Students place first in Stanford’s annual programming competition

May 25, 2018 — by Jeffrey Xu and Daniel Bessonov

Juniors Michael Zhang and Nicholas Zhang and Sophomore Brandon Wang win the ProCo computer programming competition.

Juniors Michael Zhang and Nicholas Zhang and sophomore Brandon Wang took first place overall at the ProCo computer programming competition held at Stanford on May 20.

Students from around the Bay Area and across the country participated in the competition.

All members of the team are USA Computing Olympiad (USACO) finalists, an honor given only to the top 25 high school programmers from around the U.S. Wang qualified in 2017, while Michael Zhang and Nicholas Zhang qualified this year. USACO differs from ProCo in the sense that it is all online, while the latter takes place as a physical event.


The contest was divided into two parts: Algorithmic/Speed Round and Special Round. The Algorithmic/Speed Round was a round with more orthodox computer programming questions, while the Special Round had cryptographic puzzles, in which the team was given a hint and allowed to use Google to find a cipher.

The team placed third in the Speed Round and did not place within the top five for the Special Round. Even so, the team still tied for first place overall since they were strong in both categories.

I feel pretty good at the results,” Wang said. “I haven't done CS for a while, so Nick and Michael basically carried us.”

Wang said the problems themselves are not that hard; rather, the contest is a test of time management. He said that their strategy was to work separately on different ones .

“So there’s  definitely a time crunch,” Wang said, “and if we have some kind of dumb bug, we can lose like 30 minutes, which is a lot of valuable time.”

Nicholas Zhang said that their work ethic and efficacy during the contest, not their pre-established coding ability, helped them win.

He also said the trio was not a favorite going into this competition, since the top five teams all consisted of USACO finalists.

Their success had moments of sheer panic. In fact, during the algorithmic round, the team found themselves faced with a bug that made their entire program for a problem essentially null and void.

“I solved a problem in my head, and I tried to write the code, and I was like, oh yeah, this is done,” Nicholas Zhang said. “But then I got a few bugs, which I then debugged by hand while [my teammates] were coding another problem, and I realized that I had to add another dimension to my solution. To add that would take more time than we had left.”

In the end, the team ended up solving four of 10 problems, while the other two teams who beat them in the algorithmic round solved 5 of 10 problems.

Junior Victor Chen, who participated individually in the competition, said that there was actually less pressure than if he were working on a team. Although he did not place in the competition, Chen said that he still had fun.

“Honestly, when I’m on a team, I would feel more pressure because sometimes, my friends are all CS gods, and if I team with them I would definitely drag them down,” Chen said.

However, he did say that having one or two teammates would speed up the process of solving a greater amount of problems.

Having done the competition two years in a row, Wang believes that the event was a success both times. He looks to participating in the future as well.

“I had fun, and I’m going to do it next year,” Wang said.

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