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'Advent of Code': the 25 programming problems that challenge thousands of computer scientists every Christmas

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

When Eric Wastl was a child, he counted the days until Christmas with an Advent calendar of cloth. 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 soon it will be Christmas Day ”, the almanac urged.

Now the Wastl countdown starts in April, when he began to combine his work as a software architect on a trading card sales platform with the development of the puzzles of Advent of Code , an Advent calendar where 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 festive 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 players in a fictional setting and indicates the parameters necessary to decipher two riddles, 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 run into 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. According to the father of Advent of Code, his 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

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 were then combined with three key ingredients: a pen, some napkins and a few weeks until Christmas.

That first Advent of Code 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 – a maximum of 70 people – that his personal server was enough to host the almanac.

November, 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 up by midnight were certainly more than Wastl expected, but not enough to make him fear for server capacity.

Then January 1 came and the first puzzle. 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. I hadn't taken into account that that statement was actually a loop that could be repeated ad infinitum.

“Having more than 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 hardware from 10 years ago ”, promise the instructions of Advent of Code .

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

Thousands of people now share their sentences, 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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