Facebook‘s Hacker Cup is the Olympics of hacking.

Twenty-five finalists from 10 countries were flown into Palo Alto to compete. These few represent the elite cream of the crop, the top coders in the world, and as this post is being written, they’re all sitting in Facebook’s cafeteria, chewing pencils, staring at monitors and typing furiously.

It’s a bit mind-boggling to think about, all that raw talent and brainpower in a single room focused on a single task. Facebook has brought them all here on an all-expenses-paid trip to tour the Facebook campus and compete against one another in this event.

Almost 12,000 developers entered in the competition, which centers around algorithms, one of the more esoteric aspects of the hacker skill set.

This isn’t a hackathon, where devs and designers collaborate in teams to build one-off consumer apps; and it’s not one of Facebook’s Developer Garages, which focus on using the Facebook Platform. The hackers in this room are solely concentrating on finding solutions to elaborate and complicated computer science questions.

In each round, the hackers were given three problems to solve. Each problem had one correct answer. Contestants for the next round were chosen based on who could correctly solve the most problems in the shortest amount of time. The three problems for the final round were developed by ten Facebook engineers. (We’ll write about the questions and solutions, as well as the winners, in a separate post later tonight.)

Facebook’s Hacker Cup isn’t entirely unique; in fact, a lot of these coders already know one another from past hacker competitions and from sites like TopCoder. In fact, most of the highest-scored hackers on TopCoder are actually in the room today.

We talked with Facebook software engineer David Alves about the event; he said that, while being able to solve problems at this level is something of a marvel, it doesn’t necessarily apply to common day-to-day coding tasks. In other words, while this does give the company face time with the most skilled hackers around, it’s not a recruiting event. However, all the finalists were able and encouraged to apply for jobs at Facebook once the competition had ended.

Still, recruitment is only a happy byproduct of this event; Facebook, long renowned as being a singularly engineer-driven and engineer-focused company, is hosting this competition purely for the love of the game.

As the time on the clock winds down, only three hackers have submitted solutions to all three problems, and Alvers says it’s unlikely that all of these solutions will be correct, given the number of fringe cases for input that the devs have to take into account.

In the end, as the official Hacker Cup T-shirts read, “There can be only one.” The “one” in this competition will have his name engraved on a plate on the Hacker Cup trophy, which itself is a huge, dystopian-looking cube of concrete with a metal fist emerging from the top. However, three of the finalists will go home with checks: The first place finalist receives $5,000; the second place, $2,000; and the third, $1,000.

The Hacker Cup will be an annual competition; Facebook plans to improve and expand it in the years to come.

Check back later to read the problems (your mind will melt about two paragraphs in) and find out who won the first ever Hacker Cup.

In the meantime, here are some fun facts and a gallery of photos from Facebook headquarters in Palo Alto:

  • Contestants by country included:

7 hackers from Poland,
6 from Russia,
4 from the U.S.,
2 from Japan, and
One each from China, Germany, The Netherlands, Singapore, Switzerland and Ukraine.

  • The vast majority of the hackers were running Windows with Cygwin, a suite of tools that give Linux feel and functionality to a Windows OS.
  • Exactly zero hackers were using Macs.
  • Although several women made it into the later rounds, the final 25 hackers were all men.
  • Most of the hackers were in their mid-twenties and have been writing software for years.

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Facebook is known for its hackathons — all-night coding sessions designed to help create new products or improve others. Now the company has announced its first Hacker Cup.

Facebook says it’s “bring[ing] engineers from around the world together to compete in a multi-round programming competition.” The Hacker Cup is very similar to Google’s popular Google Code Jam.

Contestants will be challenged with solving algorithmic-based problem statements. Those who successfully solve the problems in the allotted period of time will advance to the next round.

Registration opens on December 20 and the 72-hour qualification round will start on January 7, 2011.

This round will consist of three problems. Only the competitors that can correctly solve at least one problem will advance to the first online round.

The first online round will consist of three sub-rounds that each last three hours. The top-scoring 1,000 participants from each of these sub-rounds will advance the the second online round.

The 25 competitors who score the highest in the second online round will advance to the finals, which will be held at Facebook’s campus in Palo Alto. Facebook will fly the 25 participants in and pay for their expenses.

At the in-person final round, a winner will be crowned and not only given the title of “world champion,” but also $5,000 in cash.

If you want to brush up on your skills before the competition starts, you can visit Facebook’s puzzles page.


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