Creativity the ingredient for ACM award recipe

ACM winner Jakub Ocwieja
Warsaw University's Jakub Ocwieja and Comenius University's Peter Fulla have a lot of things in common. Both are young university students, both like algorithms, and both were part of teams that took home medals at the Association of Computing Machinery's International Collegiate Programming Contest World Finals 2014 in Ekaterinburg, Russia.

When they visited IBM Research-Zurich in September to meet fellow computer scientists and to present the their winning projects, we spoke to them about competing in the oldest, and certainly one of the most prestigious, programming contests in the world -- where Jakub's "team Jagiellonian" earned a silver medal, and Peter's "team Docikáme ďalej" earned bronze.

IBM Research: How did you hear about the contest, and why did you decide to compete?

Jakub Ocwieja (JO): ACM is very well known at the Warsaw University and every year there are many students who compete. I wanted to participate and see if I could beat other students and I just like solving problems, especially in algorithms.

Peter Fulla (PF): It is a good feeling to end up amongst the 50 best college programmers in the world. I also like the t-shirt, which is a frequent prize in such competitions.

ACM winner Peter Fulla
Their interest in computer science and algorithms started at an early stage. Peter participated in various programming competitions during high school and decided to pursue a CS degree. And Jakub had access to a computer as a young boy, thanks to his elementary school and older brother. As a young student, he learned how to program turtle movements in LOGO. Shortly thereafter, his brother gave him a book about the programming, PASCAL, which helped him qualify for the final of the Polish Olympiad in Informatics during his first year of high-school.

PF: In high school, I just started participating in similar competitions, and the ACM challenge was just a natural thing to do.

IBM: As someone from the millennial generation, are organizations like the ACM and research awards still important?

PF: I think it drives a lot of young people towards computer science in general. Competing is an enjoyable way to learn how to program. You also meet people of similar minds. I think that programming competitions are very important and beneficial for the whole industry of computer science, and I hope organizations like the ACM continue to support these competitions.

IBM: The competition is based on creativity, team work and innovation. How important is creativity in Computer Science?

JO: Even though Computer Science is one of the youngest fields of science, it is a great challenge to invent algorithms. So creativity plays a significant role to progress the field.

Jakub and Peter are ambitious students with a strong focus on the future. While at the Comenius University in Bratislava, Slovakia, Peter created an artificial intelligence player that could play the game Dominion against humans. And the computer actually managed to win several games.

As a member of the mathematical faculty at the Warsaw University, Jakub worked on an algorithm could find the distance between points on a map faster than had previously been done by a machine.

IBM: Have you participated in a more memorable programming competition?

PF: A few years ago, I attended the International Olympiad in Informatics held in Cairo, Egypt. At some point I stepped out of the conference to visit the pyramids. To my astonishment, a local salesman grabbed me and seated me on his camel. I was so shocked I didn't even resist. In the end I had to pay him over 50 dollars to finally get off that camel. I won’t make that mistake again!

IBM: What are your career aspirations?

JO: I am just finishing my Master Degree in Computer Science, so I am still considering several possibilities. I might work as a software developer or I might focus on some research in the same direction.

PF: I am just starting my PhD at the University of Oxford now, and after three years, I hope I'll be able to decide which path I want to take -- whether it will be in the academia or in some similar lab like this one. 

IBM: What’s your impression of the IBM Research - Zurich lab and of IBM in general?

JO: I didn’t have much opportunity to see the lab itself but I have heard about projects that IBM does here and I am very impressed by the scope of the projects and the topics of your research.

PF: My impression is that you do a lot of interesting things and I would be happy to do an internship in the same areas. What I particularly like is that you solve problems which have really interesting applications in real life. That practical application is one part which is truly interesting -- that it matters what you do here.

And those problems are in fact interesting from an algorithm point of view. It is often challenging to come up with the algorithm that solves the problem. I am more of a theoretical guy, so this is a nice change to have something which is also relevant to many people.

Interview conducted by Malena Sundstroem, IBM Research

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