Comparisons

Today we hosted a NextCode event: a head-to-head coding competition. Two people competed on the spot in the TFL, close to the TV wall where we could use the projector. We displayed each competitors code on monitors (mine and Kevin’s) for the audience to appreciate. Overall, it was great fun and attracted quite a crowd at times. However, the focus of this post is on the last round, where an impressive code and his friends joined the fray.

We picked an annoying problem (shortest path in a maze) and let them at it. It was clear that one coder had extensive IOI, USACO experience. He whipped out Dijkstra’s in a few minutes but got a WA. Kevin jumped in to race him and we had a proper fight. Both produced code like a fountain, but couldn’t get the elusive “pass”. As this was happening, one of the inexperienced friends wrote a one-liner which randomly guessed an answer in the range (1-20). The focus was still heavily on the two coding giants banging away on their keyboards.

Kevin transitioned to VIM and the suspense became tangible. The guest coder was still getting WA and after copy-pasting his elegant code, so did Kevin. Then suddenly, on his 60th submission the one-line hero got a “pass”. WHAT, everyone went crazy. The atmosphere loosened up; everyone was smiling and laughing again. More than anything, I think people were just happy the seriousness was gone.

The guest coder was clearly miffed. He began by blaming our test cases, then moved to interrogating Kevin. IOI, IMO, IPho? Did you do TopCoder? Oh, CodeChef? The classic “size-up”. I remember this feeling all too well from my freshman year. Young and insecure, we come into MIT constantly making comparisons. This kid was clearly brilliant, but desperately wanted to demonstrate it. Interview questions, math puzzles, coding challenges; we constantly look to prove ourselves in such small ways. When I say “we”, I really mean me. The “me” from freshman year and even the current “me”. Events like screwing up an ACM round or not getting a brain-teaser used to eat into my self-esteem.

I’m better now though. I lose and I let go. Not always, but far more often now. It’s just a matter of perspective (and ego reduction), but it requires constant and deliberate effort.

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