Volume 29 - Number 12 - Thursday, March 13, 1997

McGill students Java-savviest

by Eric Smith
Anne Kwong, Mark Aiken, Professor Tim Merrett with plaque honouring McGill's performance, Biao Hao, Ke Xin


With 17 winners in a recent Java programming competition, McGill ranked an emphatic first among eight participating universities. MIT came in second with eight of the 50 winners.

The contest was sponsored by the Toronto firm Footprint Software, a subsidiary of IBM specializing in programs for financial institutions, and followed a two-day course in Java coding offered in January by the company on several campuses.

"McGill had the most students registering for the course," said Footprint special projects manager Shamim Ebrahim. "It had the most people submitting programs, and it had the most winners."

Java is a relative newcomer as a programming language, but it has caught the attention of many in the software industry because its programs, called applets, run on any computer platform through an Internet browser.

Competing students could submit applets in one of three areas: a retirement income calculator, a chat application, or in an open category.

Computer science graduate student Biao Hao opted to write a chat application, which allows several computer users to join online disussions. Although, like many of the other winners, Hao had an interest in Java before registering for the Footprint seminar, he said the course was useful.

Computer engineering student Anne Kwong also chose to submit a chat application. Kwong said she was attracted to Java because "it's a new language and it's popular on the Internet. And it's a pretty easy language to learn."

Kwong is the only woman among the 17 McGill winners. She said that although "there are many women in computer engineering, sometimes they're not as interested in programming."

Added Kwong, "If you like computer programming, you have to look at a computer monitor for hours. Women sometimes like things to be more dynamic."

Mark Aiken, a student in electrical engineering, was one of the winners in the open category. He wrote an applet that monitors a user's favourite web pages and alerts him or her when one is updated. This isn't the first time Aiken's programming has attracted attention. He has also written several utility programs for Macintosh computers which he distributes as shareware.

Computer users can download Aiken's software over the Internet. If they decide to keep the software, they're expected to send a small fee to the author. There are enough satisfied (and honest) customers out there that Aiken says his efforts are covering food and rent.

Winners of the competition were each awarded an IBM computer worth about $6,000, and a job offer with Footprint or another IBM company that comes with a $2,000 signing bonus.

According to Footprint's Ebrahim, most of the winners have accepted the job offers. She added that her company is committed to hiring recent graduates. "We always hire fresh students from university," she said. "We constantly need young people."

Ebrahim said much of McGill's success in the competition can be attributed to School of Computer Science professor Tim Merrett. "McGill competitors got tremendous support and encouragement from him," she said. "He told us, 'I want to bring all 50 of those computers to McGill.'"

The McGill winners all agree that it was Merrett who made sure everyone knew about the opportunity. "It was very widely advertised," said Aiken. "A lot of people knew about it."

But according to Merrett, his enthusiasm was matched by McGill students. After he informed computer science and engineering students about the seminar via e-mail, "I got swamped. Students were very keen. It was pretty overwhelming when 250 McGill students came back to school early to spend the whole first weekend of the year at the course." Altogether, 52 McGill students submitted programs in the competition.

Ebrahim says Footprint considers this pilot project to have been "very successful." She added that the company is currently evaluating whether it will offer a similar course next year.

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