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Illinois Team Advances to ICPC World Finals

7/21/2016 10:57:00 AM By Tom Moone, CS @ ILLINOIS

Every year the ACM International Collegiate Programming Contest (ICPC) brings outstanding computer science student s from around the world together for several days of symposia talks, networking, and intensive computing competition at the ICPC World Finals.

This year CS @ ILLINOIS will be sending three students to the world finals, held this year in Phuket, Thailand, May 15-20. One thing that stands out about this year’s Illinois team is that two of the three team members are freshmen. The team members are CS freshmen Lan Dao and Xin (“Victor”) Gao, and CS graduate student Siwakorn Srisakaokul.

The Illinois team going to the ICPC World Finals (from left): Jingbo Shang (assistant coach), Lan Dao, Siwakorn (Ping) Srisakaokul, Xin (Victor) Gao, and Uttam Thakore (coach).
The Illinois team going to the ICPC World Finals (from left): Jingbo Shang (assistant coach), Lan Dao, Siwakorn (Ping) Srisakaokul, Xin (Victor) Gao, and Uttam Thakore (coach).
The Illinois team going to the ICPC World Finals (from left): Jingbo Shang (assistant coach), Lan Dao, Siwakorn (Ping) Srisakaokul, Xin (Victor) Gao, and Uttam Thakore (coach).


“We hold tryouts in the early fall for the teams,” said team coach and CS grad student Uttam Thakore. “The top people get on the top team, the next people on the next team, and so on. So we send our strongest people there. These guys were our strongest at Illinois, and it just so happened that two of them are freshmen. Last year we had one senior, one junior, and one graduate student.”

“Age does not really matter in this kind of competition,” said Srisakaokul. “Even if my teammates are still freshmen, they already have lots of necessary skill and knowledge for the competition. That does not have any impact on my team as long as we all have enough knowledge to understand what we are talking about.”

The contests test the ability of a small team to work under pressure. In the regional contest held at the University of Chicago, each team had five hours to answer nine problems of varying difficulty. Some were easy, others harder, and one problem was extremely difficult. The order of difficulty is random—the first questions are not necessarily the easiest, and the last is not necessarily the most difficult. For the regional competition, the Illinois team divided the questions among the three members, and each tried to answer the easier questions first.

To make the competition even more challenging, each team has only one computer to work with. Time sharing of the equipment therefore becomes a very important issue.

There are two ways to get to the ICPC World Finals competition. One is to win a regional championship. The other is to be invited based on a strong showing at the regional championship. The past several years Illinois has sent a team based on their strong showing. This year, however they won the competition outright.

To help students interested in honing their ability to excel in these types of competitions, the CS Department offers two relatively new courses. CS491CAP: Introduction to Competitive Algorithmic Programming, which is offered in the fall, and CS 491WF: Competitive Algorithmic Programming, which is offered in the spring and which is a more advanced look at these competitions.  These courses provide more regularized schedules of practice, drills, and strategies for competitors. It is not required for students participating in ICPC to take this course, but many do.

Under the supervision of Thakore and assistant coach Jingbo Shang, the ICPC team meets regularly for structured practices, sometimes working on problems from previous national and international competitions, and sometimes working on strategies for dealing with stress and other competition distractions.

In spite of the heavy workload that a commitment to these competitions requires, the team members are enjoying their time together. “I’ve been in this kind of competition for two or three years,” said Dao, “but this is the first time to do it as a team. It’s fun to have two partners. Doing a five-hour competition is kind of cool.”

Gao said, “I guess I feel the fun of it. I enjoy doing such intensive coding and the reasoning process.”

And Srisakaokul agreed: “I always enjoy solving interesting and challenging problems. It feels great to spend some time trying to solve a problem and finally come up with an elegant solution in the end.”

All of the team members have experience working in competitive computing environments. Srisakaokul has been involved in programming contests for nearly five years. Dao and Gao have both been involved in similar competitions during their high school years.

Though the team recognizes that there is strong competition for the international slate of participants at ICPC, they know that they will be working at their peak ability, and they are confident that they can make their university proud.