'Battle of the Brains' Finalists to Code for Cash

Harvard Computing Club members could win $10,000

This week three students will tackle a problem set, but they’re not out to get A’s. If they ace this, they could win $10,000 and laptops all round.

Andrew K. McCollum ’06-’07, Yan Zhang ’07, and Ameya A. Velingker ’10—all members of the Harvard Computing Contest Club—flew to Tokyo this weekend to enter the 31st Association for Computing Machinery International Collegiate Programming Contest, which attracts college technophiles from all over the world.

The three are the first Harvard students since 2004 to make it to the contest’s finals—also known as the “Battle of the Brains.”

The contest, sponsored by IBM and lasting through March 16 in Tokyo’s Disneyland, selected the finalists from a pool of thousands of teams from 82 countries.

“It’s a big, big worldwide thing,” said Doug Heinsman, director of Lotus Strategy for IBM’s Software Group and the contest sponsorship executive.

After finishing second to MIT at a regional competition in November, the Harvard team will now compete against 87 other top teams in Tokyo.

The three team members were selected in the fall by their coach, Lecturer in Computer Science Robert L. Walton.

In fact, Zhang and his teammates were actually the “second”-picked Harvard team, but they upset the first Harvard team in the preliminaries.

The competition lasts five hours, with 10 problems for each team to solve, Heinsman said. When the teammates figure out a solution, they submit it to a bank of judges. When a team finds a solution, contest staff bring a color-coded balloon, with one color for each problem solved. Other teams watch for the proverbial white smoke.

“When someone comes up with a new color, everybody gasps,” Heinsman said.

The winning team will receive a $10,000 scholarship and IBM ThinkPads for each of its members.

Zhang, a mathematics concentrator in Mather House who has been on the team since he was a sophomore, attributes his team’s success to an ability to synthesize individual talents.

“All of us pulled our weights very equally throughout practices and going to these actual competitions, and I think our teamwork makes us greater than the sum of our abilities,” he said.

Velingker and McCollum, who left for Tokyo early Saturday morning, could not be reached for comment.

The contest provides opportunities to the students that extend beyond competition, Heinsman said.

“They have the chance to interact with a lot of IBM employees and some of the top researchers in the world,” Heinsman said. “They get to lay their hands on technology that is incredibly advanced.”

Heinsman added that the contest has a large social component to it as well, including tours of Tokyo, a life-size chess board, and undisclosed festivities.

“We have a big party planned for them, always a big secret,” Heinsman said. “Last year we had a real authentic rodeo with piglet wrestling.”

—Staff writer Angela A. Sun can be reached at asun@fas.harvard.edu.