Mount Allison computer science students headed to programming competition World Finals
11/23/2016 12:41:00 PM

Team is the first from the University to earn a spot at the prestigious event

William Fiset, Micah Stairs, and Finn LidbetterMount Allison University computer science and mathematics students William Fiset, Finn Lidbetter, and Micah Stairs just earned a trip to the World Finals of the International Collegiate Programming Contest after a grueling five-hour regional competition, in which they placed third.

It is the first time a team from Mount Allison has participated in the World Finals and only the fourth time a team from Atlantic Canada has made the cut. More than 40,000 students from 2,700 universities in 100 countries take part in the programming competition. Only 128 teams make it to the finals.

The three students competed together as a team last year as well, and posted a sixth place finish in the regional competition — at that time Mount Allison’s best-ever showing.

“Our goal going in this year was to make the World Finals,” says Lidbetter, who is from Collingwood, ON.  “After the regional last year we sat down and decided we would make a really good run at it. We knew we could get to that level again and stand a chance at qualifying if we put in the extra practice.”

Liam Keliher, associate professor of computer science at Mount Allison and the team’s coach, says the students put in countless hours to achieve their goal.

“This year in January I started a weekly practice year-round, but they put in an incredible amount of time on their own,” he says. “It is a very significant accomplishment. It is hard to reach that level without a lot of focus and a lot of work. They earned it.”

The team met at least once a week with Keliher and fellow students for two to four hours, then usually met together on their own for several more hours each week.

“It helped us a lot academically — I finish homework so much faster,” jokes Fiset of Edmundston, NB. “But it also really, really helps for interviews as they ask these sorts of questions or problems.”

Both Fiset and Stairs have jobs lined up with Google after graduation in May. Lidbetter is planning to pursue a Master’s degree in theoretical computer science next year.

The Northeast North America (NENA) Regional event, held Nov. 19, offers some of the toughest competition in North America, with teams from schools like MIT and Harvard.

Teams have five hours to solve eight programming problems. At the four-hour mark, when the scoreboard was frozen, Fiset, Lidbetter, and Stairs had completed only two problems and sat in fifth place.

“I was hopeful they had some things up their sleeves, but I had no way of knowing,” Keliher says.

In the last hour, the team solved two more problems, but then had to wait to see if it would be enough, as they listened to the results announced via Skype from Rochester, NY.

“We started celebrating when they announced fourth place,” says Stairs, who is from Lower Coverdale, NB. “It turned out not many other teams solved problems in the last hour.”

The World Finals take place in Rapid City, South Dakota in May.

Photo caption: (L-R) William Fiset, Micah Stairs, and Finn Lidbetter