Jeff Lab worker in Google top 100

A Jefferson Lab programmer is a finalist in a worldwide computer contest.

NEWPORT NEWS - Michael Haddox-Schatz is headed for "geek heaven," but he doesn't act the geeky part.

Three street-hockey sticks lean in the corner of his only-slightly-messy cubicle. The 31-year-old computer programmer spends his lunch hours playing hockey with several other Jefferson Lab employees on a stretch of concrete behind the lab's accelerator.

He also coaches the plays on the lab's softball team in the York County Co-Ed Industrial League.

A "Darth Tater" - think Mr. Potato Head with the iconic "Star Wars" helmet - stands on his cubicle shelf, and is that a street-hockey ball on his desk?

"No, it's a stress-reliever ball," Haddox-Schatz says he picks up the blue rubber ball and squeezes it. Sure enough, it has "Jefferson Lab Occupational Health and Safety" printed on it.

Then there's the computer with two screens - one for calling up documentation, the other for writing programs on - that bears testimony to what Haddox-Schatz is really, really good at.

He's one of 100 finalists from around the world - only seven from the United States - who'll compete in Google's Global Code Jam 2006 championship round on Oct. 27.

It's "geek heaven," Jefferson Lab spokeswoman Linda Ware says of the contest.

The competition pits programmers against each other to see who can solve a series of programming puzzles most quickly and accurately.

What kind of puzzles? Haddox-Schatz gives an example he tackled in another contest, based on the children's board game Chutes and Ladders.

"The player is given the location of the various chutes and ladders, and where the players are on the board. You have to determine what are the odds of each player winning the game," he says, by writing software that calculated the probability of their future moves.

It took him between half an hour and 45 minutes to solve that puzzle, he says.

It's Haddox-Schatz's second trip to the Google Code Jam finals. "Last year, I think I came in 65th," he says. "I don't expect to win. My goal is to place in the Top 25.

"I've been doing programming contests since high school."

Some 20,000 programmers entered the contest, and Haddox-Schatz has survived previous rounds that picked the Top 1,000, then 500, and now the final 100.

Haddox-Schatz grew up in Northern Virginia and came to Hampton Roads when his wife, Jennifer, entered graduate school at the College of William and Mary.

His job at the nuclear physics laboratory is to write software that enables data from lab experiments to be retrieved from the myriad tapes stored in the lab's big "data silo" and sent to computers where the physicists can study them.

He's also been a finalist in programming competitions held by TopCoder Inc.

Competition programming "helps me improve the coding skills I need for my job, giving me practice in thinking about processes in an orderly way and helping me visualize new ways of solving problems," he says.

And there's the money. First prize in Google Code Jam is $20,000, with at least $750 guaranteed as a finalist, he notes.

"Plus the free trip to New York."