Cipher SuccessBy Tamara Fynaardt

Curt Van Wyk, Ben Kester and John Calsbeek (from left) competed among the world’s top 100 student computer programming teams in Stockholm, Sweden, in April.

Student computer programmers crack code and earn trans-Atlantic trip to world finals

“Brute force.”

“Excuse me?”

“Brute. Force.”

“That’s a programming language?”

“No, it’s a programming strategy. You brute force the different possibilities and then use the binary search to calculate the maximum intervals.”

Ben Kester is explaining how he and teammates John Calsbeek and Curt Van Wyk should have tackled their first problem at the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) International Collegiate Programming Contest in Stockholm, Sweden, in April.

The question that required such an aggressive approach?

You are an air traffic controller with a bunch of planes to schedule for landing. (The world competition question probably didn’t use the term “bunch,” but Calsbeek says “bunch” when he’s describing their first challenge.) All the planes are assigned an interval of time within which they can land. Figure out which plane can land when and where so all the planes are landing with the longest span of time between descents—because that’s the safest, obviously.

Now it’s time for brute force?

“Yes,” says Kester. “You brute force the different possibilities. That’s basically just programming the computer to try every single combination until you find one that works. Brute force is pure trial and error versus having a strategy that guides your trial and error. It’s like trying to open a padlock by trying every possible combination.”

You couldn’t really do that, could you?

“No, but a computer could.” Or, a computer manned by pretty bright programmers.

So, did they get everyone on the runway safely?

“Not this time,” says Kester.

The annual international ACM competition, sponsored by IBM, includes the top 100 college-level programming teams in the world. During the opening ceremonies, in the same auditorium where the Nobel Prizes are handed out, “Northwestern College” boomed across the hall, amidst introductions of teams from MIT, Moscow State University, Oxford, Stanford, the University of Melbourne and the University of Warsaw, to name a few.

Representing the smallest U.S. school at the world competition, Calsbeek, Kester and Van Wyk were frequently mistaken for Northwestern University students. When they corrected yet another person who assumed they were from the Big 10—describing their 1,200-student campus in a town of 6,000—the well-wisher said, “Wow. You must be pretty much heroes there.”

En route to Europe, the heroes of 1s and 0s had already out-coded their competition at a regional programming competition last November, correctly completing all nine problems to finish fourth.

They had less success with the 11 problems at worlds. “We went for a high-risk, high-reward strategy,” blogged Kester during a break in the competition. In a divide-and-conquer move, each teammate worked on a different problem. Unable to arrive at answers, they’d moved on to a fourth question when they ran out of time.

“The problem with high-risk strategies?” says Kester. “The risk.”

So Sweden didn’t compute. Reprogram. Calsbeek, Kester and Van Wyk are still among the world’s best, and they have other interests beyond binary code.

All computer science majors, they argue they transcend “Geek Squad” stereotypes. Calsbeek gestures to the three of them with a “Do you see any pocket protectors here?” look on his face.

Nope. No pocket protectors.

Calsbeek, a senior, is also pursuing a literature degree. Van Wyk, another senior, is an athlete and has competed in soccer, football, basketball, baseball, wrestling and track. Kester, who graduated in May, is a social servant-leader—he was a West Hall RA and discipleship group leader and traveled to India as a member of the Summer of Service team.

Like other guys, they are gamers. But their programming prowess doesn’t make them any better than their peers at computer or video games like Tower Defense or Command and Conquer. Except: “Sometimes it helps you figure out how to beat the system,” says Kester.

They don’t mind the term “geek,” though. “We like programming,” say Van Wyk and Calsbeek, with “no excuses” shrugs. And Kester, who also majored in actuarial science, had already landed a job at a Chicago consulting firm and passed seven of eight actuarial exams before he graduated. “Actuarial science is kind of its own nerdy world too,” he says, grinning.

Yep. They’re good with geek.

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