Taariq Mowzer, in grade 10 at Fairbairn College in Cape Town, won the gold medal in the 34th South African Computer Programming Olympiad. He described the Mastermind question of the event as “one of the most fun questions I have done”.
Along with 12 other finalists he spent two days writing six computer programs to solve problems. His solution to the the Mastermind problem, based on the 1972 board game, gave him the edge to win the prestigious Standard Bank Trophy and his gold medal at the awards dinner. In her address, Nicole Borges, head of investment banking technology emphasised that Standard Bank’s investment in the Olympiad over the past 15 years showed commitment to develop and reward high level programming skills in South Africa. “These skills are in great demand”, she said, adding that “half of my day is spent on blockchain technology”.
There were 227 schools from all nine provinces that participated in the first round. The initial field of 2 348 participants was reduced to 478 for Round Two and 13 reached the finals – all of them with perfect scores. The Programming Olympiad Finals took place over an October weekend at UCT. The finalists came from five provinces. The two silver medal winners were Tian Cilliers (Gr 11, Stellenbosch High) and Ralph McDougall (Gr 11, Curro Durbanville). The three bronze medals were earned by Jordan Arenstein (Gr 12, King David Victory Park, Gauteng), Donal Davies (Gr 12, Woodridge College, Eastern Cape) and Emile Tredoux (Gr 11, Parklands College, Cape Town). The medal winners will be invited to attend training camps where they will also compete to qualify for the South African team of four to go to Japan in September 2018 for the 30th International Olympiad in Informatics.
The guest speaker at the Awards Ceremony was Dr Judith Bishop, a distinguished Computer Scientist and author of 16 books on computer languages. While working as Director of Research at Microsoft in Seattle, she was on the development team for the micro:bit, which she demonstrated. In 2016 this tiny programmable device was given to one million 11-year- old learners in the UK as part of the BBC “Make it Digital”. The aim was to inspire a new generation to get creative with coding and not to be mere users (consumers) of technology.
“What are the hot areas in Computer Science today?” asked Dr Bishop. “There is no doubt about it, AI (Artificial Intelligence) is top of the list. All of industry is trying neural networks, machine learning, vision recognition, language translation, etc.” She added that “once the AI people have made their plan, it must still be programmed, compiled, debugged. Underpinning all of these is the skill of software engineering. There will always be a place for top designers, analysts and programmers.”
The awards dinner was a happy return for the 1986 gold medal winner, Gustav Mauer who attended with his wife Margaretha. Their daughter Christina (Gr 10, Durbanville High School) was the only female finalist. Gustav is a senior software development engineer in the IT industry at Amazon Web Services and remarked afterwards that “the industry… desperately needs more skilled developers”.
A key goal of the Programming Olympiad is to attract more young people to learn programming – an ability that is required not only in the IT industry, but in most occupations of the future.
Photographs available on request.
South Africa was the top programming team in Africa, finishing ahead of Morocco, Nigeria, and Tunisia in a computer programming contest, the International Olympiad in Informatics (IOI). South Africa was also the only African team to bring home IOI medals from Tehran. The three bronze medal winners, all now at UCT, were in Gr 12 last year. They are David Broodryk (Westerford), Yaseen Mowzer (Fairbairn) and Bronson Rudner (SACS).
Broodryk commented “Tehran is a city of friendly and intellectually curious people. Our guide Marzieh is a data scientist analyzing genes to help cure diseases. I went expecting a desert and found instead an oasis.”
“The questions” said Mowzer, “were tougher than the questions of previous years. It was a little disheartening to sit a five-hour contest and score what seemed like so few points, so slowly. However, after the contest, we realized that we performed well relative to the other contestants.”
Rudner reflected that he “felt extremely honoured to take part in the IOI in Tehran.” He added that “Iran was a wonderful host and while the questions proved tougher this year, I feel the team persevered and achieved remarkable results, and I am proud to have been awarded a bronze medal for South Africa.”
The Manager of the SA Computer Olympiad, Michael Cameron, acknowledged “the outstanding voluntary leadership of UCT Science undergraduate student, Robin Visser for his work in training the team. Visser was an IOI bronze medal winner in 2015 in Kazakhstan, and IOI Deputy Team Leader in 2016 and 2017. “Robin put together the training, the contests and the evaluation system. In this, he was supported by Laurens Weyn (2016 Russian IOI SA team member).
One of the four team members, Ralph McDougall, who had just returned from the International Mathematics Olympiad (IMO) in Rio de Janeiro in the previous week said “I love problem solving… it’s very satisfying to see how to make progress on difficult problems and get closer to the best solution.” He added that “IMO and IOI are great ways to challenge yourself with intense maths and programming problems. It was an amazing experience to represent my country on the world stage. Although changing time zones every week can get a bit irritating, I enjoy competing with others who love problem solving. It’s very enriching to see how people from different countries and cultures approach problems and how they train to do better. Germany selects on talent and people are expected to better themselves in their free time. Nigeria has intense training to do better and selects on improvement.”
McDougall is still in Grade 11 (Curro Durbanville) and could earn a place in the SA team to Japan in 2018. The first step for selection is Round One of the South African Computer Programming Olympiad, sponsored by Standard Bank. This free, one-hour online contest runs at schools at any time in the week Monday 14 to Friday 18 August. A school may enter the Programming Olympiad via the website www.olympiad.org.za, or by emailing the SA Computer Olympiad office on firstname.lastname@example.org, or by calling 021 448 7864 (08:00 – 16:00).