Wednesday, May 10, 2006

No US topcoders?

TopCoder is a global programming competition with thousands of competitors worldwide. If I recall correctly, in the early rounds you qualify by taking online tests, then advance to regional and global finals. Any competition like this is just a crude evaluator of talent (although I'm sure anyone who can win TopCoder is very talented), and perhaps not entirely predictive of real-world performance. Nevertheless, it is alarming how poorly Americans are doing at the competition. There were similarly poor results in the recent ACM collegiate programming championships, in which no US team made the top 10.

The two Americans mentioned in the WSJ article below are both Caltech guys! (The older brother just graduated, I think.)

Cause for Concern? Americans Are Scarce
In Top Tech Contest
May 10, 2006

The results have been carefully tabulated by a computer and, thus, are beyond dispute: Of the 48 best computer programmers in the world, only four of them are Americans. But what that bit of data says about the state of the U.S. education system is open to debate.

Back in February, I wrote about a computer-programming competition run by an outfit called TopCoder. That event was part of the run-up to the global finals held last week in Las Vegas. If you have trouble putting "computer programming" and "spectator sport" in the same sentence, you haven't been to one of these contests. From the gasps, moans and cheers as the audience watched the scoreboard tracking the contestants, you'd have thought you were at a World Cup match.

As noted in February, these competitions were dominated at their start in 2001 by Americans, but that's no longer the case -- not by a long shot. In fact, of the four Americans who won the top seats out of 4,500 contestants, two were brothers: Po-Shen Loh, 23, a graduate student in math at Princeton University, and his 21-year-old sibling, Po-Ru, now an undergraduate at CalTech. Both were born in the Midwest of parents who had emigrated to the U.S. from Singapore; their father is a professor of statistics at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

By contrast, there were eight from Russia, and four each from Norway and China. The biggest delegation -- 11 -- came from Poland.

So, is all this more evidence of a sad decline in American education and competitiveness?

Surprisingly, the Eastern Europeans don't seem to think so. Poland's Krzysztof Duleba, 22, explained that in countries like his own, there are so few economic opportunities for students that competitions like these are their one chance to participate in the global economy. Some of the Eastern Europeans even seemed slightly embarrassed by their over-representation, saying it isn't evidence of any superior schooling or talent so much as an indicator of how much they have to prove.

Much of Poland's abundant interest in coding contests can be traced to Tomasz Czajka, who as a multiple TopCoder champion has won more than $100,000 in prize money since the competition began. That has made him something of a national hero back home, and other students have been eager to follow suit.

Each round of competition had three problems: easy, medium and hard. The hard problem of the final round required contestants to figure out the most efficient way of using computer cable to connect different nodes in a network.

Naturally, the actual problem was vastly more complicated than that description makes it seem. John Dethridge, an Australian contestant, said the average computer-science undergraduate might not be able to solve that third problem at all, much less do so in the 90 minutes the contestants had to tackle all three.

The final round involved eight contestants culled during the first two days of competition. None of the Americans made the final cut; instead, there were two Russians, two Poles, and coders from Australia, China, Japan and Slovakia. One of the Russians, Petr Mitrichev, 21, won, taking home $20,000 for his efforts.

Others attending the contest cautioned against reaching any sky-is-falling conclusions about the relative lack of success of Americans.

Ken Vogel, a former TopCoder contestant who was at the event recruiting for his current employer, UBS, noted that in the real world, programmers need many other skills in addition to the ability to solve quickly some discrete and entirely artificial problems. These include, he said, thinking about the big picture, working well in teams, and anticipating the sorts of things that users of computers and computer software might actually want.

It's not at all clear that any of the famous U.S. technology entrepreneurs of the past several decades would have done particularly well at such a contest.

Still, when contemplating how out of place some of the strongly disciplined Russian or Polish programmers would be among American college students, who all too often become either slackers or salary-obsessed careerists out for the easy score, it's hard not to be depressed.

American contestant Po-Shen Loh recalled recently happening upon an afternoon TV cartoon aimed at toddlers, in which a stereotypically brainy student was being teased by his classmates. "They were making fun of the smart one," he sighed. "If this is what American kids are watching even before they know any better, it can't help but affect them later on."

The TopCoder company pays for these events in part by attracting sponsors who pony up for the privilege of recruiting from among the contestants. One of the sponsors was the National Security Agency, which, as keeper of America's state secrets, isn't allowed to hire noncitizens. That makes it one of the few employers anywhere who can't participate in the globalization of the computer industry that the contest represents.

The other sponsors, however, were all smiles.


Anonymous said...

Last I checked, all most all the top contestants on The Apprentice were American!


Anonymous said...

This article was posted on Slashdot. Pretty amusing to read the comments. Lot's of Slashdot readers have high regard for their own coding skills, and have to rationalize why they couldn't be bothered to compete in such a silly contest.

Anonymous said...

I tend to side with the Eastern Europeans here, that US absence from this competition isn't all that meaningful...

After all, don't hotshot programmers looking for fame and fortune have somewhat better options in the USA than entering programming competitions?

Anonymous said...

I'm a relatively recent Stanford engineering undergrad and know only one person that participated in TopCoder competitions. Maybe I hang with the wrong crowd, but in my opinion it's just one more thing students don't have time to do. What's the point? You don't get much money if you're not the very best. And you don't need the recognition if you're already at Stanford. These are likely powerful motivators elsewhere. The people that have it together are doing research with profs or working on more interesting projects like Stanley (the DARPA autonomous vehicle competition).

Steve Hsu said...

It's certainly true that there is an asymmetry in motivation between US students and students from former Soviet bloc countries, or China. Fewer US students are training for this kind of thing (even the ACM competition). They might spend their time more pleasantly on a real research project.

Not sure that that explains the whole effect, though.

I was just looking at a startup Web site and one of their founders listed making the ACM finals as a big accomplishment, and he was an MIT undergrad -- not a foreigner.

Anonymous said...

you guys are funny :) remind me of NBC commentators at Olympics -- if there is no US winner, that's insignificant event competition, but if there is a US gold, it's a world pedestal...

IMHO this indicates change in psychology and hype -- programming jobs are no more the highway to riches as they used to be in '99

Anonymous said...

Exactly, if you are at MIT or Stanford, you can hide behind the mystique of your institution and your connections. Competing in a forum where you have no built in advantage and are likely to be beat by people from less elite institutions, will in turn degrade the value of your pedigree. Their is a rational self-interest factor in people from elite institutions collectively boycotting such competitions.

Anonymous said...

I know there are people from MIT and Stanford who are just great at TopCoder. In 2007, MIT team won a gold medal at ACM ICPC world finals. So, i guess this proves something.

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