Computer Whizzes Place 2nd

Members of the Harvard Computing Contest Club spent their three-day weekend writing computer programs to come up with an effective design for an airline catering to dogs.

The computer whizzes—Andrew K. McCollum ’07, Ameya A. Velingker ’10, and Yan Zhang ’07—are not planning on entering the dog-airline business, but the students competed in Saturday’s Northeast regional finals of the 31st annual Association for Computer Machinery International Collegiate Programming Contest sponsored by IBM.

The competition, held at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT), featured five hours of algorithmic revelry at the end of which Harvard’s three-man team placed second, coming short of securing a ticket to the world finals slated for next March in Tokyo. The winner of the competition, MIT, correctly solved seven out of eight programming questions; the Harvard team scored four.

But McCollum said there was little rivalry between the two neighboring schools.

“We hung out with them afterwards at RIT, we played some pool, and ate some food. It was collegial,” he said.

The Harvard team, however, still has a good chance of earning a wild-card berth to the world finals, depending on the outcomes of the other regional competitions.

“Historically, our region has been represented, so there’s a good chance,” Velingker said.

The heated competition involved college students hunched over keyboards, inputting data sets and writing algorithms to determine viable solutions to “real-world scenarios” involving allergic robots and assigning faculty to university committees.

“It can get nervous, especially at the end when we’re trying to finish up the problems,” McCollum said, adding that he thought the competition was “relatively tough as far as recent years.”

Although Harvard placed ninth in the 2004 world finals at Prague, students from other countries have dominated the competition in recent years, according to Douglas Heintzman, IBM director of technical strategy.

If Harvard secures the wild-card berth, they will face strong competition from other countries. The past eight world champions have all come from foreign universities, including Saratov State University in Russia, Shanghai Jiao Tong University in China, and Warsaw University in Poland.

But Heintzman said that he does not believe this reflects a lack of talent in the United States, attributing the foreign dominance to increasing enthusiasm in other countries about the competition.

“In many geographies, this is it,” he said. “This is their opportunity to be recognized, get employment, and to be celebrated as rock stars. As a result, they work really hard at it.”