IEEEXtreme: Six Years and Growing

The annual coding competition has seen a lot of changes over the years

7 September 2012

Student members: Does spending a sleepless night programming with your friends while competing against peers from around the world sound like fun? Then get your coding fingers ready, because this year’s IEEEXtreme competition is right around the corner. The 24-hour event kicks off at 0:00 GMT on 20 October.

This year’s IEEEXtreme is the sixth annual global challenge in which teams of IEEE student members—each squad supported by an IEEE student branch and advised and proctored by an IEEE member—compete during a 24-hour span to solve a set of programming problems. This year’s competition features more problems than ever before.

Much about the competition has changed over the years, including the number of participants, the way their answers are submitted and graded, and how students interact with each other.

Teams of two or three students receive sets of problems every six hours, starting at 0:00 GMT on the competition date. All teams receive the same problems to solve. They don’t need to tackle every problem, but the more they solve, the more points they score. Students submit their solutions using an online tool. Points are awarded based on how the problem was solved, the time it took, and its difficulty. Points are deducted for each wrong answer. Higher-grade IEEE members serve as judges.

Top: Student branch members at the École de Technologie Supérieure, in Montreal, are busy coding during the 2011 IEEEXtreme competition. Bottom: Team members from Obafemi Awolowo University, in Ife, Nigeria, work on a problem. Photos: IEEE

First prize is an all-expenses-paid trip to an IEEE conference of the team’s choice. All participants receive T-shirts featuring the IEEEXtreme logo.

on the rise
Since it was launched in 2006, IEEEXtreme has grown each year. The first competition attracted 47 teams with 150 participants. The numbers more than tripled the second time it was held, in 2008, to 130 teams with 500 participants. Last year there were 3183 students on 1515 teams.

Not only has participation risen, but more and more countries are being represented. In 2006, for example, participants came from eight of IEEE’s regions. Last year, teams from 65 countries—and all 10 IEEE regions—competed.

The competition’s organizers—who include dozens of IEEE volunteers and staff members working on devising the programming problems, promoting the event, answering student questions submitted online during the competition, and other tasks—expect participation to rise this year as well.

Undoubtedly adding to the numbers is the visibility given the competition by IEEE Women in Engineering. The group has promoted this year’s event in its newsletter.

As participation has increased, organizers have worked harder, says IEEE Member Gowtham Prasad, project lead for IEEEXtreme. “The growth we’ve had is a double-edged sword,” Prasad says. “We have had to keep up with the expectations from ever more students, including how the problems are to be released during the competition, recruiting quality judges from all the time zones, and even figuring out how to ship prizes to more than 3000 unique addresses around the world.”

The competition’s organizing committee was especially active this year in recruiting more programming-­oriented volunteers, running announcements in IEEE newsletters, and creating a training video to show would-be judges how simple it is to be involved.

Nowadays, participants can find out who won within a day, but a lot more patience was required in the competition’s infancy. The first year, it took volunteers several months to grade all the answers. Things weren’t much better for the next competition, when it took about a month to learn who the winners were.

Slowing things down in the early years was the fact that participants e-mailed their responses. That was relatively time-consuming for both students and judges. It was the students who suggested building a Web interface, which now lets teams submit answers directly. By the third year, IEEEXtreme organizers began using Mooshak, the contest-management tool. Its greatest value is that it can automatically grade responses.

Nonetheless, the increase in participation has put a strain on Mooshak, which last year had difficulty handling the number of students using it at the same time. “We pushed Mooshak to its limits,” Prasad says. “To accommodate the growth expected this year, we evaluated five new platforms. For IEEEXtreme 6.0, we will use Interview Street, a cloud-based program that promises an online code checker and a better user experience.”

Another improvement along the way was the addition in 2010 of a Facebook page for the competition. The page allows students to chat with each other during the competition and share their experiences, although they’re not allowed to ask for help with a problem. IEEE staff and volunteers log on to Facebook during the event to monitor the conversations, provide technical support, and cheer on the competitors. The page also has become a place for participants to post funny photos—often of sleep-deprived teammates.

“The pure thrill of 24 sleepless hours while monitoring more than 50 000 posts on Facebook and still being hungry for more is just the icing on the cake,” Prasad says. “Every bit of IEEEXtreme is enjoyable.”

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