“Nunc per ludum
Fero tui sceleris”
In 1503 after nearly 30 years of successfully fighting off the much more powerful Ottoman Empire, a certain Moldavian prince decides to sign a treaty granting his country independence in exchange for an yearly tribute. He had been reigning for 46 years at that time, quite a lot for those times. Does the peace treaty mean he failed? No. He protected his country and he opposed the greatest power of that time. His “retirement” does not mean he failed. He just became aware that his age and the lack of resources will not permit him to keep fighting. And the deal he made allowed him to leave behind an independent country, an impressive gift for his followers.
There are many such examples through history and life. To retire is to acknowledge that it’s time to move on. No matter what you did before, you know decide to stop doing it, because it’s the better choice or the only choice.
When I was 8 I had my first programming contest. It was pretty much down to just drawing certain pictures using BASIC on an HC. I got 2nd place. When I was 10 or 11 I had my real programming contest that actually involved what we could call programming concepts. The language of choice then was Pascal which was going to be the language I used for contests till I finished high school 9 years later. I got 3rd place. The next year I got my first “1st place”. I defended that position two more years after that and then I took a year off from the fun to prepare for my college admission exams, so in a way I never lost it. At that time it was all still just fun.
At the age of 15 when I started high school things changed. Programming contests became my life for the next two years, a decision whose full implications are hard to understand even now, after all this time. Skipping all the details, at the end of my junior year of high school I truly believed I had had enough of this. Once again, I took my senior year off to prepare for the next phase of my education – college – and I was quite certain I will never participate in another programming contest ever again.
That illusion lasted for my first semester of college; I was still under the impression that I’ve had enough. But I hadn’t. The tension, the adrenaline, the effort to solve the most difficult problems, all of these are more addictive then anything else I’ve ever done. Went back to it and participated again, in my sophomore year, for the first time in a team programming contest and then again in my junior year. This last contest was Oct 25th, 2008, just a few days ago.
It’s hard to express this in numbers. If I had to estimate, I would say that I’ve been doing this for about 13 years, so more than half my life. In this time, I can count at least 15 official contests and God knows how many unofficial ones while training. I’ve gotten 1st prize six times, 2nd two times, 3rd two times and honorable mention 5 times. A very very rough estimate, will say that I’ve spent over 2300 hours in training, but I believe the number to be much larger, because this doesn’t really encompass well what happened outside class, which back in high school was a lot. All this… and only one line on my resume corresponds to it; and that will probably also go away by the time I graduate.
I believe it is time I moved on, I “retired”. I could only do this for another year or two anyway, but that’s not the point. Just as in the historic example above, the effort has not been in vain even though it has not been successful. The bright side first: My love for algorithms started with these contests. I made great friends and I have amazing stories to tell. I chose my high school because of these contests and I met some wonderful people there, some of which changed my life forever and some of which I believe and hope will be my friends for life. It changed my way of thinking about problems, challenges, stress, time management and many other things I can’t even begin to list, not only in computer science, but in life in general. In many ways it changed who I’ve become. Now for the dark side. Indeed, I never got as far as I wanted. The dream I joined high school with was to participate in an international programming contest. I never did, I never will. Also, time never comes back… No matter what I’ll do, I won’t get back the hours of high school I spent doing this instead of doing something else. Maybe this was better, maybe it wasn’t. We will never ever know for sure. “What if” is just a question… it can’t be answered by mortals.
So, I have decided to move on, to “coaching” as I like to say. Priorities have changed as well as what matters for me and for those who look for my services. I’ve had my last programming contest last week and the Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition in the spring semester is likely the last “academic” contest I’ll take part in. I’m still looking forward to project competitions though, which are much different and still quite new for me (the work is done over time and the end result matters, instead of training over time for just a few hours of proving yourself). For all these years to not go to waste, I feel I must share it with the younger generations. Who knows, maybe one day some team I work with will get where I wasn’t able to and I will fulfill my dream, through them. But for myself, I have moved on to the next challenge of my life.
I must note that…there is one problem with all of that. My experience from high school has taught me that in my heart I can never really quit. I believe I can, but I can’t actually. The contest never ends for some of us, as it never really began. We are the contest. We are the winners, we are the losers. We are the prize. Every day, every second, we are competing. With ourselves, with the world, with everything. We are blessed and cursed with this way of life and we embrace it as is, because we have no choice. I retired, but I will never actually retire. I can’t. After the next corner, a new problem will need to be solved. There will always be a new problem and I will always be there trying to find a solution before the time runs out. The contest is on right now and the timer’s running. It will never change.
“A story: A man fires a rifle for many years, and he goes to war. And afterward he turns the rifle in at the armory, and he believes he’s finished with the rifle. But no matter what else he might do with his hands: love a woman, build a house, change his son’s diaper; his hands remember the rifle.” (first lines in “Jarhead (2005)“