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All Power to Engineers

Andrey Annenkov, Ph.D. in Technical Sciences, independent IT analyst, for RIA Novosti.

The ACM-ICPC (Association for Computing Machinery International Collegiate Programming Contest) sponsored by IBM was won by the Russians yesterday.

Here are the final results. To make sense of this table is more difficult than to understand than the scoring used in football, as the ICPC scores not only goals (problem solved) but also takes into consideration the time spent, the number of failed attempts and the efficiency of the code itself. But, as in any sport, victory is what counts. Among the twelve winners, three were our teams (the ICPC awards four each of gold, silver and bronze medals).

The Saint Petersburg State University of IT, Mechanics and Optics (ITMO) was the grand prize winner. Gold was also awarded to the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology (MIPT), and Moscow State University (MSU) received bronze. Saratov State University placed 13th, being just one step away from medals, but still a step ahead of Stanford.

The University of Warsaw—an extremely strong competitor—played on their own home turf. The Polish students and the Saint Petersburg students both solved nine of the goals out of eleven possible, but the Poles finished lower due to the other factors. All of the other teams solved fewer problems.

There is a traditional rivalry at the ICPC between our teams and the Chinese. China also had three teams that won prizes. But we must consider, first, that there are proportionally far more Chinese for the selection of the best students to be drawn from. Second, none of the Chinese teams caught up with ITMO and MIPT on the main task, which was the number of problems solved.

Twelve teams competed in the last ICPC, and this number is by itself telling. Those who prepared the teams and the students themselves, who managed to program the solutions for these extremely difficult problems in only five hours, are heroes. Brazil doesn’t play soccer as well as these guys program computers. The ACM considers the ITMO University to be the best programming school in the world, and this is an objective assessment.

But let’s look at the flip side of the coin. The victory in the ICPC is not representative of the development in the Russian software industry, just as phenomenal sport achievements do not equate to the health of the entire nation.

The country that is home to the world’s best programmers, does not maintain official statistics for the export of software. And indeed, why do it? Is it not enough to simply keep track of exported oil, timber and raw aluminum?

Those 20-30 departments that prepare first rate programmers are a drop in the bucket compared with the vast number of Russian universities that produce bad IT engineers who cannot work in software companies without additional intensive training, according to Valentin Makarov, the president of RUSSOFT (Russian Software Developers Association).

The country does not have secondary IT education. As a result, engineers with sought-after specializations and programmers are employed as mere testers. This is a serious sign of trouble not only for the IT industry but for the whole economy. If IT professionals are not trained in vocational schools, then the economy is not post-industrial for a second.

One and a half to two years of education would give a huge number of people an excellent job with a monthly salary of a thousand to fifteen hundred dollars. But such an education cannot be obtained in Russia.  In India, China, and Brazil -yes, but we simply do not have it.

Still, this is nothing compared to another problem. Namely, the quality of teaching of mathematics and computer science at schools is declining. Not only are there simply too few people due to the demographic pit, but even  those who we do have teach the hard sciences worse and worse. Even if this can be corrected, it will take many years to fix.

Vladimir Parfenov, dean of world champions and ITMO professor, told me at one of the previous ICPC finals that Russian universities produce from five to seven thousand world-class engineers annually. Those are the engineers who are able to create spacecraft, new data transmission technology, submarines, unique software, etc.

The problem is not the universities. There are simply no more talented 16-17-year-olds. When the dean talks about training “children” (his world champions are indeed the children of his and Andrei Stankevich’s, the team’s coach), he doesn’t so much talk about studies, but rather about finding prospective students and trying to convince parents to send their talented offspring to the Saint Petersburg ITMO, and finding money for students’ stipends and professors’ salaries.

Money, by the way, isn’t the most critical problem. Not only graduates but even appropriately trained third-year students are a marketable resource, and the school manages this resource well. Even the laziest ITMO student is in great demand in the industry. “I ask him, how could they hire you, a D-student? And he says, I, Vladimir Glebovich, told them that second-year students, who will come after us next  year, are even worse!” With this irony the dean, understandably, masks his pride in the quality of his work. Even D students of his don’t remain unsold.

Fewer people leave the country now, confirms Valentin Markov. There were no jobs for world champions in this country in the past, but now there are.

Some examples include Scartel (Yota), which launched the largest WiMAX network in Europe in record time; SPB Software, which was bought up by Yandex for $38 million; and Devexperts, a manufacturer of unique software for stock exchange trading. These world class Russian companies owe their success solely to former ICPC participants.

Now, about the role of the Russian state in computer programming. This role is crucial.

Those sectors in which our government doesn’t meddle are doing fine, as is demonstrated by the experience of Russian universities participating in the ICPC. But things are different in the software industry. Government regulations force software manufacturers to export software development abroad.

Or take the example of the already mentioned Scartel. Their engineers are good, yes, but if they can’t get licenses for radio wave frequencies, they won’t be able to do anything. This is not an invented example, it really happened. If not for that, the LTE network would have appeared a year and a half earlier.

We do not expect any changes because there are no engineers in our government, and they are not likely to appear there. Children of bureaucrats, oligarchs and traffic police inspectors don’t study programming in universities. It is difficult for them to study hard sciences, and what for? They can manage the country and all its engineers without it.

However, there are no nations of lawyers, journalists and PR managers. There are nations of farmers, sailors, warriors, traders. Not that long ago our country was the country of engineers. It still is, even with these difficulties. Should that change, this country will be no more.

The opinion of the author might differ from that of the editorial staff. 

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