“Dare to know and take the initiative” – an exclusive interview with John-Paul Pretti, Secretary of the International Olympiad for Computer Science in Szeged

Between 28 August and 4 September, the world’s most promising minds will move to the City of Sunshine as Szeged hosts the most prestigious and largest student programming competition, the International Olympiad in Informatics (IOI), where the young titans of the field will prove their skills. But there’s much more to this competition than just talented minds shining. As IOI Secretary John-Paul Pretti told us in our interview, the event is a great opportunity for young people to meet like-minded talent, to make friends and even to forge fruitful professional relationships.

John-Paul Pretti already has a lot of experience in organising the 
International Olympiad for IT Students. A teacher at the University of 
Waterloo in Canada, he has been involved in the preparations for the 
prestigious competition for more than a decade, since 2010. First as 
deputy director and then as secretary of the event since 2022, he has 
seen many bright minds develop thanks to the IOI.

He said that this is a competition where students are honoured to 
represent their country, a huge point on their CVs that the cream of the 
profession will surely look up to. Universities welcome the young 
talents who have proven themselves at the IOI with open arms, and they 
will have the job opportunities they have always dreamed of. The 
Canadian professor stressed that the biggest advantage of the IOI is the 
valuable contacts that the contestants can make.

And not by chance, as the International Olympiad in Informatics will be 
attended by students and organisers from all over the world: 360 
competitors and a total of 1000 participants will take part in the 
prestigious competition, which will be the second in Hungary’s history 
after 1996. “Participating in the IOI is a huge advantage for young 
people, whether it’s during meals, waiting for the bus, on excursions or 
even taking part in the competition, to come together and talk through 
the proceedings with great excitement, sharing what happened to them, 
these are my favourite moments of the IOI. The excitement, the tingling 
in the air, is clearly conveyed in those moments. It’s a way for 
students from all over the world to get to know each other. You can see 
them taking photos with each other at the closing ceremony and 
ceremonies, saying goodbye to their peers in a jovial way, having only 
known each other for a week. So there was plenty of opportunity to make 
friends at the IOI,” says John-Paul Pretti.

He added that it is very important for them to identify top talent and 
bring them together in competitive programming. After all, especially 
those who live in small towns are likely to have to go online to find 
people with similar interests. “IOI has a huge role to play in talent 
management. What does that mean? I think it’s important to identify top 
talent and it’s also very important to bring these young people 
together. Let’s say you excel in programming, but you live in a small 
town and the only way to connect with people with similar interests is 
exclusively online. I think it’s paramount to bring these people into a 
room, especially after the pandemic, where they can connect with each 
other and have a live conversation. This is a very important way to 
nurture talent. All the participants are great, but they face big 
challenges. Whoever wins the IOI will not leave as the same person as 
they came in, and I don’t mean just the winner. It’s a way of nurturing 
talent, giving young people the chance to develop high problem-solving 
skills,” explained the secretary.

And what message does the expert have for young people preparing for the 
competition? As he said, the week will fly by very quickly, so he urges 
all participants to take advantage of the opportunities offered by the 
IOI. “Enjoy the moment, slow down, take a break, think! And one more 
thought, if you are a little shy, do your best and take a step towards a 
person you don’t know and say: ‘Hi, I’m J.P. Pretti, where are you 
from?’ Take that extra step, because you never know where it might lead. 
Maybe that’s my key piece of advice to get the most out of IOI,” was the 
secretary’s take-home message.