UCF programming team heading to world finals

Don’t get UCF sophomore computer science major Daniel West wrong.

He’s excited for his upcoming internship with the social media giant Facebook. How could he not be?

But when you dive headfirst into University of Central Florida’s successful competitive programming team, these kinds of opportunities are almost expected, he said.

“The things we do in the contest are very similar to what you would see in a technical interview,” he said. “It’s, ‘Work through this problem. Write a program that solves this.’ Recruiters look for people at these competitions.”

UCF’s programming team, of which West is a part, has advanced to the world finals of the 2021 International Collegiate Programming Contest.

The team finished 19th in the North American competition earlier this month.

About 12 years ago, UCF launched a lab on campus specifically for computer science and the programming team.

That has helped develop the program into one of the top in the country.

UCF has finished in the top 10 of the World Finals six times.

The competition charges teams with solving six real-world examples of problems faced by businesses.

It’s a combination of logic, strategy and endurance.

For instance, a team might be asked to develop a schedule for landing airplanes on a specified number of runways with the goal being maximizing the gap between landings.

“It’s really fun to work with a group of students who want to do well,” said Glenn Martin, who is entering his 27th year at UCF. “It’s great to see them grow.”

Along with West’s Facebook internship, other students are on their way to Microsoft, Google and Amazon.

Martin credits that at least partially to how UCF’s program has grown over the years.

“A lot of the companies, they don’t necessarily need you to get the right answer to a problem,” he said. “They want to see your process. If they see a good process, they go, “Wow, this person can think through a problem.’”

“It’s not some super secret: it’s about the culture,” he said. “Today’s success started back (in the early 1980s) because from the beginning we developed a good team culture, where people want to do well and collaborate well.”

The team members do get paid, which West says allows them to focus on learning new things rather than have to worry about not studying on a work night.

West first encountered the competitive programming scene while at Timber Creek High School in Orlando.

The team was his main extracurricular activity.

Before then, he did not have any experience in the activity.

“That early exposure roped me into this concept of using computers to tackle fun problems,” he said.

“I enjoy the problem-solving aspect of this,” said West, who wants to work in software engineering. “It’s something I have a knack for and it helps with the degree I’m pursuing.”

West is quick to point out that the coaches and his teammates, seniors Sharon Barak and junior Seba Villalobos, played as big a role as he did in pushing the team into the tournament.

“It would be a pretty lame team if it were just us three,” he said. “There is a big sense of pride and we are all proud to represent UCF.”