When computer science becomes competitive

23-year-old Søren Dahlgaard has programmed since he was 10, and since senior high he has involved himself in every available computer science competition. With three titles as Danish champion in programming on his resume and enrolled in the prestigious Ph.D. program at The Department of Computer Science (DIKU) at UCPH, Søren now has new goals in sight.

Søren Dahlgaard, PhD student at Computer Science

As a Ph.D student at DIKU, Søren gets to absorb himself in advanced algorithms full time

A computer scientist was born

Already from an early age, Søren was deeply interested in the workings of computers. His first experience with programming was acquired already at age of 10 when he taught himself to code scripts and bots for the chat room in Counter-Strike. Later he was introduced to the programming language C++, and this determined his future: Søren was to be a computer scientist.

- It was very fascinating to write some code and see that it worked, Søren recollects.

Today, Søren is a Ph.D. student at the Department of Computer Science (DIKU) under the supervision of professors Stephen Alstrup and Mikkel Thorup. He works with algorithms as you may know them from the CLRS book, Introduction to Algorithms, more specifically he focuses on randomized algorithms such as hash functions. If the past is any indication of the future, Søren can look ahead at a career as a researcher with great optimism. Søren’s impressive achievements as a student encompass a GPA that can hardly become any higher, and a row of extracurricular activities with he has dived into with an unusually high level of energy.

- It’s all about mathematical intelligence. This explanation is the first to suggest itself when Søren is asked how he has become so successful with computer science, and he ads:

- Computer science is very mathematical; it is indispensable to be able to think in a strongly combinatorial manner.

Søren has often been puzzled about how frustrating many students tend to find mathematical proofs. For him, such exercises have never been a problem.

Though a natural mathematical flair may have been a determining factor for becoming an elite computer scientist, curiosity and steel-like work ethics have been as decisive in Søren’s career. These two virtues have been applied through his devoted participation and great success in various computer science competitions.

Hardcore contest-programmer

If you browse through the list of participants for the computer science competitions DDD, BOI and IOI from 2007 through 2009, it is evident that Søren has been a most busy participant throughout all of his years of senior high. Nobody will do really well in these kinds of events without intense study of a curriculum far surpassing anything that is taught in high school. In college as a computer science major, Søren has continued his involvement in computer science competitions as a member of DIKU’s programming team, ‘Lamdabamserne’, which has been competing in both national and international programming competitions.

The reward for the many hours of preparation in Søren’s time as a Lambdabamse has been no less than three Danish championships. To Søren, the motivation for participating has been more than prizes, honors, and money; the computer science competitions have been important to the Søren first and foremost because of the strong friendships with other contestants, and because they have given him the opportunity to travel the world: Throughout high school and college, Søren has visited Croatia, Egypt, Poland, Bulgaria, Holland, and Germany.

An era has come to an end

Unfortunately, Søren is getting close to the age limit of 24 years which will put an end to his participation in the computer science competitions for college students.

- We are really down about this. Of course, the set-up of the team will always change, but right now we have a team which could qualify for the World Championships - if only we had another season.

To Søren, taking part in competitions has become a way of life, and as a Ph.D. student it is still his love for competing that drives him on.

- I have always lived by the rule that whatever I decide to do, I have to do best. Now my drive is tied to the goal of producing cool results so that they will be accepted by the best conferences. The difference is that these results must be new and groundbreaking, and that they take a long time to finish. To use a racing metaphor, the programming competitions can be seen as a sprint where research is like a marathon.

The social dimension of studying computer science

Since Søren is so devoted to the academic dimension of computer science, it may come as a surprise that he has had time and energy to throw himself into several social activities as well. Part of the explanation is that Søren has deep feelings for DIKU: He is particularly proud of DIKU’s ability to include all its students.

- At other departments, the students are by themselves a lot, but at DIKU there is a special sense of community. Here people are alike in having the computer as their common interest, and this is a great foundation for connecting which each other.

- DIKU is super embracing. There are so many possibilities of getting involved in social activities - for instance, there are established groups around board games, DIKUrevue, LAN and student introduction. This is pretty unique for a college major.

Apart from being a Lambdabamse, Søren is also involved in the board of the student canteen and in the student introduction group, and to top it off, he has participated in several events for high school students hosted by the Danish Youth Association of Science (UNF).

- I chose to be part of the student intro team because I want to do what I can to engage the new students in their major, and I went into the board of the student canteen because it is essential for DIKU’s social life. The canteen is super important, so naturally I wanted to put in some work to preserve it.