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Competitive Programming Decoded: What It Is and How to Get Started

Last updated on: 
September 6, 2023
Abhinav Rawat
The fast well prepared banner
About The Author!
Abhinav Rawat
Abhinav Rawat
Product Manager at Interview Kickstart. The skilled and experienced mastermind behind several successful product designs for upscaling the ed-tech platforms with an outcome-driven approach for skilled individuals.

Competitive programming is like the Olympics of programming, just without the restrictions. From high school graduates to working professionals, anyone can be a part of competitive programming. There are no limitations! These competitions also serve as a great way to prepare for technical interviews.

If you are planning to start your tech,nical interview preparation, check out our technical interview checklist, interview questions page, and salary negotiation e-book to get interview-ready! Also, read How to Prepare for the IBM Coding Challenge and How to Prepare for the Google Coding Challenge for specific insights and guidance on cracking various coding challenges.

Having trained over 9,000 software engineers, we know what it takes to crack the toughest tech interviews. Since 2014, Interview Kickstart alums have been landing lucrative offers from FAANG and Tier-1 tech companies, with an average salary hike of 49%. The highest ever offer received by an IK alum is a whopping $933,000!

At IK, you get the unique opportunity to learn from expert instructors who are hiring managers and tech leads at Google, Facebook, Apple, and other top Silicon Valley tech companies.

Want to nail your next tech interview? Sign up for our FREE Webinar.

Are you fascinated by the concept but still stuck on the “what” and “how” of competitive programming? Here’s what we’ll cover in this article:

What Is Competitive Programming?

As the name suggests, competitive programming is a contest wherein numerous programmers try their hand at solving programming problems in a set time frame. You can write the solution in any coding language — so just go for the one you’re most comfortable with. 

The online judges will then analyze the solutions. To pass, these solutions need to clear all the different test cases (given as well as hidden). Competitive programming is essentially a test of your technical skills combined with speed and accuracy. 

Many major companies such as Facebook and Netflix also use these contests to acquire the best talent. So, you can make competitive programming a part of your technical interview preparation. At the finish line, apart from some fantastic prizes, you stand to win the chance of working with your dream company. 

Prerequisites for Competitive Programming

Before going in, we’d like to walk you through the prerequisites of competitive programming, as when it comes to contests, having the right mindset can make a lot of difference. Not to forget, having the key points in mind beforehand enables you to build on a solid foundation.

As you start your competitive programming journey, keep the following in mind:

  1. Be clear about the language you’ll use for competitive programming: The most basic but crucial step. You can choose any programming language, but C++ works the best. Due to time constraints, you need a fast language, and compared to others such as Java and C, C++ is swifter, and you can leverage the Standard Template Library (STL) too.
  2. Practice makes perfect when it comes to competitive programming: You might be tired of hearing this, but you must practice, practice, and practice some more! As a software engineer, coding engineer, software developer, or someone else related to the field, you already know intricate coding is.

Don’t leave anything to chance, and be prepared to do a lot of problem sets. You might even get stuck after the first 4-5 questions, but don’t worry. It’s quite alright. Just look up the answer and keep going.

  1. Patience is vital when prepping for competitive programming: Don’t be too hard on yourself as you progress with your prep. All coders understand how frustrating and taxing it can be. You need to persevere, especially as you move on to more complex problems and subsequently try finding solutions for them. 

Advantages of Competitive Programming

If you decide to go ahead and start competing, expect the following rewards:

  1. Pass any technical interview and get your dream job: As mentioned before, many companies (such as Amazon, Facebook, etc.) use such contests to recruit skilled professionals. By preparing for competitive programming, you’ll not just become more confident about your skills, but the exposure it provides will also increase your chances of getting noticed.

For some more guidance on how to nail your next tech interview, sign up for our free webinar!

  1. Become a master problem solver because of competitive programming: You learn by doing. The greater your solved problems stack rises, the better your problem-solving skills become. You will have to solve real-world problems too, and these will also help sharpen your analytical skills. 
  2. Improve your grasp over software practices with competitive programming: Each day, your concepts get clearer as you prepare for the contests and solve various problems. Your hold over the material will constantly improve as you unearth different approaches to tackle different problems. 
  3. Inculcate team spirit by competing in competitive programming: Several coding competitions require contestants to participate in groups of three or four. Working with people from different backgrounds and viewpoints will automatically help you adapt and become a team player.

Checklist for Getting Started in Competitive Programming

To help you get started with competitive programming, we’ve come up with the perfect checklist: 

1. Choose a Quality Code Editor for Competitive Programming

After choosing a suitable code language, the next step is picking the right code editor. As you’ll be working on numerous problems, writing the code on a code editor will help in increasing your speed and improving accuracy.

Some popular editors are Sublime Text 3, VS Code, and Pharm & Vim.

2. Pick the Correct Platforms for Practicing Competitive Programming

For beginners, HackerRank is the way to go. It has one of the best IDE and user interfaces. You can easily navigate the platform and solve the various questions at your disposal. Segregation of questions is done based on the difficulty level.

One of the best features of this platform that makes it so great for competitive programming preparation is its algorithm. Even if you get stuck on a question and cannot pass many test sets, you can easily download the solutions to rectify your logic. However, try to refrain from looking up solutions too often. Push yourself and try figuring it out on your own. Working on coding problems will also help you a great deal in your technical interview preparation.

3. Start Competing to Get Better at Competitive Programming

After a good practice regime of 2-3 months, you can start participating! Apply all that knowledge and get better with each contest. There are several platforms to choose from:

  • TopCoder
  • HackerRank
  • Codechef
  • Codeforces
  • Leetcode

When competing, if you get stuck on any question, just go over the contests’ editorials as well as discussion forums. 

4. Have a Good Knowledge of Data Structures for Competitive Programming

You know the role data structures play in helping a program run smoothly. By understanding data structures in-depth, you’ll have the knowledge to easily pick the best data structure for any problem. Data structures will improve your efficiency, increase your speed and play an integral part in your technical interview preparation.

Some popular data structures that you must have sound knowledge of are:

5. Get a Thorough Understanding of Algorithms for Competitive Programming 

When you compete, time and space are two factors that will play a crucial role in your verdicts. Both of these are related to algorithms. Now since algorithms take the help of several data structures to get results in the form of outputs, having complete and thorough knowledge can change the game for you! 

The same goes for when you’re doing your technical interview preparation as well. Some algorithms to help you get started are:

  • Convex Hull
  • Graham Scan
  • Basic and Extended Euclidean algorithms

Some Helpful Resources for Competitive Programming

To help you save some time, we’ve put together some of the best resources for your competitive programming journey: 

  • Competitive Programmer’s Handbook
  • A Golden Collection of Data Structures and Algorithms
  • (contains all sequences and number patterns that exist on planet Earth)

Some other great websites:

  • HackerRank
  • TopCoder
  • CodeChef

FAQs on Competitive Programming

1. What is competitive programming?

Competitive programming is a contest wherein numerous programmers try their hand at solving programming problems in a set time frame. From high school graduates to working professionals, anyone can be a part of competitive programming. There are no limitations! These competitions also serve as a great way to prepare for technical interviews.

2. Will competitive programming success help me get a programming job?

It surely will! If you perform well and can showcase your skills, the chances of you getting a job in your dream company are pretty high. If you need help with anything else, consider joining Interview Kickstart. Our extensive interview preparation program will help you in nailing every tech interview that you give.

3. How do coding interviews differ from coding contests?

Many companies take the help of platforms such as HackerRank to test your coding skills. But the hiring process includes other steps as well because a company wants to know you before they hire you.

So, in a nutshell, while coding contests are just about testing your coding skills, coding interviews include other things too (such as phone screening and behavioral questions). 

4. Who can compete in a contest?

Anyone can compete. Everyone is eligible to compete — from fresh graduates to people studying in college to working professionals. You just need to have the skills and passion.

5. How to perform well in competitive programming?

Just practice, practice, and practice. Look at the resources we have listed above and get started right away! There is no time like the present. Just remember to be patient and never lose hope.

If you want to get started with competitive programming and interview prep and are trying to give it your best shot, register for Interview Kickstart’s FREE webinar to understand the best way to prepare for tech interviews at the biggest companies. 

Sign up now to uplevel your career!

Posted on 
November 13, 2021

Abhinav Rawat

Product Manager @ Interview Kickstart | Ex-upGrad | BITS Pilani. Working with hiring managers from top companies like Meta, Apple, Google, Amazon etc to build structured interview process BootCamps across domains

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