Wanted: Supercomputer Programmers

By Michael Feldman

January 3, 2012

Despite the last few years of dismal news on the employment front, software engineers with backgrounds in high performance computing are in high demand. A recent story in the Daily Beast points out that elite supercomputing labs in the US are finding it tough to find software developers that can program their cutting-edge machines.

That’s mainly due to the fact that HPC systems require engineers trained in the intricacies of parallel programming — MPI, OpenMP, CUDA, and such. While these software frameworks are well know in the HPC realm, most computer science programs do not offer classes in them at the undergrad level. And there are only a handful of specialized HPC curriculums in the country, most of which are associated with DOE or NSF supercomputing centers.

The Daily Beast article quotes Wu Feng, a professor of supercomputing at Virginia Polytechnic, who says that companies are so hungry for HPC talent that he’s had inquiries from different parts of the same company competing for graduating students. And at the University of Tennessee, supercomputer guru Jack Dongarra notes: “It’s not that we’ve had a drop-off in enrollments, it’s that we need an increase. We need people who can build the applications and algorithms needed to effectively use the equipment.”

One concern is that other countries are going to eclipse the US in supercomputing by developing the better software talent. RENCI supercomputing veteran Stan Ahalt points out that China is churning out huge numbers of scientists and engineers to jump-start its burgeoning high performance computing sector. And even though US universities and labs still train a lot of HPC engineers, the ones from China and India often return to their native countries to fill local demand for those jobs.

Other rapidly growing areas application like mobile computing, cloud computing, and big data analytics are also suffering talent shortages. An article in the Austin American Statesman points out that competition for engineers is fierce in most US high-tech centers:

In an otherwise sluggish U.S. economy, an intense national talent war is being waged for engineers with critical skills in hot areas. Austin is one of a number of fronts — which include California, the Northeast and other tech centers such as Seattle and Boulder, Colo. — where recruiters and executives say the supply of talent can’t keep up with demand.

As always, the availability of software — and the engineers that write it — will determine the success of all these technologies. That’s as true for room-filling supercomputers as it is for handheld smartphones.

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