Microsoft puzzles Tech students


Does 381SAFETY964 mean anything? One must be slightly familiar with pigpen ciphers and pop culture icons, or else the annual College Puzzle Challenge might be a little traumatic.

On Nov. 6, students at Tech and 26 other American and Canadian universities, such as M.I.T and the University of Waterloo, competed to solve as many of Microsoft’s 27 puzzles as possible in 10 hours. Yes, that is a straight 10 hours, and many contestants like fifth-year CE major Daniel Frank’s team may take the full amount of time or not even have  time to finish.

“I did it last year, and it’s different. Last year, we got all the puzzles in waves, and this year we got them all at the same time. We only have like four or five done [after about 3 hours of competition], but there are fifteen or twenty teams in the country that are finished already. We didn’t finish last year, but we do it for fun,” Frank said.

Students in teams of up to four—or individuals like Tech’s winner Karl Jiang, a CSE PhD student—solve the puzzles that range from coding to word puzzles—like deriving the phrase “safety in numbers” from the code 381SAFETY964—to solving Kakuro, a Japanese number game, and then determining the answer to the pop culture question derived from completing said puzzle.

“Some of them are coding, but one of them had pictures of actors in zombie movies, and we had to find who the actor was, find another zombie movie that they were in and then plug those movies into blanks and pull out random letters to make a new word, and that was the answer,” Frank said.

What makes the challenge interesting is that each puzzle’s instructions, if there are any, are little more than obscure clues. For example, one puzzle was eight pictures of birds on an otherwise informationless page. What the groups had to realize was that each bird’s name, which they also had to determine, had a stressed letter. After all the stressed letters were found they spelled out another word, which was the solution to the puzzle.

Finally, after all the puzzles are completed, each solution to the 27 puzzles is used to solve a final meta-puzzle, although not all solutions are necessary to solve this final puzzle.

“It’s a really neat experience and creative process, and it’s a really good break from studying. My team is a bunch of math majors, so we’re really excited about using stuff we’ve used in classes and applying creative thinking to solving real problems,” said Michelle Delcourt, a fourth-year MATH major. “We did this last year. The server [was] not crashing for quite as long and the puzzles are actually more entertaining and more engaging than last year.”
The objective of the competition, created and run by Microsoft, is to challenge students’ skills in problem solving and prepare them for real problems in education and industry, according to their website.

“We did okay, we were somewhere in the middle of Tech people. I expected to be able to approach this a lot faster the second time around, but I guess experience doesn’t really have that much of an advantage,” said Michael Slaughter, a fifth-year CS major. “Last year was a lot more intense, a lot less people solved the final puzzle. I think they lessened the difficulty, which made it a little more fun.”

CS and MATH majors are the target demographic of the challenge, but Microsoft invites all undergraduate and graduate students. For example, Frank’s group consisted of his friends, two CS majors and two CE majors.
Microsoft’s college recruitment department funds the challenge, and their employees who are alumni of the participating colleges organize each event.

During the event, the two organizers from Microsoft at Tech answered students’ questions and coordinated the pizza, milk and cookies logistics.

“I actually wrote a couple of the puzzles, and today we went around and made sure the teams were having fun. We have a beta on the Microsoft campus a few weeks before the actual event to make sure all the puzzles are fun,” said Katie Flinn, a Microsoft software developer and CS and PSYC ‘08.

This is the third iteration of the College Puzzle Challenge at Tech since the fall of 2008 and the seventh competition overall.