By Phillip Milano
Ten problems. Five hours to solve them. Three guys. One computer.
Jacksonville University computing science seniors Andrew Duane and James Laroche and sophomore Christian Wilde recently went up against 105 other teams from 80 Southeast schools in the annual Association of Computing Machinery programming competition.
Their team ranked fifth in the district and 26th in the entire Southeast region, getting coveted balloons for solving two problems at the grueling event — a first for a JU computing team, said coach Xenia Mountrouidou, JU assistant professor of computing sciences.
“Their confidence and enthusiasm was raised after this competition,” she said. “This is a big bullet on their resume. Companies such as Google and Facebook hold competitions similar to the one they participated, and they look at hiring participants of the ACM programming competition.”
More about those balloons: Teams in the room where the pressure-cooker contest is held get one each time they submit a valid program, so JU received two while at its event site at the Florida Institute of Technology in Melbourne, explained Duane.
“You and your teammates are sitting in front of a computer for hours trying to make sense of the problems in front of you,” he said. “Soon, the whole room is filled with balloons, and you can tell which problems are the easiest by the color. If you don’t have at least one balloon halfway through, you’re feeling pretty bad about yourself.”
In the Southeast region, the Nov. 10 contest was held simultaneously at Florida Tech, Georgia Tech and the University of West Florida. Schools from Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama took part.
It’s a prestigious programming competition from which the winner goes to the International Collegiate Programming Competition every year, Mountrouidou noted. Georgia Tech, the University of Central Florida, the University of Florida and others bring multiple teams.
“We held practice sessions almost every Tuesday afternoon leading up to it,” Duane said. “We solved prior years’ problems and studied material that we wouldn’t normally cover in our core classes. We’re trying to get a course on competitive programming introduced into the curriculum next year. Hopefully this will broaden the reach within the department.”
For the students, the event is a chance to bring into focus some of the abstract nature of computer programming.
“Overall it’s a great experience and trains you to solve complex problems under the stress of time limits and various other constraints,” Duane said. “To me, computer science is all about the creative process and bringing something to life. Through programming, you can create something out of nothing, and the things you create can be used to make everyone’s lives easier.”