The Jocks of Computer Code Do It for the Job Offers

In the sport of coding, there’s one superstar and a lot of contenders looking for scholarships and job interviews.

Photographer: Donat Sorokin/ITAR-TASS/ZUMAPRESS

The 38th Annual World Finals of the IBM-sponsored ACM International Collegiate Programming Contest (ICPC) in Yekaterinburg, Russia, on June 26, 2014.

At 21, Gennady Vladimirovich Korotkevich is already a legend. Tourist, as he’s known online, is now the world's top sport programmer. He competes against other people to solve coding puzzles, and he's darn 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 just about any company in Silicon Valley. But the Belarusian isn’t ready to be a coding professional just yet. This fall 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.

It would be nice to tell you that sport coding is riveting to watch. And it would be equally nice to dish on the charms of the sport’s current superstar programming god. The reality of the situation, however, is that 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 talented 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 while in town eating free sushi.

The Hacker Cup final takes place in an all-purpose event room set up with four rows of drab desks flanked by cheesy posters with screaming block-letter slogans like “FOCUS” and “BE BOLD.” Almost all of the competitors make use of the desk in the same way, connecting a massive flatscreen to their laptops and keeping a notepad and pen close at hand.

All of the competitors—and this will come as a shock—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.

The competitors look calm before the Hacker Cup begins. The Slavs hang around together talking, as do the competitors from China and Japan. One young man starts pacing around his workstation and bouncing up and down, while also clenching and releasing his fists over and over again. Korotkevich chats with his Russian arch-nemesis Petr Mitrichev, a 30-year-old Google employee who is ancient by sport-coding standards. When Korotkevich leaves the main room to grab a snack, I introduce myself and, after several awkward exchanges, ask if he’d be up for an interview. “We will see,” he replies. He never speaks to me again. (His friends explain that he mostly shuns the press after Wired did a story several years ago, which posited the idea that Korotkevich might “die a virgin.”)

Korotkevich sits down calmly at his desk with a cup of water, looking for all the world like a coding assassin: black shoes, black pants, black hoodie with his mop of brown hair matted down to the right side of his face. Beside the water on his desk sits a baseball cap from another coding competition and his paper and pencil.

Once the coders all settle into their seats, a Facebook contest master goes to the front of the room and grabs a microphone. He recites all of the rules quickly and then begins to count down: “Three, two, one,” he says. “May the best coder win!”

It’s in these initial moments of the Hacker Cup final that it becomes clear why sport coding has less televisual appeal than a spelling bee. It doesn’t even register as a niche nerd sport on the same level as a chess match or a Pokemon tournament. There’s just not much action. The whole room goes silent the instant the contest begins. After five minutes there’s some scribbling on the notepads and then one contestant finally goes to his keyboard and delivers a few click-clacks.

Rivals consider Korotkevich to be part savant and part workhorse. He started competing very early and has seen just about every type of problem in the sport-coding universe several times. He first began freaking people out in second grade, at age 8, 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 enrollment in a top technical university without needing to pass any other entrance exams. At 12, he placed 20th at the International Olympiad in Informatics, the most prestigious high school-level event, and then went on to set a record by winning the competition three times.

As he considers problems, Korotkevich’s feet twitch up and down at a rate of several beats per second. He goes to his pencil and twirls it round and round over the back of his hand. He goes to the cup of water. He rubs his chin. Ten minutes into the competition, he finally starts to type. With feet still kicking back and forth, his hands swing into motion and beat down on the keyboard with the incredible speed of a court stenographer in the most productive part of a meth binge. He blinks once every seven seconds.

At 14 minutes into the Hacker Cup, the library-like silence is broken for the first time when somebody belches; no “excuse me” follows. At 19 minutes and 33 seconds, Mitrichev submits the first answer. We know this because his name pops up on a leaderboard at the front of the room along with the number of the problem he solved and how long it took him to submit the answer. The leaderboard is a rare point of intrigue for spectators because it offers a partial glimpse at the truth. The board only shows that Mitrichev solved the problem and how fast he did it, without revealing if he actually got the problem right. That information won’t be disclosed until the very end. At 24 minutes, a second competitor submits an answer. Korotkevich puts himself on the board, and in third place, by submitting an answer about a minute later.  

Gennady Korotkevich
Gennady Korotkevich
Source: ITMO University

Korotkevich appears immune to the intensity of the situation and, in fact, seems more preoccupied with bodily functions. After 45 minutes of coding, he—and there’s no other way to say this—picks his nose, looks at his handiwork, and then picks his nose some more. Right after that, he delivers the equivalent of a giant middle finger to the rest of the contestants by sauntering to the bathroom. The dude is good enough to take time out for a pee.

For most of the contest, Mitrichev appears to be in the lead. He’s solved a couple of problems and solved them first. “Petr used to work at Google until they closed their Moscow office,” says Facebook’s May. “We tried to get him but no luck.” (He now works for Google in Switzerland.)

It’s in the last hour of the competition where there’s finally some palpable action. Just about all of the contestants start fidgeting. Some people stand up and gnaw on their fingernails, and soon comes a massive shakeup in the standings. Jakub Pachock, a Polish coder, is the first to solve three problems and surges to first place. Korotkevich ends up in second, and Mitrichev tumbles to fourth. With 30 minutes to go, a Japanese coder realizes he made a mistake on a problem and expresses his angst with a series of guttural noises before mashing his head flat against the desk in total agony. Then, with five minutes to go, Korotkevich surges to his rightful place atop the leaderboard as the first person to solve four problems.

After the contest ends, the players mill about talking to each other while the Facebook staff process the results and go over the scores. Ultimately it’s revealed that Korotkevich got the second problem wrong but still managed to win the contest because of his speed and accuracy on the other three questions. Mitrichev, who led most of the way, ends up in fourth. For his efforts, Korotkevich receives $10,000 and a round of applause, and allows himself a small smile. He then takes off his hoodie and lifts the Hacker Cup into the air.

An hour or so later, Facebook packs all of the coders into buses and takes them on a food tour of San Francisco.

Parents the world over encourage their children to code because of the wondrous 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 U.S. companies that sponsor events, and their contests are considered minor affairs among the hard-core competitors. Wall Street does a better job courting these supercharged developers by sponsoring coaches, training sessions, and players in the U.S.

The ultimate sport-coding competition for high school students is the International Olympiad in Informatics, or IOI. Korotkevich is one of the few people ever to achieve a perfect score in this five-hour contest, and he placed among the top finishers from 2006 to 2012 in a record-setting run. For college students, the major event is the ACM International Collegiate Programming Contest, which contestants refer to simply as ICPC. This is a team coding contest with roots that date back to the late 1970s, when almost all of the competitors were Americans. Korotkevich’s university naturally won the 2015 event. Moscow State University and the University of Tokyo finished second and third, respectively. The top U.S. school was the University of California, Berkeley, which finished sixth, while the Massachusetts Institute of Technology took 10th place.

Over the history of the competition, the U.S. has won the most times — 17 — but no team from the U.S. has won since 1997. Russian and Chinese teams have destroyed all comers of late, winning almost every event since 2000. 

To the extent that people in the U.S. can find hope from these competitions, they will want to turn to the Wu brothers, Neal and Scott. The brothers grew up in Baton Rouge, La., the sons of chemical engineers who moved to the U.S. from Shanghai in the 1980s. In elementary school, Neal enrolled in math competitions and found that he enjoyed solving puzzles. As a seventh grader, he won the 2005 Mathcounts National Competition; Scott would go on to win in 2011.

It was not until Neal got to ninth grade and took a computer science class that he decided to look into sport coding. “This stuff is very learnable,” he says. “When I started, I didn’t even know how to write a program to do anything and was just as clueless as everyone else about how computers work. The main thing is having a curiosity and a willingness to wade into unknown waters.” Neal’s parents were supportive of the extracurricular work and avoided pushing him or his brother. “It felt more like a hobby than like forced, repetitive drilling,” says Scott.

 

From 2008 to 2010, Neal reigned as the U.S. sport-coding champion. During that same time, he became a force on the international scene and lost a match against Korotkevich in the IOI. In 2014, Scott bested his brother and won the IOI outright. He received nothing for his victory. “If you do well in these competitions in China or Russia, you don’t even have to apply to college,” says Scott. “Here, there are kids who do well who are still getting turned down from Harvard.”

To prepare for these competitions, the USA Computing Olympiad holds a 10-day training camp in May. Young coders who have excelled in online competitions are invited to try out for one of four spots on the national team. This year’s IOI took place in August in Almaty, Kazakhstan, and the American Andrew He grabbed third place. The team was sponsored by Clemson University, D.E. Shaw, Jump Trading, and Dropbox—hardly a who’s who of technology superpowers.

Even though Scott did not receive automatic entry into university after winning IOI, he’s done quite well for himself. He managed to get into Harvard and received recruiting offers from a number of Silicon Valley companies. At just 17, Scott put off enrolling to spend a year working full-time for Addepar, a high-flying money management software startup in Mountain View, Calif. Neal has done well, too, joining a startup called Streem as a software engineer and, following the acquisition of the company, starting work at Box. “I could have joined a large company or I could have gone into academia,” Neal says. “The point is that a lot of opportunities opened up because of these contests.” 

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; Scott, who still dabbles in sport coding, isn’t far behind. 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. Novakovski, the retired sport programmer, brought in Neal to work with him at Quora and then later hired Scott to work with him at Addepar. “Scott was like 18 when he started and, within three months on the job, he was in the top 10 percent of all our engineers,” Novakovski says. “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.” 

(Correction: In an earlier version of this story, a quote in the final paragraph incorrectly referred to Neal Wu instead of his brother Scott.)