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Slovak teenagers new IT Olympic champs

Four Slovak secondary school students who took part in a July global computing competition brought home two gold and two silver medals, putting the Slovak team in top position among the 73 countries represented at the event. The Slovak teenagers were among 280 contestants in Tampere, Finland at the International Informatics Olympics from July 14 to 21.
It's not the first time Slovak students have excelled at the 'computer Olympics'; since 1993, when Slovakia became an independent state, the country has taken 14 gold, 14 silver, and 7 bronze medals at the annual informatics event.
However, computer programming educators say such success is not due to the country's school system, which offers little hi-tech education compared to Western nations, but instead to the dedication and self-taught skills of individual students.


From left to right Mišo Forišek (a past winner), Ján Oravec, Jozef Tvarožek, Marián Dvorský, Tomáš Záthurecký and Dana Pardubská.
photo: Courtesy Michal Forišek

Four Slovak secondary school students who took part in a July global computing competition brought home two gold and two silver medals, putting the Slovak team in top position among the 73 countries represented at the event. The Slovak teenagers were among 280 contestants in Tampere, Finland at the International Informatics Olympics from July 14 to 21.

It's not the first time Slovak students have excelled at the 'computer Olympics'; since 1993, when Slovakia became an independent state, the country has taken 14 gold, 14 silver, and 7 bronze medals at the annual informatics event.

However, computer programming educators say such success is not due to the country's school system, which offers little hi-tech education compared to Western nations, but instead to the dedication and self-taught skills of individual students.

"I wouldn't say that our success at such competitions corresponds with the overall level of programming skills in this country," said Danka Pardubská, leader of the Slovak team in Tampere and a teacher at the Programming Science department of Bratislava's Comenius University. "Although there are many quality programmers in Slovakia, these guys are definitely the promising elite," she added. "They are freaks who sit in front of their computers eight hours a day once their school tasks are complete."

Big future

The 'informatics Olympics' is one of six international science Olympiads organised every year. It is an algorithmic programming competition for secondary school students, where contestants compete individually in solving a set of six algorithmic programming problems over two competition days using the computer as a tool.

While success at any one of the six science meets can lead to scholarships or bursaries, human resources analysts say that students who win programming competitions have a particularly bright future, given global demand for information technology experts. "Programmers are in big demand in Slovakia as well as abroad," said Gerard Koolen, head of the Lugera & Maklér recruitment firm.

However, foreign demand has so far kept Slovak computer whizzes on the move to the West. With years of university studies ahead of them, Tampere's four Slovak contestants - 18 year-olds Ján Oravec from Banská Bystrica, Marián Dvorský from Košice, Tomáš Záthurecký from Martin, and 17 year-old Jozef Tvarožek from Bratislava - have said they would apply for scholarships to foreign universities, and would like to work abroad.

"I'll definitely start studying in Bratislava, but later I'd like to go study or work abroad," said Tvarožek, who won a silver in Tampere. "It's definitely a very promising profession, and I think we're all attracted to the possibilities that Western Europe offers to programmers."

Lugera & Maklér's Koolen explained that money was often cited as one of the main 'possibilities' that Europe offered compared to Slovakia. He added, however, that programming wages abroad were often lower than Slovaks expected. While a starting salary in Slovakia for graduates of university programming courses is between 20,000 to 30,000 Slovak crowns ($400 to $600), Western European countries offer between $800 to $1,000 to start, while top people with several years' experience can make $2,000 plus all expenses.

Nevertheless, the West remains a big draw for young Slovak programmers, as past informatics medallists attested. One of the main reasons is the greater educational opportunities that Slovakia cannot offer.

Tibor Papp, co-founder of Project Infovek, an ambitious plan to link up all Slovak elementary and secondary schools to the Internet by 2005, reported than even two years after Infovek began, only 600 of Slovakia's 3,500 schools were hooked up to the web.

"Secondary schools have ageing IT technology if any, and overall computer literacy is very low," Papp said.

Broňa Brejová, Slovakia's silver medallist from the 1993 Informatics Olympics in Mendoza, Argentina, and a bronze finisher one year later in Haninge, Sweden, said that she was among those who had been drawn by the educational and professional development opportunities that did not exist in Slovakia's weak computer education system.

Brejová helps organise an online correspondence programming seminar at Comenius University's Programming Science department. She says the seminar is crucial if Slovakia is to produce at least some top computing talents.

"The typical secondary school student gets only a marginal amount of programming education, and even specialised secondary school courses in programming are far from sufficient," she said.

But the 25 year-old Brejová, like most of Slovakia's past informatics medallists, is now studying abroad, and helps to organise the programming seminar from overseas. Together with Tomáš Vinař, who won gold medals in Argentina and in Sweden, the two have just finished their second year of IT studies at University of Waterloo in Canada.

Many of their friends from the informatics Olympics have taken similar paths, searching for top international IT degrees and a better crack at well-paid and interesting jobs. Dano Štefankovic, who won gold in 1993, is now working on his PhD at University of Chicago, while Miroslav Dudik, Slovakia's silver medallist from 1995 and top dog at the 1996 and 1997 meets, is a student of the US Caltech (California Institute of Technology).

"Many programmers continue to leave Slovakia to work abroad," Brejová agreed. "It's tough to do anything about it. There is greater demand for skilled programmers abroad, and the firms are also able to woo these people with more attractive salaries and sometimes more interesting work than is on offer in Slovakia."

While local IT employers said opportunities were opening up for talented programmers at home, they said they understood the lure of the West. Ivan Lužica, head of the S&T Slovakia software firm, said the one thing this country would never be able to offer its young people was international experience. "And nobody can blame them for pursuing that," he added.

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