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Building a career in HPC


You need to keep up with technical developments. Every single day I am now researching the best ways of delivering compute power to those who need it.

I recently celebrated 28 years at Durham University and wanted to share with you some of my thoughts on building a career in HPC.

Supercomputing is one of those industries that never stands still – driven by a race to the top; everyone wants the most powerful computer, the most energy efficient; with the smallest carbon footprint, the most users, the broadest user base and the best I/O and more. Nobody ever builds an average supercomputer!

The supercomputers that I bought and managed for research groups at Durham University, in particular for the Institute for Computational Cosmology over the past 14 years have been some of the most powerful ever built in the UK.

Right now, I’m personally responsible for the specification, procurement, installation and maintenance (wielding a screwdriver when necessary) of Durham University’s most famous HPC asset – COSMA. Originally 64 workstations with a Myrinet interconnect and 128 cores, this system evolved first to 528 cores, then 800 cores, 3,000 cores and finally 9,856 cores with continued operation of both COSMA version 4 and COSMA 5 simultaneously!

There are six things that have helped in my career:

1. A good education always helps when mapping out a career. I hold a Diplom-Physikerin (equivalent to having a research masters in physics) and I hold a PhD in theoretical high-energy physics. I have worked in four different research areas in physics, from particle physics to cosmology. This understanding of science, my solid mathematical background and my experience in research has given me the domain knowledge to understand more completely my users and their codes.

2. My path into the supercomputing world was slightly unusual in that I didn’t train for or apply for a job managing a supercomputer. I worked for someone who was already using such a system and when it failed, I stepped forward to repair it. That was the theme of my first few roles – stepping forward and getting my hands dirty and at the same time doing research into physics. Ultimately, putting myself forward has provided opportunities along the way.

3. I learned very early on that you need to keep up with technical developments. Every single day I am now researching the best ways of delivering compute power to those who need it. I meet lots of tech-savvy people, stay in touch with hardware and software vendors like IBM, Lenovo, Atos-Bull, SGI, HP, Cray and others; and not forgetting building strong, ongoing relationships with integrators like OCF.

4. Don’t be afraid to try out what you have learned – it’s the fastest way to improve. I am continuously learning on the job. Sometimes, I’m applying knowledge to COSMA that I only learned myself two weeks before.

5. You must get to know and understand the users of your supercomputer (see my point about having domain knowledge). Day by day, I am working with researchers to understand their code, how to get it running more efficiently, to understand why it doesn’t work, and why it stopped working when it was fine previously!

6. Lastly, value people for their brain power- don’t judge a book by its cover. There is always lots of debate in the industry around the role of women in IT. I think in this job – and any other for that matter – knowledge, passion, experience and attitude reign supreme.