Can Johnny still program?

In wake of the worst performance by U.S. students in a global coding contest, ACM President David Patterson has a few suggestions for President Bush.

If David Patterson had his way, the president of the United States would congratulate top code jockeys just like the commander-in-chief applauds the Super Bowl champs.

That would send a message about the importance of technology smarts and skills, argues Patterson, a computer science professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and president of the Association for Computing Machinery, a group that runs a major student coding contest.

"(Our presidents) meet the winners of the football championship, right?" Patterson says. "Gee, wouldn't it be wonderful if the presidents would meet the winners of the programming contest? Wouldn't that be a better world?"

After U.S. students earlier this month made their worst showing in the 29-year history of the ACM International Collegiate Programming Contest, Patterson and others are wondering whether the United States does enough to encourage programming talent. The top U.S. school finished in a tie for 17th place. Students from China's Shanghai Jiao Tong University took the top honors, continuing a gradual ascendance of Asian and Eastern European schools during the past decade or so. The last time a U.S. institution won the world championship was in 1997.

Some argue the results don't necessarily mean much, given the way foreign schools may put more emphasis on the contest. What's more, the number of entrants has mushroomed, from fewer than 650 teams in 1994 to more than 4,100 this year.

Patterson, though, thinks there's more to the U.S. decline--viewed by some as a sign the country's tech leadership is in trouble.

ACM's leader knows a thing or two about creating important technology: He played a key role in the development of so-called reduced instruction set computers, or RISC, and was involved in a Berkeley networking project that led to technology used by Internet companies such as Inktomi.

CNET recently spoke with Patterson about ACM's contest, the state of student tech talent in the United States, and how outsourcing is affecting the field.

What's measured in the ACM programming contest?
Patterson: The problems are not simply, as the title sounds like, 'Write a program to do factorial fast.' It's more problem-solving than that. One of them had to do with a cell phone tower. You had to cover this many people, so where would you place your cell phone tower, or something like that.

Gee, wouldn't it be wonderful if the presidents would meet the winners of the programming contest?

What are the origins of the contest?
Patterson: Since ACM has been around so long, it started off as a local programming contest and then it expanded to be nationwide and then international. Education was a big part of the ACM mission. Since computers were brand new, one of the big challenges was going to be to teach people how these use them. So this was kind of a natural thing to do for this volunteer organization. Somebody thought it would be nice to have a programming contest.

What's happened in the last 10 or 15 years is information technology has been spreading through a bunch of these countries, many of which do not have great economies and find information technology very attractive. It's not capital intensive. It's a nonpolluting technology. And nations think of themselves as good at things. If you think you're good at math and science--like the Russians, I think, do, and Indians and Chinese--if they think, 'Gee this is something we're good at,' IT becomes a target.

As result of your story, I've gotten feedback about how seriously this is taken. I'm told in Russia...the contest couldn't be taken more seriously.

That's one of the questions I had: Is it taken more seriously in other places?
Patterson: Yeah. As far as I know there's no steroid that you can take to make you a faster programmer. (But) you had the feeling it's almost like East Germany was with the swimmers--it was national pride how well they did in the Olympics. Well, apparently Russia takes it so seriously?that success in the programming contest affects the funding of local schools. Those that are more successful in the programming contest get more funding.

The programming contest is now like (soccer's World Cup). It's not just a national competition. You get to measure yourself against everybody in the world.

Do you think that the U.S.'s poor showing--the poorest showing so far--is a reflection of us not taking it as seriously?
Patterson: I've been thinking about that. The United States is used to being No. 1 in everything. If we were fourth and it was, 'Oh, the other guys are just trying a lot harder,' that wouldn't be as big a deal. But I suspect that--given that we're 17th--it's more than that. It's not just like, 'Well, this one country is taking it really seriously and so we're never going to beat them at that.' You know, we're 17th. There's a lot of teams from a lot of countries ahead of us. So I think it's more serious.

Why did the U.S. do so poorly?
Patterson: First of all, I think that'd be a great study. That'd be a great study to see what's happening at these other places versus here.

From the ACM perspective, this is great. The contest is getting more popular, and people are taking it so seriously. It's impressive. The Russians winners--they won it I think a year or two ago--they got to meet (President Vladimir) Putin. They got to meet the leader of the country.

Wouldn't that be wonderful if that were true in the United States? What happens with our presidents? They meet the winners of the football championship, right? Gee, wouldn't it be wonderful if the presidents

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