Last semester I attended ACM's (Association for Computing Machinery) bi-annual programming competition at a local University. My University sent 2 teams of 3 people and we competed amongst other schools in the mid-west.
We got our butts kicked.
You are given a packet with about 11 problems (1 problem per page) and you have 4 hours to solve as many as you can. They'll run your program you submit against a set of data and your output must match theirs exactly. In fact, the judging is automated for the most part.
In any case.. I went there fairly confident in my programming skills and I left there feeling drained and weak. It was a terribly humbling experience. In 4 hours my team of 3 people completed only one of the problems. The top team completed 4 of them and took 1st place. The problems they asked were like no problems I have ever had to answer before. I later learned that in order to solve them some of them effectively you have to use graphs/graph algorithms, trees, stacks. Some of them were simply "greedy" algo's.
My question is, how can I better prepare for this semesters programming competition so I don't leave there feeling like a complete moron? What tips do you have for me to be able to answer these problems that involve graphs, trees, various "well known" algorithms? How can I easily identify the algorithm we should implement for a given problem? I have yet to take Algorithm Design in school so I just feel a little out of my element.
Here are some examples of the questions asked at the competitions: ACM Problem Sets
Just wanted to update this since the latest competition is over. My team placed 1st for our small region (about 6-7 universities with between 1-5 teams each school) and ~15th for the midwest!
So, it is a marked improvement over last years performance for sure. We also had no graduate students on our team and after reviewing the rules we found out that many teams had several! So, that would be a pretty big advantage in my own opinion.
Problems this semester ranged from about 1-2 "easy" problems (ie bit manipulation, string manipulation) to hard (graph problems involving fairly complex math and network flow problems). We were able to solve 4 problems in our 5 hours.
Just wanted to thank everyone for the resources they provided here, we used them for our weekly team practices and it definitely helped!
Some quick tips that I have that aren't suggested below:
- When you are seated at your computer before the competition starts, quickly type out various data structures that you might need that you won't have access to in your languages libraries. I typed out a Graph data-structure complete with floyd-warshall and dijkstra's algorithm before the competition began. We ended up using it in our 2nd problem that we solved and this is the main reason why we solved this problem before anyone else in the midwest. We had it ready to go from the beginning.
- Similarly, type out the code to read in a file since this will be required for every problem. Save this answer "template" someplace so you can quickly copy/paste it to your IDE at the beginning of each problem. There are no rules on programming anything before the competition starts so get any boilerplate code out the way.
- We found it useful to have one person who is on permanent whiteboard duty. This is usually the person who is best at math and at working out solutions to get a head start on future problems you will be doing.
- One person is on permanent programming duty. Your fastest/most skilled "programmer" (most familiar with the language). This will save debugging time also.
- The last person has several roles between assessing the packet of problems for the next "easiest" problem, helping the person on the whiteboard work out solutions and helping the person programming work out bugs/issues. This person needs to be flexible and be able to switch between roles easily.