May 31, 2015, Cairo – A team of three students at The American University in Cairo (AUC) was named the Africa and Middle East Champions at the ACM International Collegiate Programming Contest (ICPC), which was held in Morocco this month. The team comprised of senior student Hossam Samy, graduate student Mohamed Ghoniem and graduating senior Islam Diaa and was coached by Mohamed Abdel Wahab, a PhD candidate. AUC’s team was one of six teams competing from Egypt and managed to break the Africa and Middle East record by solving five problems instead of three. In 2003, a team from AUC has won the Africa and Middle East title. “We knew we will do well,” said Diaa, who is majoring in computer science with a minor in math, “but we didn’t expect that we will be the highest scoring team in Africa and the Middle East.” Abdel Wahab, who has been training the teams since 2011, said that reaching the world finals is an achievement on its own, not to mention the significance of winning the region’s highest scoring team. Now the team is ranked number 75 worldwide and AUC is one of the very few universities in the Arab world to be ranked among the top 100 universities in the oldest and the most prestigious programming contest.”According to the ICPC, the contest “provides college students with opportunities to interact with students from other universities and to sharpen and demonstrate their problem-solving, programming, and teamwork skills.The contest provides a platform the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM), industry, and academia to encourage and focus public attention on the next generation of computing professionals as they pursue excellence.”
The contest was first held at Texas A&M University in 1970 and in 1977 the contest became a multi-tier competition and was held at the ACM Computer Science Conference. It started in the Arab world in 1998 and was organized at AUC in 2001 and 2002.
Students representing institutions of higher education compete first nationally, then regionally, and the winning teams advance to the ACM ICPC world finals. “In the finals, we are handed 8 or more real-life problems to solve in five hours and to create a program for the computer to solve them. The winning teams are the ones that solve the most problems in the shortest time with fewer attempts,” said Diaa. According to Diaa, students participating in such competitions need to have a good foundation in mathematics, understanding of algorithms and have general programming skills.
Diaa, who will be doing an internship in Google USA for three months in the summer, explains how participating and winning competitions positively affect their future, “Career wise, technology-based companies appreciate people with such mindset of problem solving,” he said. He has also interned in Facebook in California last year for three months.
Coach Abdel Wahab noted that what greatly helped this winning team is their early start. He explained that Ghoneim, one of the best students in the Arab world, has been training for six years and dedicated the whole past year to his training and to being a teaching assistant at AUC.
Diaa has been participating in competitions since he was in preparatory school and Samy has also been participating in programming contests for the past eight years. “We help freshmen students to get acquainted with the competitions, help them solve similar problems, guide and support them to encourage them to compete,” said Diaa.
Abdel Wahab, who has been a coach for 15 years to different teams from different schools, has been training at AUC since 2011. Originally a Cairo University graduate, he studied computer sciences and has personally won many titles including winning the regional title for Arabs in 2001while he was in Cairo University and was awarded as one of the best coaches around the world by IBM. To prepare for the regional then the finals, Abdel Wahab mostly met with the team 20 hours per week throughout the past year and trained them on team work, team strategy, problem solving and individual skills.
The big challenge for Abdel Wahab now is to train a new team since the winning team can’t participate more than twice in the world’s finals. “We will start searching for new students to get ready for the next contest.”