UBC Squad Knocks Stanford and Berkeley Out of the “Geek Olympics”

For the third year in a row, a UBC student team has beat out Stanford and Berkeley to take top prize in the Pacific Northwest Regional round of an international contest affectionately named the Geek Olympics by programming enthusiasts.

Sponsored by IBM and the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM), the 30 th Annual International Collegiate Programming Contest attracted more than 5,000 university teams world-wide. The top two to three teams from each of 35 regionals advance to the world finals next April in San Antonio, Texas.

“Stanford and Berkeley don’t get to compete in the world finals this year because UBC and SFU took the top two places in our region,” says Bartholomew Furrow, a UBC physics master’s student and coach of the team of mostly computer science students.

Contestants, in teams of three, are asked to solve as many real world — and some less practical — programming problems as possible in five hours, while sharing one computer and one keyboard. The problems included helping a student figure out how many semesters it would take to graduate from a variety of universities, analyzing a sequence of moves in a board game, and the fantasy challenge of rescuing a platoon of leaping lizards from a flaming labyrinth.

Furrow, who competed twice as an undergraduate while at Queen’s University and once as a grad student at UBC, says the secret to UBC’s consistently high performance is simple. “We just have fun,” he says.

“We spend up to at least 10 hours a week practicing as a group, and that doesn’t include the ongoing e-mail discussions and board game nights to help build team rapport,” says Furrow, whose performance at previous competitions earned him two summer internships at Google Inc. and an offer to work full-time there upon graduation.

“This is why collaboration is so important in preparing for the competition,” says Furrow. “You can’t win by simply being excellent geeks, you have to win by being an excellent team.”

In addition to programming and team skills, Furrow attests from personal experience that participating in the contest can have some unexpected benefits. He met his girlfriend in the 2004 Prague World Finals. “I was pretty lucky because out of 219 contests, there were only eight girls. She was on the University of Calgary team and we just hit it off.”