How to get started with competitive programming

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How to get started with competitive programming

Hello Coders!

Are you a programmer looking to enhance your problem-solving skills, improve your coding abilities, and gain a competitive edge in the tech industry? Then you should consider participating in competitive programming.

As an Engineering Manager at Agoda with over ten years of experience, I have personally experienced the benefits of competitive programming. Throughout my career, I have participated in different hackathons and coding competitions at organizations like Microsoft and Dell. These experiences have helped me to develop a range of problem-solving techniques and enhance my technical skills, allowing me to approach problems with fresh perspectives and provide valuable input to my team.

Even though my current role doesn’t require me to code most of the time, I still find it essential to participate in coding challenges to keep up with new challenges and stay updated on emerging technologies. If you want to improve your coding abilities and advance your career in the tech industry, I highly recommend participating in competitive programming.

Before we jump to the how, let me discuss what it is and why every programmer should do it.

What is Competitive Programming?

Competitive programming is a programming exercise with constraints like time, memory, space limits, other data or instruction constraints, or a combination. These exercises can be Data Structure and Algorithm (DSA) exercises, or they can also be full-fledged system design problems that can extend to days of implementation. Many organizations use them for interview rounds and for, hackathons, and coding competitions.

Why should programmers do competitive programming?

Competitive programming is a challenging and rewarding activity that can benefit programmers in many ways. It is an excellent way for programmers to improve their problem-solving and coding skills. By working on these complex problems with strict time limits, you can develop your algorithmic thinking skills, improve your coding efficiency, increase your problem-solving speed, and boost your creativity. Additionally, it can prepare you for technical interviews and give you a different perspective on problem-solving and quick thinking, making it a valuable skill that sets you apart from the crowd and prepares you for real-world challenges.

How to get started

Strengthen the fundamentals – Before diving into competitive programming, it’s essential to have a solid foundation in programming concepts like loops, conditional statements, functions, and data structures. People often say you don’t need a strong foundation in data structures like arrays, linked lists, and hash maps to excel in competitive coding. While it’s true that many frameworks and libraries are available to assist with this. However, I suggest starting from the basics and gradually working your way up to using more complex tools like the Standard Template Library (STL). This will help you better understand the intricacies of competitive programming, develop better problem-solving techniques and improve your skills in this area.

Practice – There is no shortcut to competitive programming. The more you practice, the more efficient you will become. When solving data structure and algorithm problems, start with the easy ones and gradually move to the complex problems. This way, you will become familiar with the common algorithms and data structures and understand how they work. Initially, you might ignore different constraints and focus on solving the problems by passing all test cases. But this will help you better solve more complex problems in the future. Starting with easy problems is also an excellent way to build your skills, gain confidence, and improve your problem-solving abilities.

Create a boilerplate of code in your preferred coding language – It’s important to choose a language that you’re comfortable with and has strong library support for data structures and algorithms and delve into it to build a strong foundation. You can choose a preferred language for different problems, like C++ or Java for DSA and Java or NodeJS for backend applications. Create boilerplates, especially if you prefer local IDE. For example, you can create classes that parse line-by-line inputs, a common input method for DSA test cases.

Use online tools – There are many platforms with options for problem customizations like Topcoder, CodeChef, Unstop, and Hackerrank, where you can register and start practicing. These online platforms offer a variety of programming problems to practice, and they also organize competitions. The more problems you solve, the more comfortable you will become with solving different algorithms and data structure problems.

Be regular – Competitive coding is not about aiming for perfection from the first day. Most coders find it challenging because they want to solve problems from the first go, and once they fail, they get frustrated and leave it altogether. Competitive coding is about improving and being consistent. Try to solve problems daily, even if it is one problem, and improve on run time and other constraints.

Measure your performance and learn tips and tricks – keep measuring your improvements, like how many test cases are passing and your code’s run time. With time you will find patterns in coding problems, and you will know what kind of logic can solve what kind of problems. For example, if a problem says to try to solve in O(n) time, they are likely looking for a hashing solution. This might not always be applicable, but you will learn how to write big logic in a few lines and improve your speed. Try to read the code of top coders in the world.

So above steps are a few things that can help you get started. Once you pass the initial hurdles, competitive coding can be an exciting opportunity to showcase your skills. I would say, “There is no replacement for hard work and consistency. The more you do that, the less luck you will need to succeed”.

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