UT Programming team heads to Portugal for international competition

Annie L. Zhang

With ten minutes left in the competition, the word “accepted” finally popped on screen. Seniors Ethan Arnold and Ryan Rice and junior Supawit Chockchowwat rejoiced. They would be heading to Portugal next spring to compete in the International Collegiate Programming Contest.

The team of three earned entry after winning first place at last month’s ICPC South Central USA Regional Competition, which was held at Baylor University.

“Our win at regionals was pretty surprising because we weren’t in first in the contest until the last ten minutes,” Rice said.

The competition consists of 12 questions, and the team that correctly answers the most questions wins. Arnold said that until the last few minutes, the leading teams were all tied at 10 questions.

“We were frantically debugging our code for one problem that no one had solved yet because we were pretty sure that our idea was right, but we had a bug somewhere,” Arnold said. “We figured that if we got this problem right, we’d probably win, but if we didn’t, we had no chance.”

Despite penalties for incorrect submissions (in the case of a tie), the team continued to debug their code, Rice said.

“We just stared at the same 50 lines of code to try to figure out what was wrong, and the bug wasn’t even obvious, because we fixed it thinking it probably wouldn’t make a difference and just kept looking for errors,” Rice said. “When it finally said accepted, we were like, ‘Alright, that’s it.’”

According to Rice, this persistence is important in programming competitions.

“Even when you’re practicing and you don’t know the answer, you kind of just have to stare at a problem until you get to the solution and be persistent,” Rice said. “You can’t just always look for the solutions, because you can’t do that in the competition and you’ll never actually learn.”

Despite their frequent practice, the team said that they still felt pressure during the competition.

“We’ve done a lot of practicing and we were pretty comfortable with the algorithm and coding, but it seems like when we did the actual competition, all of our practice kind of just went up in the air,” Arnold said.

Still, the team said the most rewarding part was being told by the server that the code is correct.

“When you submit your code, you’ll know if you get the correct submission after about a few seconds,” Chockchowwat said. “So when it’s accepted, it’s like one of those ‘Eureka!’ moments.”

A sample question included trying to find the shortest path to a destination, given a large series of pathways.

“A lot of times, you want to reduce the problem to something you’ve already solved or close to something you know how to solve,” Rice said. “Most of the problems boil down to a mathematical question, but in competitive programming, the questions force you to make a more interesting observation to find the solution.”

This marks the third year in a row that a UT team has advanced to the world’s final.

“It’s a lot of pressure and excitement to be competing with the best teams in the world and see how we stack up,” Rice said. “If we practice a lot and have a good day at the competition, we want to try to be in the top 30 teams.”