With the start-up culture booming, businesses are thriving on computer programmers. India expects to house 5.2 million developers by 2018, against America’s 4.2 million. Does this mean India produces the best programmers in the world? Regrettably, not. It’s still Americans who lead at software development. While India seems to be doing well in the IT space, the contrasting reality of programming is that the country is nowhere close to even the top 50 ranks in the world’s biggest programming competition, the ACM ICPC—Association for Computing Machinery: International Collegiate Programming Contest—also known as the Olympics of Programming.
Consulting with the global stalwarts
In India, online programming platforms like CodeChef—a non-profit by technology & web products company Directi—have taken the onus to create awareness about programming in schools and colleges, with the objective of uplifting standards. CodeChef has created a global programming community that fosters learning and friendly competition, built on top of a free competitive programming platform.
India’s sinking performance at the ACM ICPC nudged us to consult some of the best programmers across the globe who are a part of the CodeChef community. Communicating with them brought into light the fallacies so deeply ingrained in the Indian education system that it’s almost invisible.
Our students begin to learn programming only after high school, while the countries that produce global winners motivate their students to practice programming right from their early school years. Students in India lag behind because there is a lack of awareness regarding learning platforms and resources, and no motivation to study the subject.
Lack of both awareness and motivation
All of us have grown up either applauding our fellow students who did well at Science and Maths Olympiads or being a part of them. Yet the International Olympiad in Informatics (IOI)—a programming competition conducted by the UN, aimed at middle and high school students—is relatively unknown. The lack of awareness and training at an early stage is affecting the talent pool of programmers. Before students can go ahead and “choose” it as a subject in college or maybe receive on-the-job training, programming is not even a hobby, let alone an interest. The hesitation of introducing it when students can grasp programming basics better is amassing into a major problem—motivation.
What happens is that, by the end of a 12-year training bout in schools, a possibly genius programmer is left to fend for himself, trying to prove his worth with fiercely competitive entrance exams to get into the top technology institutes in India for computer science. While the significance of these exams is not questioned, they test a person’s skill in Science subjects, with absolutely no weightage to a student’s performance at programming competitions like IOI. As a result, the best of the Indian programming talent prefers universities outside the country.
Some of the most prestigious technology universities across the world recognise talent and participation in programming competitions like the IOI, ACM ICPC, and rankings of other competitions like Google Code Jam, Facebook Hacker Cup and CodeChef SnackDown, and allow students to improve skills by offering direct admissions to those high school students who perform well at the IOI.
If I told you about a girl, Malvika Raj Joshi from Mumbai, who did not go to school after the age of 12, did not write her 10th and 12th board exams, but has still been invited to join the world-renowned MIT, only on the basis of her unmatched programming skills and her rankings at global competitions, that would leave you perplexed. Another student, Akshat Bubna, who won a bronze medal in IOI in 2012, secured a place in MIT and went on to bag the first ever and the only gold medal for India at the IOI in 2014.
While we must admire American universities for the way in which they not only spot talent like Malvika and Akshat—and also encourage it—we must interrogate why Indian universities fail to do the same.
Short-sighted pedigree institutes
There is no dearth of exceptional programming talent in the country, but premier institutes are no more the exclusive hotbeds for them. The industry is beginning to look beyond the IITs to source their talent, because there’s more skill and talent that is getting lost than is being discovered, owing to the strict competitive exams. The good news is institutes like IIIT Delhi, IIIT Hyderabad and Chennai Mathematical Institute are among the few to hold the flag for it. There are hardly any among the roughly 3,000 Indian institutes that stress more importance on an aspirant’s programming skills over their score in entrance exams.
We can’t even fathom the possibilities of programming culture in India if every IIT boasted of at least one student who was there purely based on this skill.
The forage forward
The world’s leading software development and technology firms are turning to the rankings of potential candidates at coding competitions to gauge their capabilities and fitment in true sense. The programming community is niche, yet significantly large, and such platforms are the need of the hour to bind them together and help them sharpen their skills vis-a-vis their competition at global level. However, to excel, it is imperative we start early and we start right. With the right guidance and right amount of motivation from schools, parents and teachers, we’re already halfway through with our goals of building a country of world’s best programmers.
The author is BU Head, CodeChef, the non-profit educational initiative of Directi