Dr. Barry Lawson, associate professor of computer science, marvels at the tenacity and success of University of Richmond students who compete in the International Collegiate Programming Contest sponsored by the Association for Computing Machinery.

The ACM competition is the computer industry’s equivalent of football’s Bowl Championship Series. But instead of tackling large athletes, the students tackle big computer programming problems.

In the mid-Atlantic region alone, Lawson says, “Our students are competing against teams like Virginia Tech, Duke, Johns Hopkins, the University of Virginia, and the University of Maryland. We’re a liberal arts college. The fact that we have teams who compete so strongly against teams from much larger computer science programs says a lot about the quality of our students.”

The contest employs personal computers, but the key to winning the ACM is teamwork. The best teams bring together a mixture of computer, mathematical and problem-solving skills.

“It’s more than a programming contest. It’s really a problem-solving contest,” says Lawson, who sponsors the team along with Dr. Lewis Barnett, associate professor of computer science. Students attempt to solve eight complex problems in only five hours, so time management is critical. With only one computer allowed per team, some students work by hand on other problems.

Last year’s problems were “rather nasty,” Lawson says, but the “We R UR” team of Yigit Aytan, ’12, Matt Der, ’10, and Cosmin Pancratov, ’10, solved three of them — good enough to place seventh among 161 mid-Atlantic teams. Only the top seven teams solved three or more problems.

The emphasis on problem-solving prepares students for job interviews, Lawson notes. “We’ve had several students go on to work at Microsoft or Google, and in the interview process, they were presented with problems they have never seen before, just to see how they would react, to see if they can think on the fly.”

That was the case for Mike Pohl, ’07, a software engineer at Google in Pittsburgh. The ACM and another national contest — the Putnam Mathematical Competition — “will help you get into the interview process,” he says.

Pohl’s fondest ACM memory is competing against Virginia Tech and other universities with larger computer science programs during his first year. “We weren’t supposed to beat anybody, but we won the local competition,” he says. “I think it kind of caught everybody off guard.”

This article is an excerpt from "Division I Academics," which appeared in the summer 2010 issue of the University of Richmond Alumni Magazine.