By Steve Koppes
Photo by Jason Smith

I tend to spend staggering amounts of my free time working on computer science-related projects of my own.”
—Louis Wasserman

Borja Sotomayor furiously refreshed his Twitter feed, looking for the results of the Illinois Technology Association’s 2011 Fall Challenge.

When the posting came through, it merely stated that a student at the University of Chicago had taken the $5,000 first prize. It did not say which of the eight UChicago students competing had emerged victorious. Sotomayor, a lecturer in computer science, sent a text message to mathematics fourth-year Louis Wasserman to find out.

“Who was it?” Sotomayor asked.

“Me,” Wasserman texted back.

The laconic response concealed Wasserman’s surprise that he had won the contest.

“I was not expecting that at all. It didn’t particularly play to my strong suits,” says Wasserman, who has a job waiting for him at Google after he graduates this June.

Sotomayor was elated to receive the news, and perhaps somewhat less surprised at the outcome than Wasserman. “Louis is the quintessential UChicago student,” says Sotomayor, who called him “off-the-charts smart” and “a quirky student, in the UChicago sense.”

Since he arrived on campus as a first-year in 2008, Wasserman has emerged as one of UChicago’s leading “hackers,” a term for a passionate enthusiast of computers, programming, and technology. He has brought leadership to the group of ambitious computer programmers who, with his help, have made UChicago more competitive in global programming contests.

He also indulges in many other campus activities, including monthly contradances (a type of folk dance) and in the annual Scavenger Hunt. And when Wasserman noticed that UChicago didn’t have a science fiction society, he started one.

Quirky UChicago uniforms

In another quirky move, he helped establish a Chicago dress code as a competitor and then assistant coach at the World Finals of the International Collegiate Programming Contest. The ICPC issues all team members a T-shirt that becomes their uniform. “Everyone sort of looks the same except for the school colors,” says Sotomayor, the team’s coach.

The UChicago programmers wanted to stand out. Someone suggested that they wear button-down shirts under the T-shirt and a necktie — usually a colorful one — on the outside. Wasserman took that a step further last year by wearing a kilt.

“We became the team that wears ties, and last year in particular, the team that had one coach who was wearing a kilt,” Sotomayor says.

Wasserman had racked up considerable success competing in a variety of elite academic contests in high school, including the Intel Science Talent Search. In 2008 he became one of 40 nationwide finalists in the Intel competition as a senior at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, Md. This earned him and fellow finalists a visit to the White House and a meeting with President George W. Bush.

At UChicago, he was a member of team “Works in Theory” at the 2009 ICPC World Finals in Stockholm, Sweden, and at the 2010 ICPC World Finals in Harbin, China.

Programming on the side

“I tend to spend staggering amounts of my free time, and staggering amounts of time that I should be doing homework, working on computer science-related projects of my own,” says Wasserman, who interned at Google in software engineering the past two summers. “My work at Google was basically providing tools to make the lives of every other programmer at Google easier,” he says. “The best term I’ve heard to describe it is ‘productivity multiplier.’”

Last summer he maintained two part-time jobs, working both for Google and for a computer science professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He had previously worked full time for an MIT professor during the summer of 2009, and full time for Google the following summer.

Students are eligible to compete in only two ICPC World Finals competitions, so Wasserman served as the programming team’s assistant coach for the 2011 World Finals in Orlando, Fla., and the 2012 World Finals in Warsaw, Poland. His skills complement Sotomayor’s: Wasserman has a deeper background in mathematics and computer science, which he shares with team members to help them solve their practice problems.

“Louis is very good at meeting with the teams and walking them through the math of the problems and telling them about algorithms that they might not know about,” Sotomayor says.

Sotomayor, who comes from a computer engineering background, handles many of the logistics, including the assembly of practice problem sets, scheduling practices, and coordinating activities with other teams.

“I’m happy that he’s landed this fabulous opportunity at Google, but I’m kind of sad to see him go because I’m losing this fantastic assistant coach who has been such a great asset to our ICPC program,” Sotomayor says.

Originally published on May 28, 2012.