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How C++ Competitive Programming Can Help Hiring Managers and Developers Alike


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Programmers gain valuable real-world skills from algorithm competitions that can boost their job prospects—and contest ratings make it easier for hiring managers to find top talent. Explore competitive C++ with a programmer whose scores got them recruited by Google.


Toptalauthors are vetted experts in their fields and write on topics in which they have demonstrated experience. All of our content is peer reviewed and validated by Toptal experts in the same field.
Anitet Wheeler-Rose
Verified Expert in Engineering

Anitet is a full-stack engineer and CTO with expertise in C++, JavaScript, and DevOps. A former site reliability and software engineer at Google, Anitet was recruited after achieving an 85th to 90th percentile ranking at algorithm programming competition events.

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Competitive programming is a mind sport in which participants solve complex coding puzzles. Competing in these events has the potential to translate into professional success for developers. Reciprocally, hiring managers can find top notch talent by following competitive algorithm contests. Case in point: Eight years ago, Google noticed my impressive C++ competitive programming rating on the Topcoder Single Round Match (SRM) platform and recruited me as an engineer.

Originating on college campuses in the 1970s, competitive programming has since expanded in popularity, gaining attention from large technology corporations, and covering topics such as algorithm programming, machine learning, and game development. In this article, I’ll share my own perspective and experiences as a rated algorithm programmer.

A Look at Competitive Algorithm Events

Most algorithm competitions take place on specialized online platforms, attracting as many as tens of thousands of international participants per contest. The following online platforms offer regular, real-time, and rated contests:

Notable sponsors of contests include global companies (e.g., Meta, Google—at least, this was true until the project was sunset in July 2023) and organizations for students (e.g., ICPC, IOI). Additionally, groups such as UVa Online Judge and Project Euler support the competitive programming community by hosting puzzles for developers to solve.

Competition Structure

In an algorithm contest, competitors are typically presented with three to six puzzles to solve within a given time frame. Contestants attempt to solve the puzzles by writing programs in their language of choice. Some platforms, such as Codeforces, provide programmers the opportunity to design test cases that cause fellow competitors’ source code to fail, with points earned for successful hacks.

Point System

Contestants primarily earn points by submitting correct solutions to puzzles. Contest platforms enforce rigorous standards and automatically grade each solution against an exhaustive set of prepared test cases. Contestants are rewarded for development speed, algorithm efficiency, and code accuracy.

Most platforms will only award points to perfect solutions, but some will grant partial credit for incomplete solutions, like those that miss a certain edge case or are too slow for big data sets, but still give a solution to the puzzle.

Rating Assignment

Once points are awarded, an Elo-inspired formula determines participant ratings that accurately reflect competitors’ abilities relative to those of their peers. Thus, as the number of competitions a developer has participated in increases, their rating will more accurately reflect their standing.

Competitive Algorithm Programmers Are Top Engineering Candidates

A competitive programming rating is a robust indicator of a developer’s talent. While rating systems vary among online platforms, competitor percentile placements translate well universally. Ratings are publicized and are therefore accessible to any interested party.

Fortune 100 technology companies have known the value of competitive algorithm programming for some time. Global companies regularly sponsor competitions as a combined marketing strategy and talent search initiative.

Streamlined Hiring Process

When an organization targets highly rated competitors, it can safely streamline its hiring process by eliminating interview segments that weed out unqualified applicants. A shorter hiring pipeline results in benefits for both developers and companies:

  • Organizational cost savings: Fewer interview stages translate into fewer meetings and accommodations booked per candidate.
  • A more competitive hiring process: Faster hiring decisions mean less time between a candidate’s first interview and an offer letter. For companies, this means better candidate retention. And for developers, this means a less cumbersome interview process.

Applicable Professional Skills

A candidate who has earned a strong rating from a key event platform has demonstrated their proficiency in algorithms and data structures. After all, competition puzzles are effectively coding interview questions. The expertise attained by competing translates into provable, real-world professional skills:

Competitive Expertise

Corresponding Professional Skills

Solving puzzles quickly and accurately

  • Code accuracy
  • Development speed

Identifying and covering all possible test cases

Debugging algorithms

  • Debugging business logic

Developing efficient algorithms

  • Scalable algorithm development
  • Code design

Adversarial thinking

  • Security
  • Careful adherence to requirements and specifications

Step-by-step reasoning

  • Business analysis
  • Use case generation
  • Requirement clarification and negotiation

Finally, this section would be incomplete without a mention of technical creativity, the overarching attribute that drives innovation. Solving challenging algorithm contest puzzles requires ingenuity and resourcefulness. It therefore stands to reason that highly rated competitors will demonstrate proficiency in technical creativity—a sought-after trait in professional engineers.

If you’re a programmer, make yourself easy to find by showcasing your rating in the Honors and Awards section of your résumé. And if you’re a hiring manager, identify these candidates to ease the hiring process.

Skills Not Assessed at Competitive Algorithm Events

Algorithm contests focus on a specific subset of skills, and some important proficiencies are not featured in them:

Parallel computing

A contest program is usually tested on a server that is restricted to a single thread. As a result, a competitive programmer may be less experienced with multithreading techniques.

Networking

A contest puzzle is designed to be solved within a single program, with all the required input and output handled locally. In contrast, a networked setting introduces complexities that fall outside of the scope of algorithm contests.

Readability

In competitive programming, readability takes a back seat to development speed. In the workplace, engineers must adapt to company standards and write intelligible, clearly documented code.

Leadership and teamwork

Developers compete individually in rated algorithm contests. However, professional software is usually developed by teams, and communication and soft skills are crucial to achieving success.

Software architecture and strategic planning

A program designed to solve a contest puzzle is typically short and written quickly. In contrast, professional software is developed with long-term adaptability in mind.

System operations

A contest puzzle is typically solved by a small program that is executed once, contrary to the real world, where programs require maintenance and must interoperate with a kaleidoscope of systems.

Adaptability to changing priorities

Contest puzzles are clearly defined with explicit requirements and objectives. Consequently, a competitive algorithm programmer may have less experience with open-ended situations.

Can a competitive programmer transition into the professional engineering world? Yes, and many have done so. It is advisable for newcomers to boost their skill set with supplementary technical and soft skills. And, with a competitive programmer’s proven algorithmic strengths, hiring managers are free to focus their efforts on screening for business or other skills.

Why C++ Is Ideal for Competitive Algorithm Events

A high-performance language, C++ is extremely popular in competitive programming. C++ also offers an extensive standard library and easy access to bit manipulation and low-level elemental types—all of which can be useful in contest puzzles.

C++ was designed for use in large enterprise systems. In algorithm contests, competitors typically limit their use of this feature-rich language to this subset:

Frequency in Competitive Programming

C++ Language Feature

Ubiquitous

  • Standard library containers and algorithms
  • Lambdas
  • Low-level access to elemental types
  • Bit manipulation

Occasional

  • Template generics
  • Preprocessor macros
  • GDB and other step debuggers
  • Operator overloading

Negligible

  • Threads
  • Polymorphism
  • Exceptions
  • Smart pointers

Note that in preparation for the professional world, a developer should master C++ features beyond the competitive algorithm programming subset presented here.

Tips for the Aspiring Competitive Algorithm Programmer

Getting started on your competitive programming adventure is as easy as creating a profile on your platform of choice and registering for a live contest. Getting up to speed, however, entails preparation, self-education, and perseverance.

Attempting puzzles from past contests is an effective way to practice and familiarize yourself with your selected platform’s standard contest format. Learning standard algorithms and techniques (e.g., the shortest path problem and the caterpillar method) builds confidence and prepares you to compete.

Use the post-contest editorials that are published by many of the contest platforms as resources; they describe past puzzles exhaustively, offering detailed analyses of the solutions. Additionally, some sites host a curated list of practice puzzles.

Transitioning From Competitive Programming Into the Working World

I entered the professional world with several years of competitive programming plus an undergraduate degree under my belt. Over time, I tackled various assignments and collaborated on multiple teams, and grew to be a competent site reliability engineer.

I had a eureka moment early on in my site reliability engineering role at Google. I performed exceptionally well on a project that leveraged my competitive C++ programming skills, and my manager and I realized that I would thrive in any situation that plays up this skill set. We put this theory to the test and cherry-picked projects that emphasized competitive programming skills. The result? I was happy, achieved success, and found my niche within the industry as I also advanced professionally.

As competitive programming continues to grow in popularity, hiring managers will see more candidates with algorithm contest backgrounds. Understanding the skill profile is key to unlocking a competitive programmer’s full potential. And if you are a competitive programmer—with C++ or another language—advertise your accomplishments to boost your professional profile.

The editorial team of the Toptal Engineering Blog extends its gratitude to Umer Arshad for reviewing the technical content presented in this article.

Understanding the basics

  • How do I start competitive programming?

    Create an account on your platform of choice, and then hone your skills by solving practice puzzles.

  • Why was C++ created?

    C++ was created in 1983 as an extension to the C language. It offers high-level language constructs like object-oriented programming and generics, and has since grown into one of the most popular languages for developing high-performance software.

  • Do you need C++ for competitive programming?

    No, but C++, Java, and Python are the most popular languages for competitive programming. C++ is known for its high processing speed, and is faster than either Java or Python. To solve advanced puzzles that require top performance, speed can be an advantage. C++ also provides an extensive standard library.

  • How is C++ used in the real world?

    C++ is a solid programming language choice for systems requiring high performance. High-profile C++ projects include MySQL and Node.js.

  • Is it still worth learning C++?

    Yes, many Fortune 100 companies, including Amazon and Google, still rely on key systems developed in C++. Existing code bases and new projects alike continue to use C++ as their language of choice.

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Anitet Wheeler-Rose

Anitet Wheeler-Rose

Verified Expert in Engineering

Haiku-Pauwela, United States

Member since October 21, 2022

About the author

Anitet is a full-stack engineer and CTO with expertise in C++, JavaScript, and DevOps. A former site reliability and software engineer at Google, Anitet was recruited after achieving an 85th to 90th percentile ranking at algorithm programming competition events.

authors are vetted experts in their fields and write on topics in which they have demonstrated experience. All of our content is peer reviewed and validated by Toptal experts in the same field.

Expertise

PREVIOUSLY AT

Google

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