These programming contests consist of a set of about 10 problems. Teams of three students write computer programs to get the correct output on the judges' test cases for as many problems as possible. The teams are ranked by the number of problems solved in a five-hour time span and by how long it takes to solve each problem. Additional minutes are added for each incorrect attempt at solving a problem.
For purposes of the ICPC, the world is divided in about fifty regions. The states of MS, AL, GA, SC, and FL are in the Southeast Region (SER) of the United States. Colleges and universities of the region prepare programming teams and hold campus contests to field the best teams of programmers possible. About 80 teams of three programmers representing about 40 schools gather one Saturday in autumn compete for a berth at the ICPC world finals.
In advance of the contest, a panel of judges has prepared the problem set in secret. Teams drive in from around the region and arrive the night before the contest. Several different sites are linked together via the Internet. Saturday morning is spent in making sure the rules are clear, preparing the computers, and testing the contest operations. Then, after lunch, the contest starts with the teams working completely independently. During the contest it is traditional that a balloon be brought to a team for every problem they solve. The results are announced after dinner to the teams, alternates, coaches, and supporters.
The top team gets to go on to the world finals to compete with the best collegiate programmers in the world.