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What is competitive programming?

It doesn't matter if you're a beginning programmer, still in high school, or well into your career in development. Now is a great time to get into competitive programming. But just what is it, and how do you get started? Read on to find out.

What is competitive programming?

Competitive programming involves programmers competing against each other to solve programming questions in a limited amount of time. These events are usually held over the Internet or a local network. The contestants of the events are known as sport programmers.

Contestants solve logical or mathematical programming questions in the coding language of their choice. The number of questions can vary depending on the contest. The results are judged on the number of questions solved, time spent solving the problems, and other factors, like execution time, program size, etc.

Benefits of competitive programming

There are many benefits to participating in programming contests, especially if programming is your career.

Prizes

Most competitive programming contests have prizes. These prizes can be in the form of cash, software, hardware, free services, and more. There have even been some sport programmers who had so much success competing in coding contests that they turned it into a career.

Technical interview prep

Many tech companies, like Facebook, Google, and Amazon, use the same type of questions in their technical interviews as those you'll face in coding contests. While you may know how to write code, you may not be familiar with the algorithms and data structures that you must use to solve these types of problems. Competing in programming contests will give you the practice and confidence you need to make it through one of these intensive interviews.

Problem-solving and programming skills

There's probably no better way to improve your problem-solving and programming skills than by entering programming contests. During the contest, you'll be given complex problems that you'll have to solve in a limited time. Many of those problems are ones you may have never run into before. Solving them will improve your analytical thinking skills and teach you more about the programming language you chose to compete with. And these are skills you can take with you in your career.

How do I get started with competitive programming?

Are you ready to get started? It'll take some preparation, especially if you're new to programming, but the experience is rewarding and will definitely be worth it.

Learn a programming language

The first thing you need to do is learn how to program. There are many programming languages out there to choose from, and many contests will allow you to choose any language you're comfortable with. Still, you might want to choose a language that's commonly used in competitions, such as:

Since your program's runtime may be a factor when it comes to winning a coding contest, you'll want to choose a fast, low-level language that'll give you the control you need to tweak its performance.

Of all the languages in our list, Python is the slowest and may not be allowed in some contests, but it's a good choice for beginners because its syntax is easy to learn. Java is pretty quick and is supported by many libraries that add to your code, but it's more verbose than C or C++, so it may take longer to write a solution, depending on the problem.

Learn data structures and algorithms

Once you've learned the basics of your chosen programming language, it's time to study data structures and algorithms. Choosing the right data structure can make the difference between a brute force solution and an elegant one. Some of the common data structures you may end up using to solve a contest problem include:

  • Array
  • Linked List
  • Stack
  • Queue
  • Tree
  • Trie
  • Graph

Algorithms are the logic you use to solve a problem. There are usually multiple ways to solve the same problem, but some algorithms are more efficient than others. Since winning the contest may depend on the time it takes for your solution to run and the amount of memory it uses, you want to have a good knowledge of algorithms to know which one to apply to your problem. Some common algorithm types include:

  • Sorting
  • Recursion
  • Dynamic programming
  • Bit manipulation
  • Searching

To learn more about data structures and algorithms, check out our Computer Science Career Path.

Practice your skills

To put your knowledge of programming languages, data structures, and algorithms to use, you need to practice. There are plenty of places online where you can solve the same type of problems as those you'll run into in competitive programming. Try a few of these platforms to see which one you prefer.

Many of the sites that offer these coding challenges also hold their own coding contests, so practicing will prepare you to handle the problems and become more familiar with their platform. We'll explore some of these sites in the next section. In the meantime, here are some places where you can practice your competitive programming skills:

Enter programming competitions

Once you've practiced your programming skills with the type of problems you'll face in competitive programming, it's time to enter a programming competition. There are quite a few places you can compete. Some of these places will also allow you to sign up and take practice challenges.

Learn more about programming

Competitive programming can be a rewarding activity. Not only do you have the chance to win prizes and stand out from your peers, but you'll also hone your problem-solving and programming skills by putting them to the test.As a bonus, the skills learned by competing in these contests can make it easier for you to land a job that requires coding. Plus, it's easy to get started. But first, you need to learn to program. Check out our programming course catalog to get started.

Get more practice, more projects, and more guidance.

Stephan Miller

Stephan Miller

Stephan Miller has been a full-stack, mobile, and machine learning developer for two decades and has written code for companies both big and small, both startups and established businesses.

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