Global supporting cast puts student programmers on center stage#
On Friday, 309 of the world's finest collegiate programmers will take the stage at the 2010 ICPC World Finals in Harbin, culminating a global effort bringing this talent to the world stage.
A small army of volunteers, a dedicated staff and a generous host university began working several years ago to make this year's competition possible.
The planning for a World Finals begins anywhere from 15 months to 3 years in advance, when contracts for hotels and venues are signed. ICPC Executive Director Bill Poucher and various members of the ICPC Headquarters staff, along with representatives from corporate sponsor IBM, evaluate bids to host, often conducting multiple site visits. Once those decisions are made, the finals are a collaboration between the ICPC staff, the sponsor representatives and the local hosts. There are thousands of details to be arranged, from providing appropriate computer systems for the contestants to figuring out how to move contestants and staff around the venues to ordering shirts for the finalists. Operations Manager Patrick Hynan coordinates many of the logistics, with help from headquarters staff. Hynan spends hundreds of unpaid hours each year, time he said is well-spent because "The teams have worked very hard to get to this point and helping to organize a world class event for them is a great reward."
Bill Poucher's wife, Marsha, communicates with finalist teams, orders plaques for award winners and T-shirts for everyone, and has the informal title of ICPC Mom (her formal title is ICPC Manager).
As IBM Systems Team Technical Lead, Rodney D'Silva describes himself as the go-to guy for everything technical. He has been working with ICPC for 12 years, 8 weeks a year, and he makes sure "the equipment IBM provides is suitable for the contest," he said.
D'Silva, who arrived in Harbin a week before the teams did, said that even if the ICPC wasn't part of his job, he'd still want to come. "This is a great opportunity for the students," he said.
D'Silva works closely with other members of the organizational team: Hynan, Poucher, ICPC Deputy Director Jeff Donahoo and BJ Chow, the IBM/ICPC sponsorship manager who works at the IBM Toronto Lab, where D'Silva works as an IT network architect.
"The Chinese people, and especially the HEU people, are amazingly friendly," D'Silva said. "Their hospitality is just outstanding. The HEU staff really have a sense of community, and it's been great to work with them."
Harbin Engineering University fitted each contestant, volunteer and staff member with an arctic suit, a hat and a pair of gloves to combat the frosty weather. Although the city enjoys four distinct seasons, with the temperature during the summer reaching 27C (80F), Harbin's as the "Ice City" is apt, with winter temperatures dipping to -25C (-16F). Volunteers greeted contestants and staff arriving from around the world at the airport, a 40-Km (25-mile) drive from the University.
Miao Xy Yan, 20, was one of more than 600 Harbin Engineering University students to volunteer for the event. Only 160 were chosen. In preparation, she learned about local attractions and trained with the welcome staff at the Sofitel Wanda hotel, where she works 15-hour days with 11 other volunteers.
She is volunteering because "it will be very exciting to meet people from around the world," she said.
Anticipating Wednesday's snow-sculpting activity, Harbin Engineering University bought a snow-making machine to make sure there was enough snow for the participants.
Harbin Engineering University also provided the 104 computer systems that teams will use during the contest. The ground floor of the university library was quiet four days before the contest. But the floor above was a hive of activity as the ICPC SysOps and ICPC Live teams got things ready for Friday's contest.
A staff of dozens was hard at work, setting up and fine-tuning the equipment that will support the contestants.
One important difference this year will be the system contestants use to submit their problems: CLICS, a modified version of the KATTIS submission system developed by KTH-The Royal Institute of Technology for the Nordic Collegiate Programming Contest, a preliminary to the Northwestern Europe Regionals.
"We have brought in what we hope is a better system," said Mikael Goldmann, lead developer for ICPC Video Central.
With CLICS, the submitted code can be tested in a "sandbox" before it's judged, meaning that erroneous code can't crash the judges' machines as it's being checked. CLICS also has an automated component that lets judges spend their time looking for abnormal conditions and troubleshooting, rather than the kind of comparative judging of outputs that "a computer is good at doing," said CLICS Chief Director Fredrik Niemelä.
"Hopefully, it makes the quality higher by spending less time judging," Niemelä said. "The judges are very brilliant, so we are using their brains much more."
Judging will be much quicker, too. Contestants should receive their results instantaneously, Niemelä said.
CLICS is Web-based, so teams had the opportunity to try it out remotely before travelling to Harbin.
For regional contest directors wanting to use the CLICS system in their own regional contests, the current version offers a sharp learning curve — "More like a wall," said Pehr Söderman, who is working on the new system and expects to release a better-packaged version next fall. The problem is that they still have dependencies on elements they'd like to replace, Söderman said.
The systems team is also in charge of contest video. Harbin TV is broadcasting the event live in Mandarin, and the ICPC video crew is shooting a closed-circuit broadcast in English. Their setup allows them to see what's going on the screens of all 103 teams, and a webcam gives them a window into how each team works on each problem.
Four analysts, all seasoned programmers and some with world finals experience, will provide technical commentary to go with the broadcast.
The analysts will strive to "make it good for the experts without ruining it for the others," Niemela said.
The broadcast will be archived, Donahoo said.
Cody Winchester for the ICPC Digital Media Team
Volunteers from Harbin Engineering University pose with the winter wear that was issued to all of the teams, coaches and staff to help them deal with the cold weather. Photo by Hans Domjan