“I’m passionate about programming. I enjoy building new things and tackling new problems; it’s often a struggle, but that’s part of the fun,” said Derek Peirce, a senior in computer science at Rice University who recently won the Computer Science Department’s annual Jason Chahin Innovation and Excellence Award. Each spring, the award is presented to a graduating senior who has done well in computer science courses, but also has made additional contributions, either to the department, university, or community.
Luay Nakhleh, associate professor of computer science, praised Derek’s academic progress and contributions to the department. “Derek has been an outstanding undergraduate student in our department. Not only has he demonstrated excellent academic performance through his grades, but he stands out in almost all courses with his depth of knowledge and mastery of the material. It is this mastery that has allowed Derek to also be an outstanding teaching assistant in five courses and to help with online courses offered by our department. Furthermore, Derek has played a leadership role in Rice’s team for the International Collegiate Programming Contest (ICPC).”
The ICPC, the most prestigious programming contest in the world, is run by the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) and draws over 20,000 students into regional programming contests each year. Peirce said, “ICPC is a programming competition for teams composed of three students with a single computer. The team solves as many programming challenges as they can in five hours. The problems vary in complexity, so we have to quickly decide which problems to solve first, and who gets to use the sole computer while the other two members prepare pseudocode on paper.”
Rice sent three teams to the regional events in 2012 and 2013, five teams in 2014 and four in 2015. Rice CS lecturer John Greiner is the faculty sponsor for Rice’s ACM-ICPC group. Greiner said, “For the last two years, Derek organized and led weekly student practices prior to the Regional contest. In addition to his organizational responsibilities, he helped form teams of participating students, and also participated as a contestant for three years.”
Peirce first discovered his passion for programming in a Pre-AP computer science class his sophomore year of high school. “I really enjoyed the class. Before its first semester ended I knew I wanted to major in computer science, and I’ve never looked back.” In COMP 160, his first computer science course at Rice, he was hooked. “Dr. Joe Warren was teaching game design,” he said, “and I enjoyed the way we combined the various things we learned to make increasing complex games – it was a fun way to learn.” Peirce’s final project, “The Adventure of Tom,” is still listed in the class’s Hall of Fame.
Two years later, Peirce and his ICPC teammates – Jenna Netland and Michael Peirce (Derek’s twin) – were tackling another game design course, COMP 460. Like Derek Peirce, Netland’s first game is listed in the COMP 160 Hall of Fame. The three ICPC teammates combined lessons I learned from my earlier CS courses to use, especially from COMP 310, Advanced Object-Oriented Programming and Design.
The goal was to create a single game over the course of the semester. “We chose to make a multiplayer puzzle platform game,” said Peirce. “My job was to decide what a level was and how it was organized and edited, and where to save and load data.” Peirce’s team faced several types of challenges as their game developed over time. “Saving levels turned out to be a very difficult problem; as we added new features, and as I made improvements to how levels were represented in data, we would lose compatibility with how our earlier levels were stored. I would convert all of our stored level files to a new format with every major change.”
Peirce’s next step also requires finding a way to combine previous and future levels of complexity. He’ll be working on his Master of Computer Science degree at Rice University in Houston, while working full-time at Snapchat in Los Angeles. “I have taken all my required courses,” said Peirce, who incorporated the requirements for both his bachelor and masters degrees in his course load over the last two years. “But I have to spend one semester in graduate school, so I am working with [Dr. Stephen Wong] to develop an appropriate independent study course that I’ll work on while I am at Snapchat.”
Snapchat and Google extended similar offers to Peirce and he decided to join the younger company. “I like the idea of starting at a start-up,” he said. “Google is more established, and I feel like I would mostly be making modifications to what they already have. At Snapchat, there is more opportunity to design new things, and have a greater impact.”