UW computer team wins right to title of world's best

Luisa D'Amato
Tuesday 4 May 1999

Ondrej Lhotak, 21, left, David Kennedy, 24, and Viet-Trung Luu, 22, recently won the world championships of computer programming in the Netherlands.

They may be the world champions of computer programming, but the three young men in sandals and shorts, sitting together on an old sofa at the University of Waterloo, just look embarrassed when you try to tell them so.

UW students David Kennedy, Ondrej Lhotak and Viet-Trung Luu are low-key about their win in the Netherlands last month, in which they beat 61 other teams from around the world to capture the prestigious ACM International Collegiate Programming Contest.

Asked how they felt when they realized they had won, Luu said, "We were a bit surprised."

The contest, held in a large cafeteria-type room at the Eindhoven University of Technology, required each team of three people to solve eight mathematical problems by writing a computer program for each problem, within a five-hour time limit.

The UW team answered six questions correctly faster than any other team, but "I was surprised no one got seven questions," said Luu.

It's the second time UW has won in 10 years -- the last time was in 1994 -- but it is an especially important victory for this campus.

That's because UW computer science administrators say that their program is the best in Canada, possibly in North America.

And when you ask them how they know that, one thing they point to is this contest. They explain that UW's teams consistently score in the top 10 in this competition, something that no other North American university can claim.

So there was, to put it mildly, a lot of pressure on these three young men, aged 21, 22 and 24, when the contest began.

They had spent all their spare time practising since January, working on similar problems: questions that asked them, for example, to calculate how much water is lost when a gun tilted at a certain angle shoots a bullet into a cube made up of many tiny cubes, and each of the small cubes is filled with water.

When the moment of truth arrived, as the UW team settled down at their three chairs and one computer, the most anxious person was their coach, computer science professor Gordon Cormack.

"I had a few nervous moments," Cormack admitted, especially when he looked at the scoreboard and didn't see UW pulling into the lead early, as it usually does.

Unlike the students, he couldn't deal with the pressure by simply getting on with the job. He had nothing to do but "watch and bite my nails," he said.

"I walked back to the hotel and checked out, and when I got back, they were leading," Cormack said, the relief still evident in his voice, weeks later.

The students ignored the scoreboard. "Once the contest starts, you don't have time to be nervous," Lhotak said.

All three students plan careers in computer research. Kennedy, a first-year master's degree student, wants to work in the wireless communications industry. The other two aren't sure of the area they'll study, and all point out that computer knowledge changes so fast that it's foolish to decide you'll work on anything until you're actually ready to tackle it.

Kennedy said his general goal is "to make things easier for people" who don't understand computers as readily as he does. "There are still people that find computing inaccessible."

All three are, of course, extremely comfortable with computers now. Lhotak said he has a harder time using the phone in some offices than using the computer.

Not surprisingly, all three young men were using computers at the same time other children were learning to read. Kennedy's father got him a VIC-20 when he was five, and the boy played games on it.

That was in "the good old days, (when) you had to do a little programming" to get the computer to do things, Kennedy said.

Luu also had a computer at age five. "It was more fun than watching TV, I guess."

And Lhotak, who immigrated to Canada from Prague at eight, said he had never seen a computer before and was so excited by the possibilities of building "little programs" that he learned English from the computer manuals.

Writing computer programs is "a lot like building with Lego," he said.

Kitchener-Waterloo Record, May 4, 1999.