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Updated 11:30 AM December 6, 2004




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  International Collegiate Programming Contest
Get with the program: Computing team works
to be best in the world

On competition day, Kevin Compton gathers in a room with all the other coaches, who pace, talk and watch the action on a monitor. Together, they anxiously anticipate the final results like expectant fathers in a hospital waiting room.

But Compton keeps his cool. He knows that in this, the International Collegiate Programming Contest, his teams have what it takes to make their coach proud.
Coach Kevin Compton (seated) is joined by part of the Victors team: Nuttapong Chentanez and James McCann; assistant coaches Jarrod Roy and Charles Zhang; and Valiant team member William Cheng. (Photo by Paul Jaronski, U-M Photo Services)

Last month, Compton's two computer programming teams took third and fourth places in the Association for Computing Machinery's programming contest in Ashland, Ohio. Compton attributes the victories to students' capability and dedication to the team.

"Part of the reason we can do this is we get such good students. We have so much talent. Being organized enough to start early and practice is important, too. If you get everything in place early enough, you'll do fine," he says.

The three-person teams, named U-M Victors and U-M Valiant, competed in a five-hour battle against 131 teams from 71 other colleges. Team Victors' third-place finish has earned it a seat at the world finals in Shanghai in April. It will be the second time Compton has taken a team to world finals; last year, Michigan placed 27th at the international competition in Prague.

Compton, who assembles and trains the teams, won't stand on the sidelines and shout. He won't prepare a rallying half-time speech, either—there's no need, since the team is in another room. But he will be as nervous as a football coach on a Saturday afternoon.

Though the wait is nerve-wracking, Compton says he finds his own ways to kill time and relax. During one competition, he and a fellow coach from U-M-Dearborn traded their waiting-room seats for a set of billiard balls.

"I noticed a place to play pool down the street, so I said, 'Hey, let's head down there for a while.' It was something else to do," Compton says. "And it did help to relieve the tension."

As for the teams, they are left to work together and finish as many of the eight computing problems as they can. It's a high-pressure situation, Compton says, since participants get one composite grade for several hours of work.

"It's all or nothing. If they get the right output, it's OK; if not, there might be some vague error messages, but it's pretty much up to them to figure out what's wrong," he says. "Oftentimes students will walk out and say, 'If only I had a half-hour more.' There's always that feeling."

Teams that do well are those that work together and train religiously. Canada, Compton says, continually produces teams that perform at the highest level.

"Usually, not all the problems get solved—in fact, only one team finished all the problems last year: the University of Waterloo (Ontario). Canadian schools really drill programming," he says. "After hockey and curling, it's the number one sport of Canada."

For the team of students that will compete in Shanghai in April, the goals are simple: work hard, work together and work to win. For Compton, there's one additional goal.

"It would be nice to beat Waterloo," he says. "Everyone wants to be number one, especially Michigan."

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