The Real Reason You Should Hire Programmers from Eastern Europe

DataArt analyzed the results of the five most prestigious programming competitions in the world and found out programmers from Eastern Europe placed high 73 times, which amounts to almost a half of all podium spots available. How come? The answer is simple. For historical reasons, Eastern Europe-born programmers have been good at Math and other STEM subjects. This is what makes them competitive in custom software development.
12 min read
The Real Reason You Should Hire Programmers from Eastern Europe

Competitive programming is probably the fastest growing category of intellectual competition. Coding contests are among the most important events of the year, not only in terms of education and career building, but also as a source of entertainment. As in any sport, competitive programming involves a high level of engagement and a sense of competition.

In the Guide to Competitive Programming: Learning and Improving Algorithms Through Contests, Antti Laaksonen states that the discipline combines two topics:

  • Algorithm design – inventing efficient algorithms that solve well-defined computational problems. Designing algorithms requires problem solving and mathematical skills. Often, the solution to a problem is a combination of well-known methods and new insights.
  • Algorithm implementation – once an algorithm for solving a problem is designed, it must be realized and tested using a set of test cases. Implementation of an algorithm requires good programming skills.

This year's competitive programming season kicked off with students from China taking top honors at the 33rd International Olympiad in Informatics (IOI). Chinese students took all three top spots, beating contestants from 89 countries around the world. Likewise, this year’s winner of the Google Code Jam, an international programming competition hosted and administered by Google, was a Chinese representative, who broke a cascade of nine consecutive gains of the programmers from Belarus. 

DataArt’s analysts interviewed Kamil Dębowski (who goes by the nickname Errichto), one of the most talented programmers in the world. He took the second place in the Google Code Jam in 2018. He has won or been a finalist in several of the most prestigious competitions.

Kamil Dębowski

The level [of tournaments] is rising at a tremendous pace. Today's leaders are much stronger than the ones 10-15 years ago. Competitive programming as a discipline is maturing rapidly, becoming more popular and accessible.

Currently, there are several international competitions as well as leagues that hold tournaments every few days. Since it is a young discipline, I believe that the next 10 years will see even faster growth in popularity and professionalization.

Kamil Dębowski, winner of numerous programming contests, competitive programming teacher

The number of contestants registered for international programming competitions has tripled over the last 10 years (2011-2020). The most recent competitions had 181,751 registered participants.

Contention for the Championship in International Programming Competitions

DataArt analyzed the results of the five most prestigious programming competitions in the world. These include:

  • The International Olympiad in Informatics (IOI)
  • The International Collegiate Programming Contest (ICPC)
  • Google Code Jam
  • Facebook Hacker Cup
  • Topcoder Open (TCO).

Over the past ten years (2011-2020), programmers from Eastern Europe placed in the top three spots 73 times. This amounted to 48% of all podium spots available. Competitors from Asia took 54 top-three spots, while programmers from North America took 19 podium places.

Eastern Europe programmers compete to win. Over the past 10 years, they’ve won first place 44 times, twice the number of Asian winners and eight times as many as North Americans.

Eastern European programmers have won 44 first prizes over the last decade, which amounts to 62% of the top spots available. That is more than twice the number of winners from Asia, and almost nine times as many as North American winners.

Chart 1
Chart 1. Total podium spots in the five most popular competitive programming contests by region, 2011-2020
Source: DataArt, based on data provided by competition organizers

DataArt analyzed the winners in the top ten places at the top five competitive programming contests. Programmers from Eastern Europe took 198 places in the top ten, which amounts to 47% of places available. Asian programmers came in second, with 128 places in the top ten. Broader statistics over the past ten years look similar. Unrivaled in most prestigious coding contests, programmers from the countries of Eastern Europe remain the most hunted IT talent even in the times when the pandemic upends the job market for software engineers.

Competitors from countries outside Eastern Europe and Asia won sporadically. They rarely ranked among the top three winners and were usually unseated. The few wins recorded were hardly repeated: Ishraq Huda, representing Australia, won the IOI in 2014, and Sergey Pogodin, representing Spain, won the TCO in 2017 and 2020.

Representatives from other countries usually do not achieve podium spots. Some notable exceptions come from such countries as Germany (scored seven times in the top ten), Australia (six times), and Sweden, Iran and Croatia (each scored four times).

Programmers from North America have seen their performance improve. Over the past decade, they have won a total of 19 podium places, five of which were the top spot. Since 2018, they have been constantly winning top spots in IOI.

Chart 2
Chart 2. Aggregate number of top 10 results, by region, 2011-2020
Source: DataArt, based on data provided by competition organizers

The Top Programmer in the World

The most successful programmer of the last decade is Gennady Korotkevich of Belarus. He won the IOI, Facebook Hacker Cup, and the Topcoder Open. His greatest achievement is seven consecutive wins in the Google Code Jam, the toughest global competition.

Gennady started programming when he was just six years old. After many victories in various tournaments for young students, he qualified for the IOI at age 11, becoming the youngest participant in the history of the competition. He won a silver medal (taking the 26th place). In subsequent years, he took the first place in the IOI three times and earned several medals. He is one of a handful of programmers to win the ICPC team competition for students twice — in 2013 and 2015.

Soviet Educational Reforms: The Reason for the Solid Technical Background of Eastern European Programmers

Despite the rapid development of competitive programming as a discipline, the success of programmers from Eastern Europe remains unchanged. While it is difficult to unequivocally explain this phenomenon, DataArt believes that the root of this success can be found in the educational reforms that took place in the Soviet Union in the 1960s.

Eugene Goland

It is remarkable that the extraordinary capabilities and widely recognized success of Eastern European programmers are rooted in the unprecedented educational reforms that took place in the Soviet Union nearly 50-60 years ago.

Although the incentives for introducing these reforms were primarily political and closely related to the authoritarian system and geopolitical situation at that time, the Soviet Union developed a generation of engineers whose legacy continues today.

Eugene Goland, President and CEO at DataArt

The Soviets introduced fundamental changes in the educational system in the early 1960s, and focused their efforts on technical education. The reforms were primarily motivated by a lack of specialists graduating from Soviet universities. In 1959, over 2.3 million students were enrolled in undergraduate programs in the USSR. Despite these numbers, the Soviet leadership wanted to educate even more of the population. The zeal for reform was fueled by the needs of the planned economy and a desire to establish technological superiority. 

DataArt has a special project – IT Museum – dedicated to the history of computer technologies in the USSR and Easter Europe that resulted from these educational reforms. The museum features historical objects that were operated by the grandfathers of modern coding competitions winners: computer artifacts dating back to 1960, including a Mera computer terminal, a rare example of Eastern bloc industrial design; the VTA-2000 terminal, a common feature for late Soviet research institutes of the 1980s; and the legendary American ADM-3A terminal. Visit a virtual exhibition of DataArt’s IT Museum.

American researcher Izaak Wirszup, of the University of Chicago, examined the levels of education in the U.S. and USSR. He found that, in contrast to the U.S., the USSR promoted close cooperation among mathematicians, teachers, and educators. The USSR covered arithmetic in grades one through three and started algebra in grades four and five. Soviet teachers in grade 1-3 received extensive training in math — five years of algebra, ten years of geometry, and calculus. However, from grade four onward, all Soviet children were taught by specially trained math teachers, whose mathematical background was at least equivalent to that of a master’s degree from any U.S. university.

As an example, Wirszup noted that about half of U.S. students take geometry and only for one year, generally in an immersion high school course. Students were unable to master the material taught in this way. Moreover, they were not taught solid geometry, and they rarely had a good perception of three-dimensional space, which is essential for studying science, technical drawing, or engineering. Soviet children studied geometry extensively for ten years, including two years of solid geometry.

The Soviet Union also required that children study differential and integral calculus, which they considered to be an essential part of a general education. In comparison, less than 4% of American students took a calculus course at the same time.

Why were the Soviets able to achieve this level of education? As Wirszup observed, the study of theoretical subjects was motivated by a hierarchical, bureaucratic, and elitist environment imposed by the authoritarian regime, and this was strongly reflected in the educational system.

The social pressures for educational success were quite high, which encouraged students to be extremely motivated. From an early age, children were taught that the only way to be successful was to be highly educated. Since the educational system was integrated into the Soviet economic planning system, it functioned as a selection mechanism for all jobs.

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