September 7, 2018 Getting to know Topcoder Admins: Meet t-mac – Erinn Kirchner!
For many years, t-mac has been a part of the Topcoder family. From running the algorithm and marathon competitions to being an integral part of the Topcoder Open, t-mac is essential to making Topcoder tick!
Everyone has known you for a while, but you’re now known as Erinn. Would you like to say a couple of words about this?
I keep hearing about how we need more women in tech, so I’m doing my part. ☺
In all seriousness, there were some things in my life I’d been grappling with for some time, and now was finally the time to come to terms with the changes I needed to make. I’m still the same me I’ve always been, just now my name and appearance will become more in line with that.
Worth noting, everyone I work with at Topcoder–many whom I’ve known for a decade and a half by now– is extremely supportive on this, which means a lot to me.
Tell me a little bit about your background and how did your Topcoder story begin.
I actually started as a competitor back in 2004, after a friend mentioned to me about a contest called the Google Code Jam… which was at the time run by Topcoder. Within a year, I started writing problems as much or even more often as I competed. When the marathon track was started, I quickly became one of a very limited set (of roughly two people) that basically worked on all of those problems. After being “authoritative” on the forums as a result of that work, eventually I asked about being a part time admin, so that I’d be able to run and fix things on my own. That much hasn’t really changed for quite some time now.
If you could change or improve anything within the platform, what would that be?
Today, Topcoder has all sorts of problems the community can solve! I remember back in the day there tended to be more pure computer science, problem solving and general competitive challenges. I’d love to see a company sponsor a series of these since I think it would really engage the community! Selfishly, I know I love these challenges and I believe others do as well!
How would you characterize the difficulty change in Algorithm competitions?
This started several years back, where problems drifted increasingly harder over time. In part this was due to more and more competitors having more and more familiarity with this type of problem solving, and a desire to still offer a fun challenge. Also, in some ways, it happened as a natural consequence of needing to always come up with new and interesting problems. On that second point, we struggle a bit with that. Having held over 700 SRMs over the years, meaning literally thousands of problems that have been written and used, it’s very hard to come up with something that’s really new and different from other content already seen.
What do you like the most about the Topcoder Community?
Well, there’s always exceptions of course, but by and large the community is one of the most helpful and supportive groups imaginable. Despite being in competition with one another, members are always really happy to discuss ideas afterwards and help each other learn. The whole community gets better over time as a result.
What’s the most difficult thing in your job and how do you work deal with it?
So, for me, Topcoder isn’t my day job–although for a period of about two years a while back, it was. Rather, this is what I do as a secondary thing in life… at nights, on weekends, and so on. I do it really because I love what I do with it, and I have the opportunity to learn. That said, the pace can be necessarily relentless. Particularly during the busiest times, especially on-site for TCO, it’s a very long week filled with very long days. Of course, after working hard all day, some of us admins have been known to play hard in the evening too. You know: working out at the gym, doing trivia contests, and watching thought provoking movies; never things like going out drinking.
Sponsored Marathon Matches are becoming frequent on Topcoder. Where would you suggest to start learning for those, who are just starting out in these competitions?
Best thing, if you’re not willing to register for one just to get the experience, would be to look at past contests, and look over the forums. Because they are for clients, in some cases post-contest discussion may be somewhat limited, but whenever possible, we certainly allow and encourage folks to talk about their approach and share ideas afterwards. This is where one can really see how various mathematical concepts play out in the real competitions.
What are your interests besides work?
Well, given the whole about Topcoder being a secondary thing, besides work I guess I like to… work. More seriously, I enjoy video games, trivia (the US television show Jeopardy is my favorite), and cooking– particularly sushi.
How many accounts do you have to ban per Algorithm match, on an average, because of cheating?
That number has varied a lot over the years, although lately it’s only a few here and there. Historically however, it varies by time of year, with the most cheating happening around the time of teams “working together” to prepare for various other CS competitions. Some of this is due to cultural differences in what is considered normal and acceptable behavior. The single worst instance I remember was something like 58 accounts being banned in one shot. I spent far more time after the contest doing stuff like that, than I did actually running the match.
We know that before becoming an admin, you were a successful SRM participant. Do you have a favorite algorithm(s)?
Ha! Though I was fairly successful at the time, I would be a fool to think I could compete with the top competitors of today. That said, picking just a single favorite algorithmic approach, it would be dynamic programming: so many programming tasks can be worked up nicely that way.
What is the funniest thing that has happened to you within the Topcoder Community?
Some members that I work with frequently end up interacting with me outside of TC, on social media, etc. As a follow-up to the question at the top, I not too long ago got a message from a member asking “Do I know you? I know someone else with the last name Kirchner, but I don’t see him on your friends list. Facebook says we are friends, but I’m not sure why this is the case.”
After some explanation, we agreed that perhaps at some future TC event, we can sit down with some drinks and I can tell him in more details.