By Bill Kisliuk

Four UCLA computer science students will head to Morocco in May to participate in the world’s most prestigious computer programming competition.

The Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) Intercollegiate Collegiate Programming Contest 2015 world finals will take place in Marrakech, Morocco, on May 20. The UCLA team is one of 128, including 23 from United States universities, to earn a spot at the finals. Students from more than 2,500 universities in more than 100 countries participated in earlier rounds.

The UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science team includes Hao Chen, Xin Gao and Chaoshuai Lu. Their competition advisor is Shahid Chohan, a senior majoring in computer science and vice president of the UCLA ACM chapter.

David Smallberg, a lecturer and vice-chair of the Computer Science Department, is the team’s faculty advisor. Smallberg was a member of UCLA teams that took second place in the ACM competition finals in 1983 and 1985, and coached a UCLA team that won the competition in 1989.

In the finals, teams will be presented with up to eight complex problems to solve in five hours, using a single computer. The contest requires skills in programming, algorithms, number theory, game theory, and, of course, teamwork.

ACM 2015The contest can be harder than final exams, Chohan noted, in part because an answer must be 100 percent correct to earn points, and teams are penalized for submitting incorrect solutions. The team that takes the shortest amount of time to solve the most problems in the fewest attempts will be the winner.

“It’s all or nothing,” Chohan said. “Either your answer is right and you are good, or not.”

By the same token, he said, it is beautiful when that moment of insight comes and programmers know just how to take on a task.

Hao Chen and Xin Gao are both seniors who are part of UCLA Engineering’s Joint Research Institute in Science and Engineering with Peking University. Under the program, students at UCLA and Peking University spend at least one school year abroad and work on research collaborations between the two schools.

The team earned the right to attend the finals at a regional competition held at Riverside Community College, where it bested three other UCLA teams and finished second overall.

The ACM contest has its origins in a competition between universities in Texas in 1970, and spread to cover the nation and then much of the world. The contest is sponsored by IBM.