A Candid Interview with Nathan Chen

Conducted by Justin Kang and Ryan Nagengast

In a time of schooling, summer programs, and extracurricular activities being postponed, Garnet Valley senior Nathan Chen has made the most of his resources. Highly accomplished in computer science for his age, Nathan spends hours a day honing his skills through competitions and other methods. Luckily for him, not much has changed during the COVID-19 pandemic, as he can still compete in competitive events for math and coding online. We interviewed with him to see what it took to get where he is today, and any aspirations he may have for the future.

Question: Have you been interested in computers/coding from a young age, or since high school?

Answer: Nathan has been coding since he was in 5th grade. Minecraft was the true catalyst behind why he started. He really enjoyed video games, enough so that he wanted to make his own. Nathan started off by watching YouTube videos to learn how to code by himself. 

Question: How many hours a day do you dedicate to programming? A week?

Answer: At his peak, Nathan would code for 10-20 hours a week. However, that number isn’t all time behind the keyboard because he could’ve been reading papers or working out the math behind code. At other times, he looks for coding contests, whether it is through the USA Computing Olympiad or CodeForces. Nathan’s competitive agenda basically works off of other websites’ schedules. 

Question: Would you say programming has benefited other areas of your life, such as school? If so, how?

Answer: Nathan told us about how in his freshman year, his math teacher assigned a graphing project to make character art off of equations in Desmos. Rather than waste his time, Nathan made a program that traced outlines with one’s pointer. It printed out all the equations he needed, and he finished it much quicker than the conventional method. While computer science has not helped him directly in school besides that incident, it allows him to have familiarity with certain math concepts. 

Question: What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced regarding programming?

Answer: According to Nathan, the biggest challenge in programming is usually working with the phrasing of a computer science problem and being able to reduce it to something one can understand and work with. The mathematics behind the problems are usually doable by a high school student if he/she is careful about it. 

Question: How have you managed your clubs during the pandemic? What is the biggest challenge?

Answer: Nathan is the president of the Math and Programming clubs. Programming Club has weekly meetings on Friday where he may screen share and talk about how to solve a problem. Math Club meetings run sort of like a lecture; the members are asked how to solve a problem, and then Nathan walks them through it to make sure everyone understands it. Math Club also enrolls in contests and takes part in competitive events throughout the year. 

Question: Would you say competitive programming was not hit as hard by the pandemic?

Answer: The opportunities actually expanded in competitive programming because contests that used to be local were moved to nationwide and online. The ability to meet people and attend in-person university events has been negatively impacted, though.

Question: How do you balance a rigorous course load with competitive programming?

Answer: As Nathan goes on to university and takes on harder courses, he aims to improve his time management and balance his obligations. Sometimes, he may take a break, going days without programming to work on school projects or other responsibilities.

Question: Do you plan on continuing your participation in competitive events throughout college?

Answer: As he transitions into adulthood, he plans to focus on projects, internships, jobs, research, and things that are more practical.

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