'March Madness' of coding contests highlights two trends

By Brian Jackson, ITBusiness.ca |  IT Management

During the opening ceremonies, each team was introduced on a large video screen. You could literally count the number of female competitors on one hand. Though it was more common to see female coaches, as is the case with the University of Toronto's Carolyn MacLeod.

Last year's winner, Zhejiang University from China, had a female student on its team and that was likely a the first time a girl won the trophy. The lack of female competitors here underlines the overall dearth of women choosing computer science as a field of study and career choice.

North America's decline in computer science

The ICPC competition became much more international after IBM began sponsoring it in 1997, and 1999 was the last time a North American school won the top spot -- Canada's own University of Waterloo. Last year, the University of Michigan at Ann Arbour surprised many by coming in second place overall. But North American schools have occupied the top 10 spots less often in recent years, with teams from China and Russia dominating the contest.

It makes sense that the Asia region schools are more competitive, as they must rise above more competition to make it here. Although there are proportionally more students in the Eastern continent competing to get here, they do not get a matching number of teams entered. In order to make space for other teams from around the world, they get squeezed out.

But the trend also reflects a cultural difference that should concern North Americans. While computer programming is considered "geeky" and socially undesirable in the U.S. and Canada, the contestants from China here actually have fans rooting for them back home. The other contestants often speak of the Chinese students' reputation for rigorous practice schedules and ability to write out sections of code on pure muscle memory.

It's almost as if those students are taking this contest as seriously as basketball is taken in the U.S. during March Madness.


Originally published on ITBusiness.ca |  Click here to read the original story.
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