble," says a spectator.
The challenge phase drops Mr. Czajka to second place, at least
momentarily. The champion looks frazzled. His alarm clock did not go
off this morning, he says. He paces as he waits for the results of a
computerized "systems test," the final analysis of the competing
A few minutes later, a TopCoder employee announces that all three of
Mr. Czajka's codes were successful, giving him enough points to win
the round. He grins and punches the air. He is going to the finals.
Moments later, a petite blonde woman named Laura Bohland strolls over
to chat with him. She is a recruiter from Yahoo who knows how to
flatter. "You are one of the greatest engineers," she tells him, and
"you have a great personality on top of that."
For several minutes she describes the joys of interning at Yahoo.
Working for the company, she tells him, would be like extending his
college years. She mentions that Sugar Ray, the pop-music group,
played at the company's 10th-anniversary party. Before she leaves, Ms.
Bohland asks him, "You have my contact information, right?"
Mr. Czajka nods. "They've been trying to hire me for a long time," he
says later. "They always hit on me."
Yahoo representatives, he says, have told him that if he worked there
this summer, he could do whatever he wanted while earning about $7,000
a month. But Mr. Czajka is not sure about the offer. For one thing, he
has never heard of Sugar Ray. For another, he is waiting on an
internship offer from his first choice, Yahoo's chief rival, Google.
'You Have Fast Heads'
That night Yahoo recruiters take the contestants on a tour of the
company's headquarters, a few miles away in Sunnyvale, where they
hobnob with senior vice presidents over plates of roast beef and
The next morning, few contestants are up early enough to watch the
wild-card round; the winner will compete in this afternoon's finals.
After lunch all of the students get a pep talk from Steven S. Skiena,
a professor of computer science at the State University of New York at
Stony Brook and one of the authors of Programming Challenges: The
Programming Contest Training Manual (Springer-Verlag, 2003).
Mr. Skiena believes that programming contests are valuable learning
experiences, even for contestants who do not reach the finals.
"Programmers have to learn skills as opposed to facts," he says.
"Thinking algorithmically is very, very hard. You learn it by doing
In his talk, he tells the contestants how "awesome" they are, cracking
them up when he says: "You have fast heads. You have fast hands. You
have balls." It is a reference to the fact that these students thrive
under pressure -- and that every last one of them is male.
A half-hour later, the laughing has stopped and the lights have
dimmed. The four finalists are battling for the coding crown.
Some students not in the finals gather around the monitor displaying
Mr. Czajka's progress. One of them snaps a photograph of it. The
onlookers see that the champion has not attempted the most difficult
of the three problems. There is talk of an upset.
"My money is on the Dutchman," says Mr. Skiena, referring to Mathijs
Vogelzang, a student from the University of Groningen, in the
Netherlands, who has taken the lead. "He is not afraid of Tomek."
When the round ends, Mr. Czajka realizes that his only hope for
victory is to find bugs in his competitors' codes. He dashes off three
As they wait for the results, Mr. Czajka and Mr. Vogelzang stand next
to each other, all nerves. "Maybe mine is wrong," Mr. Vogelzang says.
"Yeah, that would be great," Mr. Czajka replies. They both laugh.
A few minutes later, a TopCoder employee proclaims Mr. Vogelzang the
winner. Mr. Czajka's challenges have failed. He looks surprised.
Still, he smiles and congratulates his rival.
The new champion walks to the front of the room, where he receives a
game-show-size check, nearly as long as he is tall, for $20,000.
Contests like this, Mr. Vogelzang says, make him doubt his plan to
become a doctor.
Mr. Czajka says he is satisfied with second place. He has just won
$10,000, after all. But he vows to return to the next tournament, in
the fall. "To win," he says.
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