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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Programming Teams Win Top Honors in U.S.

David HillMembers of the Moscow State University team receiving their plaque and gold medals.
When 14-year-old Timofei Borodin started doing algorithmic programming six years ago as an extracurricular activity in his hometown of Kostroma in central Russia, he had no idea how far the hobby would take him.

Last week Borodin became one of six Russian students to win gold medals at the Association for Computing Machinery's International Collegiate Programming Contest in Beverly Hills, California.

Borodin's gold medal means even more to Russia's information technology community, which sees the winners as a new generation of programmers for the country's still-rudimentary industry.

"It shows the strengths of the Russian system of higher education and proves that the Russian IT talent is the best in the world," said Alexis Sukharev, president of the Auriga software company.

Two teams, Moscow State University and St. Petersburg's Institute of Fine Mechanics and Optics, took home two of the four gold medals. The students' medals were second and third behind the Cup winner -- Warsaw University's team. Saratov State University finished seventh in the competition and won a silver medal.

"These two gold medal teams outperformed the best of the best university students at the world's great universities by working harder, preparing better and delivering more solutions under pressure," said William Poucher, ICPC executive director. "They set the standards for their peers worldwide at unprecedented levels."

The winners and their mentors attribute their success to Russia's system of science education -- an inheritance from the time of the Soviet Union, when mathematics and physics were some of the most popular majors at colleges and universities.

It took a few years of training to get the teams ready to win, said Sergei Chernyshov, a 23-year-old graduate student at Moscow State University, who founded and now coaches one of the gold medal winners -- MGU's Yarik team of Pyotr Mitrichev, 18, Yevgeny Cherepanov, 21, and Maxim Babenko, 21. Chernyshov participated in the contest a few years before as a member of Yarik.

"There's a strong tradition of school Olympiads in mathematics," said Chernyshov. Since Soviet times, contests in math have allowed the best colleges and universities to search for talented youth outside Moscow and St. Petersburg.

David Hill

The St. Petersburg team working hard on one of the problems of the competition.

The two winning teams are a good example of regional recruitment: On the St. Petersburg team, Borodin, 20, is from Kostroma, Alexander Shtuchkin, 19, is from Saratov and Yevgeny Yuzhakov, 20, is from Kotlas.

On the Moscow team, only the youngest, Mitrichev, is from Moscow. "I've been into computers since 11 or 12 years old," he said. Shy and reserved, Mitrichev already has an impressive award history, having won gold and silver medals in the programming Olympiads during his three last years of high school. Last year, while still only in high school, his team was the best at the Russian college-programming contest.

"We are taught to think and to look for solutions ourselves rather than to use methods that are already out there," Chernyshov said.

The 70 teams in this year's competition were required to solve ten problems in five hours. Some of the problems were to write a program on how to determine an optimal bridge configuration, or to design a program for a set of switches for a huge computer-operated marquee.

The winning team, Warsaw University, successfully solved nine problems, while MGU solved eight and St. Petersburg solved seven.

Warsaw's win broke Russia's streak -- St. Petersburg State University was champion two years in a row in 2000 and 2001.

Borodin said psychological readiness to participate in the contest and to face the pressure is also very important. "This is one of the reasons we performed better than last year, when we finished fourteenth," he said.

Borodin already works as a software programmer and sees his future in this field.

Still, some experts, like Vladimir Parfyonov, dean of the IT and programming department, said they fear real talent is becoming a rarity in Russia with less young people interested in math and other sciences, a trend he sees increasing across the world.

"The level of education has dropped worldwide and this wave has reached our country too," he said. "Our human resources have nearly run out."

But young Mitrichev is more optimistic than that. He needs to find two new members for his team next year, as his current teammates will not be eligible for future contests.

"We'll see how it goes," he said.