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Allen School’s Team Combo fights hard for each other in the first-ever ICPC North American Championship

Team Combo (left to right): Milin Kodnongbua, Nonthakit Chaiwong, Phawin Prongpaophan, Sorawee Porncharoenwase

Back in February — before the days of widespread flight cancelations, stay-at-home orders and mass Zoom meetings — a group of Allen School students who have a penchant for programming headed to Georgia Tech in Atlanta to do battle in the 2020 North American Championship of the International Collegiate Programming Contest (ICPC). The group, known as Team Combo, had cinched their spot by capturing fourth place in the Pacific Northwest Division 1 regionals the previous November.

It was the first year that ICPC held a North American competition in between regionals and the international competition — and the first time a UW team has faced off against student programmers from outside of their own region.

“The competition in Atlanta was intense, just as we expected,” said team member Phawin Prongpaophan, a junior majoring in computer science. “Despite the fact that the rules were the same — that is, we still had five hours to solve problems — it felt a lot different from the regional competition. The problems were significantly harder and every minute really counts toward the ranking in the nationals.”

The national contest brought together a total of 60 qualifying teams from 11 regional contests. Up for grabs were 18 spots in the world finals in Moscow, Russia. Prongpaophan was joined in Atlanta by sophomore Milin Kodnongbua and junior Nonthakit Chaiwong. The team was coached in both the regional and national competitions by second-year Ph.D. student Sorawee Porncharoenwase, who works with professor Emina Torlak in the Programming Languages & Software Engineering group (PLSE).

According to Porncharoenwase, the chance to participate in an event beyond the regional contest offered a lot of valuable lessons for future competitions, like how to improve the team’s time management. 

At the competition in Atlanta

“We solved five problems out of 12, which is one too few from getting qualified for the world finals,” he said of his team, who finished in the middle of the pack, in 26th place. “They had an incorrect solution for the seventh problem, which, with a small tweak, would be correct. I think our team has a really high potential for next year.”

“One thing I learned from this journey is that teamwork is key to success,” said Prongpaophan. “The competition isn’t about anyone’s strength, but it is about how we deal with it together as a team. I believe we wouldn’t have made it this far without each other.”

Principal Lecturer Stuart Reges, the team’s faculty sponsor who teaches introductory programming courses in the Allen School, was thrilled by the team’s hard work and dedication. He said this year was especially exciting for both the students and coaches since ICPC added the North American component.

“This year marks the first time we have sent a team beyond our regional contest. Our region includes fierce competitors like Stanford, Berkeley, and UBC, which has kept us from qualifying for the international contest. With the addition of the new North American Championship we were finally able to break through,” said Reges. “We are grateful to Google for providing a tour of their campus to the teams that competed in the regional contest and I am personally grateful to our graduate students Sorawee Porncharoenwase and Victor Reis who did all of the work of hosting a local contest, taking teams to the regional, and helping this team attend the North American Championship.”

Another Allen School team, King Gesar, also placed in the top 10 at the Pacific Northwest regionals. Of the teams representing western Washington, UW teams occupied the top 5 spots in the regional competition. 

Way to go Team Combo, Team Gesar and all of the other hardworking UW teams!