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UT Dallas CS Comets Place 2nd Among 73 Teams in the Regional ACM Programming Competition

On November 4th of this year, UT Dallas Competitive Programming Teams competed and won second place at the ACM Regional Intercollegiate Programming Contest (ICPC). The 2nd place winning team consisted of Darrin Wiley, Terrence Park, Walter Han. Out of 73 teams, the UT Dallas teams placed in the top eight. Our teams took second, sixth, and seventh place. The regional contest involves Texas, Oklahoma, and Louisiana.  The three teams consisted of the following students: Darrin Wiley, Terrence Park, Walter Han, Michael Lopiccolo, Georgiy Klimenko, Christian Leithner, Antonio Mendiola, Shivam Dutt, and Vayas Nellutla. You can see the scoreboard from the contest by clicking here.  The UT Dallas Competitive programming teams have been competing in the ACM ICPC every year since 2001.

The following story is written by Dr. Ivor Page, the coach for the UT Dallas Competitive Programming Team and a senior UT Dallas CS professor.


This past weekend, the top UT Dallas Competitive Programming Team came in second in the ACM ICPC Regional Contest. This experience took me back over sixteen years of coaching our teams, some highlights of which I will share below.

The story began for me in October 2001. A member of the first UT Dallas group of McDermott Scholars, Justin Appleby, lobbied me relentlessly to coach his team in The ACM Regional Intercollegiate Programming Contest (ICPC), to be held in early November in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Our region, South Central, covers three states, Texas, Oklahoma, and Louisiana. On a good year, seventy to eighty teams compete from the best universities in the region.

Like most McDermott Scholars, Justin was quite persistent, and soon I was preparing undergraduate students for the trip to Baton Rouge and a five-hour long grueling contest. Teams of three were given eight to twelve tough problems to solve with one computer per team, and unlike now, there was no Pepsi or Coke, and no pizza. The winners of the regional contest would compete in the World Finals the following year. It had previously been held in Hawaii, Russia, and China.

Two teams and I flew to Baton Rouge; Justin and his team drove. During the Friday evening, before the main contest on Saturday, the Regional Contest Director, Isaac Traxler from Louisiana State University (LSU) told a story about a group of students from UT Dallas who had competed the previous year. Three gallant UT Dallas students had taken a Greyhound bus to Baton Rouge, arrived in the pouring rain late on Friday night, and blindly called LSU. After many failed attempts to contact anyone still in their office, they tracked down one of the technicians, busy setting up the software for the contest, who graciously took a break from his duties to pick them up and deliver them to the Coates Building at LSU. They slept on the floor and competed unofficially the next day. They had no coach, so their presence could not be regarded as official. They came in fifth, unofficially, but they had to leave to catch the bus back to Dallas before they could find out the results.

These contests have a history of controversies where problem setters, contest managers, and contest judges make horrible mistakes. The contest of 2001 was no exception. After 5-hours of working extremely hard, and waiting for an hour or two to learn the results, one of the UT Dallas students was angry enough to threaten bodily harm to one of the problem setters. Fortunately, I was close enough to drag him from the auditorium with a promise that we would visit Bourbon Street in New Orleans later that night. Everyone behaved themselves and we all got back to the hotel full of beignets and a determination to win the following year.

Since the early days of this event, the contests have been distributed among LSU and three or four satellite sites in Texas and/or Oklahoma. UT Dallas has competed in the ACM ICPC every year since 2001. Most years we have placed in the top ten. In 2005 our team came second.

During each fall semester, I hold biweekly programming contests in order to prepare students for the upcoming Regional Contest. In 2016, the winners of my contests alternated between Michelle Berger and Matthew Dempsky on one team and Jack Lindermood in a team by himself. In a flash of genius that only the brightest coaches can muster, I put them together in one team. In 2006, they won the Regional Contest, and we were subsequently invited to take part in the World Finals Contest to be held in Tokyo in March 2007. The team practiced arduously during the entire spring semester, solving previous World Finals problems.

The day of our departure for Tokyo finally arrived. We set off early from DFW for our 13-hour flight. I slept, watched a movie, slept, ate, watched another movie, or maybe it was the same one and slept again. My wife and I arrived at our Tokyo hotel almost three-hours later than the students for reasons that only our exhaustion and that of a Narita immigration official can explain. We met them as they left for sushi and sake. There was a cake shop next to the hotel entrance – sent by some gracious deity who looks after weary travelers. That was our only meal until breakfast the next day, which seemed to be upon us immediately after I closed my eyes.

The next three days were spent touring Tokyo, taking photographs of dozens of fantastic sites. The students would tell us of the best places that they had visited that day, and we would visit some of them the next day. They were faster than we were!

Then we moved to Disney, Tokyo, to prepare for the contest. We were entertained by acrobats from China, Taiko Drummers from Japan, and two ladies who played ancient Chinese or Japanese two-stringed instruments by striking the strings with long metal spoons – all fascinating for a Pink Floyd fan. IBM, the company sponsoring the entire ICPC contest, took us to their Tokyo headquarters and touted Ruby and Ruby on Rails and another breakthrough that they were developing.

Finally, we gathered for the contest. Eighty-seven teams competed in a huge Disney Hotel ballroom. Coaches were allowed to sit in a small area at one end of the room. I would have needed binoculars to have seen the faces of my team members. Some teams sat quietly with their heads down, fingers racing across keyboards. There were occasional shoulder punches when a favorable result was received. The team from Warsaw were often on their feet arguing, pushing and shoving each other. They received scornful glances from neighboring teams and were repeatedly told to be quiet by the officials.

The scoreboard updated every few seconds with the news that team x had solved problem y. The current standings were shown in a huge table. With one agonizing hour remaining the scoreboard froze. UT Dallas was fourteenth. Could they improve, could others overtake them, was I hungry? Should I go for a walk? Maybe Tai Chi? Nothing mattered but to keep breathing and to wait, and wait. My team reported at the end of the contest that they had solved five of the eight problems, but the noisy team from Warsaw had solved more. After dinner and more entertainment (by acts flown in from Las Vegas), the results were finally announced. The noisy team from Warsaw had won. The UT Dallas team had come 14th in the world, third among US teams. It was a glorious moment, one that brought tears to my eyes.

Months later the Erik Jonsson School of Engineering at UT Dallas honored the team at the Annual Teaching Awards Ceremony. I gave a speech, largely along the lines of the story above, and then I sat down with my team to enjoy dessert. Jack Lindamood whispered to me that he was one of the students on that Greyhound bus to LSU in 2000. He had left UT Dallas, subsequently completing his Bachelors in Computer Science at the University of North Texas, and then had returned to UT Dallas for his MS in Computer Science. I had worked with him for almost a year during my fall contests, the training for the World Finals, and the trip to Tokyo, without knowing that he was one of those gallant UT Dallas students to dream big enough, to set us on an incredible journey. No team from our region has ever been placed higher than 14th (not even close). Representative Fred Hill wrote a resolution, passed by the Texas House of Representatives, honoring our team.

Our story does not end there.

Jack Lindermood and Matthew Dempsky are very successful software engineers working in California. Michelle Berger went on to graduate from The Harvard Law School. She practiced law in Manhattan for a few years before moving to California. Jack and Michelle are both married (not to each other) and both have growing families.


ABOUT THE UT DALLAS COMPUTER SCIENCE DEPARTMENT

The UT Dallas Computer Science program is one of the largest Computer Science departments in the United States with over 2,400 bachelor’s-degree students, more than 1,000 master’s students, 150 Ph.D. students,  53 tenure-track faculty members and 38 full-time senior lecturers, as of Fall 2017. With The University of Texas at Dallas’ unique history of starting as a graduate institution first, the CS Department is built on a legacy of valuing innovative research and providing advanced training for software engineers and computer scientists.

 

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