Posted: April 8, 1999
John Clevenger once used pencil and paper to keep score for what has become the International Collegiate Programming Contest.
Students would rush into the computer room with programs written on a stack of punched cards. Clevenger would mark the time. A testing group would feed the cards into the mainframe, then rush on to test the next stack of cards. At the end, Clevenger and his staff would gather their notes and figure the scores for each team.
It didn't take long for the California State University, Sacramento computer science professor to enlist a group of students to help develop a better scoring system.
And today Clevenger is the systems expert for the world's premiere collegiate programming contest.
He works with contests large and small, around the world and here in Sacramento. One such assignment took him to Romania, shortly after the fall of the communist government there.
This week he's in the Netherlands for the international finals, and on April 23 he'll be helping with a special contest at CSUS for area high school students.
Joining Clevenger at this week's finals is student Troy Boudreau and former students Doug Lane and Sam Ashoo. They're running the latest version of their scoring software, known as PC-Squared, which is based on a prototype written in Java by recent master's degree recipient Tammy Torok.
The finals feature 62 three-person teams, culled from 1,457 that competed in various regional contests.
"It's like the Olympics of computer programming," Clevenger says, though he cautions that the speed the contest demands is just one indicator of talent.
Top performers earn bragging rights among their peers. They win thousands of
dollars worth of the latest high-tech software and hardware. And they're often interviewed by the event's main sponsor, IBM.
At all levels of the annual competition, speed is the key. As teams work on four to eight programs, every minute is one more point and, like golf, the goal is to score low. Accuracy also counts. Twenty points stack against a team if they submit a program that doesn't work.
Clevenger became involved with the programming contest in 1978.
"Engineering and computer science students tend to be very competitive, and this is a great way for them to compete in their arena," Clevenger says. "For me, it's fun because it's so fun for the students."
He is now the "director of contest systems," mainly because of his and his students' efforts. Though numerous groups have designed scoring software, theirs has become the official scoring system for all levels of the competition.
Just keeping up with changes in computer technology has been a programming feat in itself for Clevenger and the twenty or so students who have worked with him over the years. Their first scoring software ran on an operating system known as NOS. Later students developed a system for Unix machines, and then moved to personal computers in 1988 with the first version of PC-Squared. They began working on a network version in the early 1990s.
PC-Squared was used to run the contest finals in Washington, D.C. in 1990 and has been used in all finals since 1993. The latest version is written in Java so it will run on any platform, including Windows, Mac, Unix, OS/2, and others.
At CSUS, the competition to participate in the regional contests is held in the fall. The University's regional teams are coached by computer science professor Bob Buckley, and often score among the top twenty in a techno-savvy region that stretches from the Bay Area through Seattle and into Alaska.
More information is available by contacting Clevenger at (916) 278-6834 or Frank Whitlatch in the public affairs office at (916) 278-4378. Clevenger's website is at http://gaia.ecs.csus.edu/~clevengr/ and the contest's official website is at http://acm.baylor.edu/acmicpc/.
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