Programming team takes on the world in Atlanta
Howard Cheng, Alan Skelley and
When they walked into the Calgary hotel with only a small sports bag filled with computer and math books, they had no idea they'd be front page news.
U of A students Howard Cheng, Alan Skelley and Adam Beacham scarcely looked at the other competitors, went straight to their assigned computer and spent the next five hours solving more programming problems, faster, than 25 other teams from universities throughout the U.S. and Canada.
They had a simple strategy: "We have one person typing the program into the computer, and at least one, usually two, of the other team members looking at the screen, catching any mistakes that were made," says Cheng. "Regardless of who is typing, mistakes are always made. But our strategy of getting everyone to check what was typed worked well. This helped us get the problem correct the first time, reducing the amount of time we have to spend debugging our programs."
They also saved time by looking over all eight assigned problems before beginning. Often one knew the applicable algorithm and they could get those problems out of the way.
In the end, they solved seven out of eight problems in a total of 987 minutes.* Second place contestants from New Mexico State University solved seven in 1,396 minutes.
Winning the regional bought them a ticket to the ACM Programming Contest World Finals in Atlanta, Georgia, February 25-28-and much to their chagrin-front page Edmonton Journal coverage under the headline, "Geeks-with a golden future."
They weren't bothered by being called 'geeks.' "All it is is someone who's interested in a field because it's interesting," says Skelley. What upset them was the notion they pursued their passion for money.
"Programming is fun," says Skelley. "It let's you solve problems much more quickly than you can otherwise." You may want to avoid playing poker with Skelley-he's devised a little program to keep track of who's bid how much. "In elementary school, I did a program that would do my math homework for me," says Beacham, "and then it would print out the answer."
The more practical Cheng says, "I usually end up looking up on the Web to see if someone's already solved it." "It's one of the tenets of computer programming," says Skelley, "No one should ever have to solve the same problem twice."
"Unless you're a software company competing against another one," says Cheng.
All three plan to pursue graduate studies. Cheng is currently working on his MSc in Computing Science, Skelley is fourth-year honors in computing science and Beacham is fourth-year honors in mathematics.
They're all seriously considering an academic life. "I certainly want to try it out," says Cheng. "You get to choose what you want to solve. You don't have to deal with a customer. You always get to solve a new problem."
While he's applied to other grad schools, Skelley says he may well stay at the U of A for his master's. Beacham is leaning this way-his girlfriend is here-but is still undecided. "There's always a little device called a coin," says Cheng.
But are they sweating about the upcoming world's? A bit. "The local contest was, for me, just for fun," says Beacham. "But I'm treating the finals much more seriously. If we're supposed to be one of the 50 best teams in the world, we'd better make sure that we're prepared."
To become better prepared, Dr. Piotr Rudnicki of computing sciences, is acting as coach. They're hoping to squeeze practice time in between classes and Skelley's trip to Greece to represent the U of A at the upcoming world debating championships.
If there's any time left, "We know our way to RATT," says Skelley.
Folio front page
Office of Public Affairs
University of Alberta