Brains battle it out

Six of Cal Poly’s best and brightest computer programmers are preparing for the Southern California Regional “Battle of the Brains” competition on Nov. 12. The competition is a chance for participants to advance to the contest’s World Finals next year in Warsaw, Poland.

The IBM-sponsored Association for Computer Machinery International Collegiate Programming Contest (ACM-ICPC), which will feature approximately 25,000 participants from 90 countries around the world, is in its 36th year of the competition. Awards include scholarships, job opportunities and the most coveted prize of them all, the “World’s Smartest Trophy.”

Director of strategy at IBM Software Group and sponsorship executive of the ICPC Doug Heintzman, who sits on the executive board in charge of coordinating the competition, said it is a great way for college students to get their foot in the door of the rapidly evolving world of computer science.

“The ACM-ICPC offers us the unique opportunity to gather the smartest programmers from around the world in one room,” Heintzman said. “These students possess the capacity, passion and drive necessary to become the future innovators of our industry, and we look forward to the opportunity to recruit from such an elite pool of young talent.”

Last year, Cal Poly sent three teams of three to the Southern California Regionals and placed ninth, 11th and 18th. This year, they will feature only two teams.

Interest in the competition has grown exponentially around the world since it began in the 1970s.

“Thirty years ago, the contest pulled from just a few countries,” Heintzman said. “Today, contest participation has grown more than 800 percent, with teams from 90 countries on six continents participating in their individual Regional phases. The ‘Battle of the Brains’ is more than just the combination of academia and technology — it has become the breeding ground for a more collaborative global community.”

Many people might remember IBM’s Smarter Planet Initiative because of their artificial intelligence computer system, Watson, which appeared on the popular game show “Jeopardy!”

Watson dominated the show’s most successful competitors and shined light on just how far the technological age can progress.

Participants in the AMC-ICPC will not be asked to create their own thinking computers, but they will be provided with six to eight real-world problems that they have to finish within five hours. Completing these problems will be the equivalent of an entire semester’s worth of computer programming, according to the competition’s website.

The ability to analyze a problem, delegate responsibilities and come to a solution within a limited amount of time are things a computer programmer must be able to demonstrate when looking for a career in the industry.

“Students nearing graduation are faced with a difficult job market and a recovering economy,” Heintzman said. “The ACM-ICPC provides an opportunity to gain crucial experience for their résumés, but more importantly, the invaluable chance to meet IBM recruiters and early-career programmers.”

Computer science junior Michael LeKander, one of Cal Poly’s team members, said he has been entering contests similar to this one since high school. He knows from first-hand experience just how beneficial they can be.

“I actually got the job that I just came from through a different programing contest,” LeKander said. “A lot of recruiters these days are using similar things to try and hire the best programmers.”

LeKander, who works for Zero Mass Engineering in San Luis Obispo, recognized the self-promoting opportunity that comes along with the competition, but said that he joined Cal Poly’s team because it is what he would have been doing anyway.

“I wouldn’t say that there is a lot of work that goes into it so much as it’s just what I do for fun,” LeKander said. “That’s what I really enjoy about my major — the problem solving.”

To be qualified for such a prestigious and rigorous competition requires a similar way of thinking and a certain skill set that most people do not possess. John Bellardo, both teams’ coach for the competition, said his job is not to overwork the team before they get to the competition, but rather, to provide them with the tools necessary to be successful.

“There is a very fine line you need to walk between too much preparation distracting from everything else, and just going there totally unprepared,” Bellardo said.

Cal Poly has struggled in the Southern California Region in recent years due to engineering powerhouses California Institute of Technology and Harvey Mudd College. The highest finish came in 1999 when one team placed sixth out of 100 at the World Finals.

After competing in the competition during his college days and coaching Cal Poly’s team for six years, Bellardo said that winning the World Finals is obviously the goal, but in the end, it is simply great exposure into the world of computer programming for anyone who is interested.