It was 3 a.m. on the first day of final exams. While most slept, a small cohort of students, overcome with excitement, locked arms to sing the Auburn University alma mater. The Alabama school, which has recently produced NFL stars named "Cam" and "Cadillac," had just pulled off an earth-shaking upset in an unlikely "sport" — coding.
Auburn University is often thought of as a college football powerhouse, but rarely a programmers paradise. The school showed its diversity, however, when two computer science students placed in the top five of a 500-person coding challenge. Junior Kevin Davis, 20, and sophomore David Shuckerow, 19, placed first and fourth, respectively, in the competition, the participants of which represented more than 80 universities in eight different countries. Davis took home $1,500 for winning the contest.
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"I was very happy obviously, and there was a bit of extra satisfaction winning the contest while being from a school that most people probably wouldn’t expect to do well in a contest like this," Davis tells Mashable.
There was no shortage of representatives from schools most would expect to do well in such a contest. The ultra elite Massachusetts Institute of Technology sent 33 students to the competition, but its top three performers finished in places eight through ten.
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The two-week challenge, sponsored by ReadyForce, culminated in the wee hours of Monday morning. ReadyForce is an online recruiting service self-described as a sort of dating site for students and potential employers. The company's reps spent September, October and parts of November on what they called "HackerTour," a bus trip that traveled to top tech schools to sign up students for ReadyForce's website.
For the coding challenge, students programmed bots, which continually competed against each other in a contest loosely based on the movie Tron. Created and hosted by Hacker Rank, standings for the competition were derived from a complex set of mathematical equations.
To the right is an image from one match, wherein Davis' and Shuckerow's bots faced off against one another. Davis' bot won this bout.
Competitors could rewrite code throughout the two weeks to patch holes in their bots' AI. The two Auburn Tigers took slightly different paths to success. Davis wrote his bot in C++, while Shuckerow used Python.
To finish in fourth, Shuckerow says he dedicated nearly all his concentration to the challenge.
"When you work on a project like this, you can’t really measure it in terms of hours," Shuckerow tells Mashable. "You make it so much a part of yourself that you’re not working on it at any given time — it’s 24 hours a day that you’re working on it. You eat it, you sleep it, you breathe it. Most of the work you do isn’t in front of a keyboard; it’s up in your head."
On Sunday evening, the final night of the competition, Shuckerow set up his computer in his dorm's lobby, so as not to disturb his roommate who had a final exam early the next morning. Throughout the night, other students began to take an interest in what he was doing. Despite needing to prepare for finals of their own, many students sat with Shuckerow and helped him discover and fix flaws in his bot.
It wasn't just computer science students. More than 10 other students from a variety of fields of study spent time helping Shuckerow. He attributes his success during the final night of the challenge to the diversity of ideas and perspectives he was able to incorporate into his code.
There is a great deal of school pride at Auburn. When the Tigers win a big football game, 90,000 fans in Jordan-Hare stadium put their arms around one another and sing the school's song while swaying back and forth. It sounds something like this:
When the dust settled on the coding challenge at around 3 a.m., Shuckerow and company saw he had finished fourth. They also saw that Davis, a fellow Tiger, had won the entire competition. Filled with glee, Shuckerow and his comrades mimicked the football tradition to celebrate their own success in the hacking competition.
"Everyone was excited that we had done something this big," he says. "I definitely did everything I set out to do in the competition — I wrote code that played well, and I helped show that both I and Auburn are able to tangle with the very best on the international stage and come out on top."
Image courtesy of Flickr, REL Waldman
BONUS: 10 College Courses That Didn't Exist 20 Years Ago
1. Level Design & Development for Video Games — University of Southern California
The University of Southern California's School of Cinematic Arts instructs students in theory, art and practice behind film, television and new media. Its video game design and management minor requires seven courses (24 units) for completion, and instructs students in level design, game-play control, user interface, multiplayer, game mechanics and storytelling. Its sister curriculum, the video game programming minor, teaches students to write code and program game engines.
This story originally published on Mashable here.