Wednesday 26 July 2017

When kids become code-kings, the Valley is their oyster

Top sport programmer: Gennady Korotkevich
Top sport programmer: Gennady Korotkevich

Ashlee Vance

At 21, Gennady Vladimirovich Korotkevich is already a legend. Tourist, as he's known online, is the world's top sport programmer. He competes against others to solve coding puzzles, and he's good at it. Perhaps too good.

"Probably the only person making a living at sport programming is Gennady because he wins so many of the competitions," says Vladimir Novakovski, a retired sport programmer who still follows the competitions closely. "We've never seen anyone like him."

With his skills, Korotkevich could get a high-paying job at any company in Silicon Valley. But the Belarusian isn't ready to be a coding professional just yet. This autumn he'll return to class at Saint Petersburg State University of Information Technologies, Mechanics and Optics, he's said, in possible preparation for a career in science.

Sport coding does not offer much in the way of high drama or charismatic personalities. Still, sport coding has gone relatively unnoticed for too long. It's a form of competition that rewards natural talent, perseverance, and teamwork. And, even more crucial for life in 2015, being a good sport coder is a surefire way for an 18-year-old to get noticed by the thousands of companies looking to rain money down on software developers.

Facebook's Hacker Cup, one of the few annual sport-coding events hosted by a tech giant, began earlier this year with virtual preliminary rounds in which people try to solve problems online. The top contestants receive all-expenses-paid invitations to a competition at Facebook's headquarters. It should come as no surprise to learn that most of the finalists are computer science-minded youngsters from Russia, Eastern Europe, and Asia who view the Hacker Cup as a nice way to get a trip to Silicon Valley and maybe have a job interview or two.

All of the competitors are men, or at least on their way to becoming men. They're not the healthiest-looking bunch, with an average weight that appears to be no more than 120 pounds. There's a disturbingly stereotypical assortment of ticks, both verbal and gesticular, as well as bowl haircuts, wan faces, and shabby clothes. Mark Zuckerberg would look like an Adonis in this room.

The Hacker Cup goes much the same way as other sport-coding contests: five puzzles to finish in any order over three hours. Keep the programming as efficient as possible. The cleanest, most accurate code in the fastest time takes first place. A common type of problem might ask for the shortest route between San Francisco and Los Angeles given a number of constraints. Or perhaps the problem is about how to tile a floor in a specific pattern. The questions typically revolve around a well-known algorithm or mathematical structure with a fresh twist. Elite sport coders must figure out the underlying logic quickly and then trust their abilities. "You have to convince yourself pretty early on that what you are doing will work," says Wesley May, a software engineer at Facebook who helps run the Hacker Cup.

Korotkevich first began freaking people out aged eight, when he took second place in a major Belarusian coding competition. To put this achievement in perspective, the score was high enough for Korotkevich to be granted automatic enrolment in a top technical university without needing to pass any other exams. At 12, was 20th at the International Olympiad in Informatics, and went on to set a record by winning it three times.

Parents the world over encourage their children to code because of the job prospects just about guaranteed by such skills. Yet, even in technology circles, sport coding remains a backwater. Google and Facebook are among only a handful of major US companies that sponsor events, and their contests are considered minor affairs among the hardcore competitors. Wall Street does a better job courting these developers by sponsoring coaches, training sessions, and players in the US.

The ultimate sport-coding competition for US school students is the International Olympiad in Informatics, or IOI. Over the history of the competition, the US has won the most times - 17 - but no team from the US has won since 1997. Russian and Chinese teams have destroyed all comers of late, winning most events since 2000.

Outside of the national and international events, young coders have started to flock to sites such as Codeforces and Topcoder to find online sport-coding competitions. It's on these sites where constant battles take place among hundreds of thousands of people, and plenty of cash gets handed out. Topcoder has paid out almost $72 million in prize money since 2001. Korotkevich is the top-ranked coder on both sites. Outside of the big names, though, thousands of people are using these sites to make a name for themselves and try to supercharge their careers. Some of the competitors have turned to sport coding as a means of skipping college altogether and joining the Silicon Valley ranks.

There's growing evidence that hiring a top sport programmer is a coup for software companies. "Every time I have hired someone who is good at these contests, they have crushed the job. They tend to be fast, accurate, and into getting things done," says Novakovski, a retired sport programmer. (Bloomberg)

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