Just do IT: Why Russians dominate cyberland

In the past year, Russian programmers have become famous (or rather infamous) for “hacking” the US elections. But they’d been topping international competitions for many years before that. How do they do it?

To win the International Collegiate Programming Contest (ICPC) is the dream of all IT students the world over. But starting in 2000, Russians have ruled the roost.

ICPC prizewinners from Russia include students from ITMO University, St. Petersburg State University, Moscow State University, and the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology (MIPT). For many years, they have got the better of teams from Oxford, Berkeley, MIT, Harvard, Caltech, and others. The secret of Russia’s success is the effective training system developed by Moscow Workshops ICPC under the auspices of MIPT.

Graduates include Nikolai Durov and Andrei Lopatin, who developed the social network VKontakte, the “Russian Facebook.” Looksery, an app that lets you Photoshop your face while you video chat and was bought by Snapchat for $150 million, was also created by past competition participants.

So what’s the secret of training Russian programmers?

Start early

The training and selection of future cyber champs begins at school, says MIPT vice rector and founder of Moscow Workshops ICPC Alexey Maleev.

“School and student Olympiads have existed since the 1930s, something that isn't found in any other country in the world. Russia has always excelled at mathematical education. This gives Russian children a head start in international competitions,” believes Maleev.

Life’s a contest

Starting from around the second year, Russian students attend weekly training sessions on top of their university program. They study with college teachers and independently online, and take part in all kinds of competitions.

“Life turns into a race for the top prize, like athletes preparing for the Olympics,” says Ilya Stepanov of the Shock Content team, a third-year student at the MIPT Faculty of Innovation and High Technologies.

Internal competition

Each college selects as many as ten student teams. Up to five teams per university make it to the ICPC qualifying semifinal, and only one to the actual final itself.

Competition for all

In 2012, MIPT launched the Moscow Workshops ICPC project, which consists of training camps, online courses, extramural tournaments, and programs for schoolchildren. The program is open to anyone from anywhere in the world.

Training camps are held six times a year at universities in Russia, Belarus, Spain, and India. The next will take place this July in Hrodno, Belarus, and Vladivostok, Russia.

“Training side by side lets students pool their knowhow and experience, establish their first professional contacts, and raise their level,” says Aleksei Maleev.

Continuity and experience

Participants undergo a 7-9 day intensive training program not only with tutors from the top schools, but with former ICPC finalists.

They compete daily for five hours. This not only develops teamwork and hones math and IT skills, but also prepares students mentally for the championship.

Open results

The camps, like the competitions, take place in full public view: spectators watch from the sidelines, and electronic scoreboards display the results in real time.

The lead can change hands at any moment. The large international presence at the camps gives an early feel for the overall standard of the best teams in the world and a chance to get acquainted with the favorites.

Meetings are also set up between students and IT industry reps from Google, IBM, Amazon, etc. Over the program’s six-year existence, more than 1,600 students from 167 universities in 50 countries worldwide have taken part in the camps.

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