The results of the American Computing Machinery Association’s annual International Computer Programming Contest provides further evidence of the rest of the world challenging the U.S. in STEM (and especially computer programming) education. IBM, the long-time sponsor of this competition, uses it as a vehicle for exposing IBM to, and in some cases directly recruiting, some of the most promising talent, not just in the U.S., but from all around the world.
My previous blog, The United States’ Clogged Technology Education-to-Employment Pipeline, provided a number of examples of how U.S. students, from K-12, to college to grad schools), are falling behind their counterparts in other countries across virtually all segments of STEM education. Although these deficiencies are troubling in their own right, they only begin to suggest a much bigger, much more troubling problem for the U.S. economy.
The educational system is, after all, the primary pipeline through which corporations receive the steady flow of talent they need to keep America competitive in a global economy. And since this competitiveness will be based on innovation, this talent must be fluent in the language of innovation. STEM is that language.
Although I have spoken with many people and have read and written much on the challenges facing U.S. STEM education, I never really had a chance to see the manifestation of these challenges for myself. Therefore, I was happy to travel to Orlando Florida to learn about and see the world finals round of the Association of Computing Machinery (ACM) International Collegiate Programming Contest (ICPC).
This blog briefly describes the contest and its outcome, and provides my view of the implications for the U.S. Its primary focus, however, is on corporate support of these competitions and on their role in supporting the recruitment activities of their sponsors—in this case, IBM:
- Why, for example, has IBM sponsored and funded this competition for the last 15 years, and why it has committed to continuing to do so for at least the next 5 years;
- What value does IBM get from this generosity and what is it doing to maximize the value it derives from it; and
- What are the implications and opportunities for other tech vendors that hope to promote STEM education and improve their own chances of recruiting the most promising graduates?
The ACM International Collegiate Programming Contest
The contest is a multi-stage competition that started with more than 300,000 students. It begins with dozens of local competitions, and progresses through six geographically-aligned regional competitions (this year, with 24,915 contestants from 2,070 universities and 88 countries). It culminates in a final competition that, this year, consisted of 315 students on 105 teams.
These teams compete not only with each other, but also against tight time constraints and limited resources (one computer and three calculators per team) in an attempt to solve eleven real-world problems. They must often deal with ambiguity, exercise judgment to assess when to submit an answer (to avoid penalties for incorrect submissions) and continually reassess their strategies to determine on which problems to focus their energies. Success, therefore, depends not only on speed and accuracy, but also on teamwork, resource prioritization and allocation, quick thinking, and adaptability.
The questions are designed with varying levels of difficulty, from a couple that require relatively moderate skills to a couple that would challenge many of the best, most experienced programmers in the world. In the end, after five hours of intense work, ten teams answered seven questions correctly, and two teams managed to answer eight, an impressive feat for college students, especially under the constraints imposed by the rules.
As has been the case in most years since the competition went international, this year’s winner’s circle was led by teams from Russia (four of the top ten teams) and China (two of the top ten, including 1st place Zhejiang University and 3rd place Tsinghua University). In fact, combined, these two countries represented half of the top 26 teams (7 for China and 6 for Russia), with two other perennially strong countries, Poland and the U.S., taking two spots apiece and another, Ukraine, capturing three.
U.S. schools, who typically make quite respectable showings, qualified 18 teams for the finals. One, North American regional champion University of Michigan Ann Arbor, took 2nd place in the world finals and three others (Carnegie-Mellon took 13th, MIT 32nd and Princeton 48th) in the top 58 (all of whom had at least 4 correct answers). The remaining 14, each correctly answering fewer than four questions, received Honorable Mentions.
As would be expected, men overwhelmingly dominated the competition, with women accounting for fewer than 10 of the 315 contestants. This year, however, a woman was part of the Zhejiang University championship team. (As I discussed in my previous blog, U.S. women, while expanding their inroads in science and especially medicine, are poorly represented in math, engineering and IT.)
Challenges for the U.S.
Although one must not try to read too much into the results of one competition, Russian and Chinese (and more broadly, Eastern European and East Asian) schools are traditionally among the winners. U.S. teams, meanwhile, typically do make quite respectable showings. Approximately 20 U.S. schools typically make it to the finals, and in eight of the last 15 years at least two U.S. universities have won medals (i.e., placed among the top 12). In fact, at least three U.S. teams medaled in four of the last 15 years, with one winning the championship and five placing second.
Respectable: yes. But as the results of this competition (not to speak of the educational statistics cited in my July 31 blog) make clear, companies that need access to the best talent must look well beyond U.S. citizens and U.S. schools. After all, non-U.S. universities, as is clear from the competition, already contain much of the world’s best programming talent. (Meanwhile, some of U.S. teams, including the Number 2 University of Michigan team, included students from other countries.) These non-U.S. students and schools promise to become even more competitive as Asian schools, in particular, continue to improve, attract more world-class professors and become more attractive destinations for the world’s most promising students.
Meanwhile, as discussed in my July 31 blog, U.S. students (with the notable exception of Asian-Americans) are moving away from STEM disciplines and U.S. universities now count on non-U.S. citizens for rapidly growing percentages of their undergraduate science and engineering classes–259,000 new undergraduate students in 2009/10 alone (not to speak of an absolute majority of their PhD candidates).
That creates a problem: The U.S. is producing fewer of its own world-class programmers and IT engineers. Meanwhile, U.S. companies are finding it increasingly difficult to bring world-class talent from other countries into the U.S. Where then will these companies find the talent they need to grow?
This brings us full-circle back to the ACM competitions, and specifically to IBM, which sponsors the competitions.
Opportunities for IBM
IBM has been sponsoring the ACM competition for the last 15 years and has just committed to extending this sponsorship for at least the next five years. Why does it devote so much money and so many of its people to this work? It hopes to:
- Recognize and spotlight STEM skills;
- Inspire more students to study and develop their problem-solving skills in these fields;
- Encourage and facilitate cross-cultural exchange among schools and students; and
- Identify some of the best STEM talent in the world, expose them to IBM and the types of problems they would work on at IBM and improve IBM’s ability to recruit these people.
IBM, as exemplified by its rapidly expanded focus on donating money, products and expertise to educational institutions, and as demonstrated by programs such as its Academic Initiative and its newly announced P-Tech high school partnership with New York City, is deeply committed to encouraging students and helping all levels of schools to improve STEM education.
But for all of its philanthropic efforts, IBM is also intent on reaping its fair share of the rewards from such efforts. It wants the best and brightest of these graduates to join IBM. This is more of a challenge than it may appear. True, IBM is clearly one of the leading and most diversified IT companies in the world. It is also consistently rated as one of the world’s top brands and one of the best companies for which to work. Still, it is generally less visible to students than are more consumer-facing brands, such as Microsoft and Google and does not offer the type of pre-IPO lure of companies such as Facebook and Twitter.
The ACM competition provides IBM with a unique opportunity to meet and to present itself to many of the most promising college-age programmers in the world. It is, therefore, no surprise that IBM leverages the competition to introduce itself to these students. It provides demonstrations of some of the company’s cutting-edge technologies and research, and populates the conference with a number of IBM employees who are alumni of the ACM competition and of some of the schools represented in the contest.
It has also set up a separate recruiting process, separate from but coordinated with the company’s primary recruiting efforts, to learn what interested contestants are looking for in their careers and to help identify how they can accomplish their goals at IBM. This year, the company went a big step beyond recruiting. In addition to monetary rewards (of up to $12,000 per team) from ACM, IBM, this year, made open job offers to the top 12 placing students—three members from each of the Top Four teams in the competition. The company will offer them jobs or internships in whichever IBM group (IBM Research, Software Group, etc.) and whichever country (subject to IBM operations in and government permissions) they choose.
IBM’s partnership with ACM provides yet another example of how a company can do well by doing good.