‘Advent of Code’: the 25 programming problems that challenge thousands of computer scientists every Christmas | Technology


Eric Wastl, creator of 'Advent of Code' in a photo provided by himself
Eric Wastl, creator of ‘Advent of Code’ in a photo provided by himself

When Eric Wastl was a child, he would count down the days until Christmas with a cloth Advent calendar. Every morning he would take an ornament out of a pocket and stick it on the tree at the top. “These little elves are working hard. Christmas is on the way. Please help them with the tree and it will soon be Christmas Day, ”urged the almanac.

Now Wastl’s countdown begins in April, when he begins to combine his work as a software architect on a trading card sales platform with the development of puzzles for Advent of Code, an Advent calendar where the surprises are not decorations, chocolates, beers or any of the trinkets that have been concentrated in these days of December. From the 1st to the 25th of the month, propose a daily programming challenge to a growing community of developers. “To date, more than 500,000 people have solved at least one puzzle,” says the American computer engineer.

The challenges are aligned with the holiday season. This year’s one begins with the elves and the aspirant spending a day on a ship on the high seas and accidentally throwing the keys to the sled overboard. “Before you know it you are inside a submarine that the elves have ready for situations like this. It’s covered in Christmas lights (of course), and it has an experimental antenna that should be able to track the keys if you can boost its signal strength enough, ”the puzzle continues.

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Each new challenge places the players in a fictional setting and indicates the parameters necessary to decipher two puzzles, which have only one possible answer and earn a maximum of two stars per day. Those who manage to win them all can boast of having saved Christmas. For now, the submarine full of elves that Wastl has devised for this year has already crossed a field of hydrothermal vents, has been chased by a giant whale and has encountered a swarm of crabs piloting their own bathyscaphs.

Everything is an excuse to pose twenty-five problems that serve as a training ground for the participants. As explained by the father of Advent of Code, their puzzles are especially useful, for example, to prepare job interviews, since many companies in the sector pose similar challenges in their selection processes. You’ve also seen companies spending Friday afternoons working out their calendar and even teachers including challenges on their subject’s final exams. “I love having the opportunity to help participants become better programmers,” says the engineer.

Advent of Code 2021 Edition Logo
Advent of Code 2021 Edition Logo

Unlikely and unexpected success

It all started in October 2015 in a store in Salem (Massachusetts). Wastl’s passion for programming puzzles and a vague memory of Advent calendars then came together with three key ingredients: a pen, some napkins, and a few weeks until Christmas.

That first Advent of Code he had no great ambitions. “I just wanted to do something fun for my friends,” recalls Wastl, who did not rule out that the latter also had some friends who could enjoy such a calendar during the Christmas season. With that audience in mind – about 70 people at the most – that his personal server was enough to host the almanac.

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On November 30, when he had everything ready, he tweeted: “My secret project is finished: I have been building an Advent calendar for the last two months. See you in a few hours! ” And the 27 retweets he garnered seemed to confirm his humble expectations of success. The 81 people who had signed in by midnight were certainly more than Wastl expected, but not enough to make him fear for the capacity of the server.

Then January 1 came and the first puzzle was unlocked. At noon, subscriptions were at 4,000 and the chart was trending almost vertically upward. By the end of the first day of Advent, it was approaching 10,000. By Christmas Day it had reached 52,000. “It was the first time that I had achieved such traction in a personal project,” admits the creator of the calendar. What had happened? The programmer had estimated that his friends’ friends would sign up. He hadn’t taken into account that that statement was actually a loop that could be repeated ad infinitum.

“Having over 50,000 people solving puzzles the first year was all it took to convince me to keep doing them,” says Wastl. Over the years, you’ve seen people use dozens of different programming languages ​​to meet their challenges. What’s more, you’ve seen them use a language every day. And it has also come across participants who are not developers, but find the solutions by scribbling their reasoning on paper or Excel sheets. “A few notions of programming and some problem-solving skills will go a long way. All challenges have solutions that can be completed in 15 seconds on 10-year-old hardware “, promise the instructions of Advent of Code.

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Among the 175 challenges that he has invented for the seven editions, Wastl keeps the puzzle he created for December 16, 2018, in which the participants had to find a way to travel through time to return to the present. “I like how it combines different skills in one great package while maintaining the expectation that the user will be able to achieve what is asked of them,” he reasons.

Thousands of people now share their griefs, clues and memes on a Reddit subchannel dedicated to Advent of Code, Twitter, and even Stack Overflow. Will there be more calendars in the upcoming holidays? Wastl explains that he does not usually disclose information about future puzzles or calendars. For now, 200,000 participants already have at least one of the stars they need to save Christmas this year.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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