In autumn of 2012, shortly after having joined Gymnasium Neufeld for 10th grade, my maths teacher C. Schneuwly pointed me at the Swiss Olympiad in Informatics. At the time I didn't think much of it, but I knew Java so I thought I'd give it a try. From the six tasks of the first round, what really hooked me was a task called "Who wants to be a billionaire". From the outside it looked very simple: your program would be given a question and four possible answers. Choose the correct answer and advance to the next round. Yet any programmer will know, this is a very hard problem to solve. For each question, the program could do a limited number of Wikipedia queries before it had to give a response. Nowadays you would probably use machine learning and a natural language processing framework to solve this task, but at the time I certainly didn't have the hardware for modern machine learning and didn't know the theory for proper language processing either. So I hand-crafted a scoring method for finding the most important terms in a question and then statistically compared the words in their wikipedia articles with the articles from the four possible answers.
Some time passed and on 12th January 2013, the results of the first round were announced. There was a live show of all submissions for "Who wants to be a billionaire". The questions started off easy, asking for the name of Mario's Brother in the Super Mario video games. Even a question asking for the name of Beethoven's only opera was correctly answered. Yet later questions like "What letters are on the '3' button of a touch-tone telephone?" clearly showed that the programs lacked any true understanding of the objects they were asked about. In the end it was a close race between Benjamin's submission and my own, yet my program managed to come out ahead. After this success I was lucky enough to be invited to the Davos camp, a week-long training camp for programming. Every morning we would have lectures in algorithms and in the evening there would be a contest to apply our learnings. This camp was crucial for my learning, since I had never before written any C++ nor did I have much experience in algorithms.
The last hurdle to overcome would be the finals. It consisted of the twelve best participants competing in four five-hour long contests each. After the first two days of contest, the outlook was grim. I was ranked 11th at the bottom of the pack. Yet the work of the leaders during the Davos camp paid off and after the last two days I was able to place in third position. Now could the fun begin! The top four participants Johannes, Cédric, Benjamin and myself were invited to the International Olympiad in Informatics in Brisbane, Australia.
After a 36 hour flight with our leader Samuel, we wearily arrived at about 5:30 am in Brisbane. We were guided arounded the Campus of the University of Queensland by our local guide Peter. In order to fight the jetlag it was decided that we would stay awake until the evening. So we went to have a look at the city, although for myself it was mostly a fight against my heavy eyelids. During the day we were also joined by our second leader, Sandro, who came directly from Russia. The second day was a bit more relaxed, starting off with the practice session and followed by the opening ceremony. Then, on the third day, we finally had our first contest. Lasting five hours as per usual, but with a stray wombat in the contest area, which was not usual. There was a very interesting task with the title art class. The goal being to classify images into one of four categories: modern art, impressionism, expressionism or color field paintings. We had to do this in bare C++ with classical algorithms. My solution consisted mostly of line detection and analyzing the distribution of colors in the image. Johannes, who was our strongest team member had a hard time on this day. After a daytrip to Sunshine Coast, the contest continued. As on the first day, I didn't do very well, but Johannes took the chance to climb the ranks. Unfortunately he still didn't qualify for a medal.
Now that the contests had ended, we were free to enjoy Australia! Since the official IOI had ended, we had to part ways with our friendly guide Peter. Even though Johannes and I used every chance to wander off and inspected every corner on and off the campus, we managed to catch our flight to Sydney. During our week there, we visited the various museums the city had to offer and used the chance to watch La Forza del Destino in the Sydney Opera House. For me, the biggest attraction was our excursion into the Blue Mountains west of Sydney. Starting off riding a train that looked like it was built to withstand a bear attack. Arriving on the mountainside, we finally got some fresh air that was dearly missed after spending nearly two weeks in the city. We got to enjoy the gorgeous view of mostly untouched forests and plenty of waterfalls. I was also quick to try the water, even though we later learned that we weren't supposed to be drinking it. It still didn't taste too bad.
The last gift of the 2013 contest was the Central European Olympiad in Informatics in Primošten, Croatia. This time my teammates consisted of Benjamin and Timon S. Unfortunately Johannes couldn't make it, so this time I had to explore the surroundings on my own. I had just before been gifted my first DSLR, and this was the perfect place to try it out. Right next to our apartments was an abandoned building, something I would've taken forever to find in Switzerland. While the official program consisted of a karaoke evening, I had a great time testing just how waterproof my camera is and managed to photograph my first lightning strike. While I was off, doing everything but focusing on the competition, Benjamin actually managed to secure himself a Bronze medal! Then, out of the blue, a photo competition was announced. I submitted a photo that I took during our excursion to the Krka waterfalls and won. So I got to take home the unlikeliest of prizes from a programming competition.