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Harvard team wins regional programming competition

Students will face off against teams from around the world at programming ‘Olympics’

Students Johnny Ho, A.B. '18, Calvin Deng, A.B. '17, and Scott Wu, A.B. '19, won first place at the regional level of the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) International Collegiate Programming Contest.

If computer programming were a sport, then the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) International Collegiate Programming Contest would be the Olympics. Thanks to their decisive victory at regionals, a team of Harvard students will have a chance to go for gold in the fiercely competitive international contest.

The team from the John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, comprised of applied math concentrator Johnny Ho, A.B. ’18, Scott Wu, A.B. ’19 (undecided), and math concentrator Calvin Deng, A.B. ’17, soundly defeated archrival MIT and dozens of universities from across the northeastern United States and Canada. The students, coached by Jelani Nelson, assistant professor of computer science, and Robert Walton ’66, were the only team to successfully solve all eight problems in the regional challenge.

“I’m very proud of the students,” Nelson said. “This competition really challenged their ability to write correct code quickly. They are a very strong team and I think we are in good shape going into world finals.”

The competitors were given five hours to complete eight algorithmic problems that put their programming skills, logical abilities, and creativity to the test.

“These problems really require a lot of outside-the-box thinking,” said Wu. “What helped us succeed was having a deeper understanding of the algorithms, so we could apply them in totally different ways.”

The problems included a number of practical puzzles, each with a twist that tested the teams’ skills. For example, competitors had to write a program that would compute the simplest sequence of moves to bring together two points on a grid. But the task was more challenging because the movement of the two points was synchronized, and they had to work around a number of blocked grid squares, explained Wu.

The ACM competition is unique because each three-person team is given only one computer. Time management becomes essential, Ho said, and team members must collaborate to ensure they stay ahead of the clock.

“These aren’t the kinds of problems where you can give a one-sentence solution,” Ho said. “Team members have to work together to get the details correct.”

The Harvard students were up to the challenge—they finished all eight problems in a little more than half the allotted time. A good team dynamic and past experience were the biggest factors that contributed to their success, said Wu. All three students have competed in programming contests since middle school.

Fresh off their victory at regionals, they have their sights set on the world finals, which will be held in Phuket, Thailand, in May. The world finals draw the best of the best. Last year, only 128 of the 12,720 teams that began the competition advanced to the final contest. They will face stiff competition from international students; no U.S. team has won since 1997 and the last Harvard team to take home first place did so in 1993.

The teammates aren’t fazed by that pressure, Ho said. They will spend the next few months working on problems from previous world finals to sharpen their skills before they set out for Thailand and a shot at computer programming glory. No matter how well they do on the international stage, Deng said he is proud of all they have accomplished.

“My favorite part of competing is being able to go through the entire process of solving and coding up a solution, and then looking back and seeing how much we were able to get done in such a short time,” he said. “I’m really looking forward to competing against the top teams from around the world.”

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