Newlyweds earn nest egg
CS grad students win cash in
global coding tournament
by Sara Peters
newlyweds. They're among the finest programmers in the world.
And they're ours.
Two graduate students, who are husband
and wife, from the Department of Computer Science used their
coding skills to win $14,000 and are now competing for more
Zhiyan Liu and Ruoming Pang were awarded
the cash for their successes in the semiannual TopCoder Invitational
held Nov. 22, and 23, 2002, and are now participating in the
spring 2003 competition.
TopCoder Inc. organizes and hosts online
programming competitions at www.topcoder.com, and twice a
year organizes a large competition that gives coders the chance
to win up to $50,000. TopCoder invites the 1,024 top-ranked
coders, who go through several rounds of online competition
to winnow the group down to 16 semifinalists.
by Frank Wojciechowski
Liu and Ruoming Pang are Top Coders.
The top 16 are invited to an on-site event,
which was held this fall at the Mohegan Sun Casino in Uncasville,
Conn., to vie for the grand prize.
Zhiyan, a fifth-year student working with
Professor Kai Li on data theorization, came in fourth place
overall, winning $10,000.
She bested her husband, Ruoming, in the
semifinals. A third-year student working with Professor Larry
Petersen on network systems, Ruoming won $4,000. The pair
wed Feb. 4, and now are in the spring competition as husband
The preliminary competitions go like this:
Members sign on with their TopCoder handles. Zhiyan is known
as moira, and Ruoming calls himself Obfuscator.
The competitors meet online at a scheduled
time. The competitors are given three coding tasks of varying
difficulties, and they have 75 minutes to complete all three.
Each problem is assigned a fixed point value, and more points
are earned for the coder's quickness in completing the problem.
Another way to earn points is during the
challenge phase. Competitors have 15 minutes to view the programs
created by their opponents and look for errors. If a coder
finds an error, they can earn 50 points for themselves. However,
if they're wrong, they lose 50.
"The on-site competition is basically
the same," Ruoming said. "But a lot scarier,"
At the semifinals, the coders do their
programming behind translucent booths on a stage. Though the
coder can't see his or her opponents, they can see shadows
of the spectators moving across the translucent walls.
Facing out to the audience are four screens
that mirror the coders' monitors, so spectators can follow
along as the competitors type out the program line by line.
The soughs and susurrations of the watchful spectators' commentary
can rattle concentration.
"It was much more difficult than the
on-line competition," Ruoming said, "because every
time I made a typo, I would be embarrassed."
The couple has high aspirations for the
ongoing spring competition, particularly for one another.
"I think Zhiyan has more potential
in the semifinals than I do," Ruoming said, ignoring
Zhiyan's protests to the contrary. "I'm not very comfortable
with that style of competition. She's pretty good under pressure."
Indeed, Zhiyan surpassed expectations in
the fall competition. When the original 1,024 were selected,
Ruoming was seeded 17th place, but she was seeded only 59.
She climbed the ranks with each round, stopping at 19, a few
rungs shy of semifinal eligibility.
Then luck stepped in. Three of the competitors
in the top 16 were from China, and unable to make it to the
States for the on-site competition. Zhiyan modestly said that
she did not deserve to compete in their stead, but she felt
very fortunate and privileged for the opportunity.
Thus, Zhiyan became the first woman ever
to make the semifinals at the TopCoder competition, later
breaking more new ground by moving into the finals. While
Zhiyan is pleased that she broke the ice for female coders,
she thinks it a dubious honor and is uncomfortable with the
attention that she's received for it.
"What bothers me is that it shows
men and women still aren't equal in this field. I truly hoped
there would be more women in the competition," she said.
"I don't like people saying I'm the first female to be
in the finals, because the stress is on 'female,' as though
it's a bigger achievement for a woman."
Zhiyan hopes more women will become involved
in the spring competition. In the meantime, the newlyweds
have to keep working and thinking about how to spend their
"We both like traveling and
hiking," Zhiyan said, "so maybe we could spend it
by going somewhere exotic."
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