This past weekend I got the opportunity to compete in the ACM’s ICPC programming competition on a team with other members from the Penn State ACM. Up until a week before the competition I was supposed to compete. However, due to some of club members not being able to go at the last minute, I was forced to compete. At first I thought it would be horrible because everyone else had been practicing for months, and I have not even completed a single practice problem. Regardless, I’m happy that I ended up going.

Unfortunately, my team and I only finished with one problem solved, but we were extremely close to having a second problem solved and most likely would have solved it given an extra 15-20 minutes. However, even with only have one problem solved and two incorrect submissions on another, we still ranked respectably compared to the other groups at our location. Apparently, 75% of the teams solve just one problem so it’s not as embarrassing as I thought it would be.

Despite the competition be only 5 hours, I still learned some important lessons. Most importantly, efficiency, efficiency, efficiency. This was the first programming situation I was in where your program was accepted or not based on how long it took to execute. And the problems are designed so that the obvious, but more brute force solution will take too long to execute so you’re forced to find a more efficient way to solve the problem. Some people will say that these problems are essentially just math problems, but this is where the programming comes in. You need to have the programming skills to make your program as efficient as possible. This is the problem my team ran into on the problem we solved. Without going into the details, we had to try multiple algorithms and data structures until we were able to make the program do the calculations it needed quickly enough.

What would I do differently? First, practice! It would have helped tremendously do have done some practice problems instead of walking in blind. Second, it would be great if we (the PSU ACM) could get some math majors involved. A team of two programmers and one math major would probably do much better than just three programmers.

All in all, the whole experience was awesome and I would definitely love to do it again next year (with a lot more preparation!). The skills learned can easily carry over into non-competition programs so that they can be written a more efficient manner. Not too mention it was a great social opportunity where a large part of the club really got to know one another and that, I feel, is the most important take-away from the trip.