Iowa ‘Grows Its Own’ to Fill the HPC Workforce Pipeline

By Elizabeth Leake, STEM-Trek

February 13, 2019

The global workforce that supports advanced computing, scientific software and high-speed research networks is relatively small when you stop to consider the magnitude of the transformative discoveries it empowers.

Technical conferences provide a forum where specialists convene to learn about the latest innovations and schedule face-time with colleagues from other institutions. When the Supercomputing Conference (SC) conference series began in 1988, it drew 1,495, but now attracts more than 13,000 international guests. The growth escalated exponentially as more scientific domains engaged with data-intensive research, and every aspect of our lives became driven by digital interfaces. As a career track, those who possess the skills, aptitude, technical curiosity and lust for learning are in high demand.

Since commercial and industry jobs pay more than comparable roles at universities, campus recruiting and retention have become challenging. Small, and non-urban universities are more likely to “grow their own” specialists, but most arrived by chance, vs. choice. They enter the pipeline via the student employment route; often taking a job at the help desk. That’s where they are typically discovered by a senior specialist. With a few years of hands-on experience as a part-time student employee, they’re a shoo-in for campus professional roles upon graduation. In academic environments, they’re considered technical “generalists” in that they may have teaching and training obligations, plus responsibility for client services, software, scheduling and hardware administration. They may also have account and network administration responsibilities.

This career-by-fate method satisfied university demand for decades, but the pipeline started to leak a few years ago. The talent gap was a topic of discussion at a 2016 “Advancing Research Computing on Campuses (ARCC) conference panel titled, “A New Career Path: The Cyberinfrastructure Professional.” On this panel, senior-level research computing managers, and others involved with global HPC workforce development, led a discussion about a variety of workforce challenges.

Most who attended the panel discussion noted that it had become increasingly difficult for campus-based centers to recruit and retain skilled staff. Universal demand for advanced skills peaked as university enrollments declined, federal government investments waned and state belts tightened. Corporate salaries increased, while university wages stagnated and new employee benefits were trimmed. To make it even worse for public and smaller schools, as soon as specialists are trained well enough to manage a trusted research computing environment—even student workers with a year or two of experience noted on their LinkedIn profiles—they are increasingly targeted by corporate recruiters and become a flight risk.

ARCC Panelist Ruth Marinshaw (Stanford University) noted that it’s even harder for Stanford since they are in the midst of Silicon Valley. “Our specialists support regional academic, government and industry research, so they have face-time with representatives from these organizations who then have the opportunity to recruit them; they can afford to pay twice the salary, in some cases,” she said, and added, “It’s easier for our employees to accept a job across town and make a lot more money without having to disrupt their families by moving.”

Since the ARCC panel in 2016, others have noted that the situation hasn’t improved; in fact, it’s worse in regions where employment upon graduation is uncertain, and more continue to live with their parents well into their 30’s. Some students are even tempted to drop out of school and enter the workforce if they’re approached by recruiters. They may have a difficult time visualizing the longitudinal benefits of a college degree. This situation presents a moral dilemma for university supervisors, advisers and parents who hope their students will graduate on time, but they also realize that attractive salary and benefit packages are difficult to refuse when many early-career professionals are under- or unemployed and defaulting on student loans.

But from a global workforce preparedness standpoint, once a specialist departs from academia, they leave a huge void; the ripple effect is felt around the world. With a graduating class of 200 computer science majors, you might only find two or three good candidates. University HPC sysadmin-trainers have an opportunity to reach students—they can identify and engage the needle-in-the-haystack prospects and guide them toward the career track.

“Since non-academic employers can’t engage students in quite the same way, universities are facing a moral imperative,” said University of Iowa (UI) Research Services Director Ben Rogers. “I believe it’s academia’s role to prepare the global workforce, but we haven’t been producing enough research computing talent,” he added.

Rogers accepts the fact that Iowa’s specialists are courted by corporate recruiters. He’s happy for any student employees who receive attractive offers upon graduation, or fulltime staff that go on to grow their careers elsewhere, and proud to have helped them succeed. He said, “That’s a key part of our education mission, but we are at risk of damage to our research mission when we lose a critical team member whose skills are one-deep.”

In addition to developing new retention strategies, UI Associate Director of Research Services Joe Hetrick is attempting to increase the local prospect pool by exposing more students, faculty and staff—from a larger variety of disciplines—to specialized training. “Through the campus-wide information technology community, we’re extending an invitation to those who work in other departments. We can arrange for them to job-shadow or cross-train with incumbent research computing specialists so they can ‘try it on’ before committing should a vacancy occur,” he said. “By targeting early-career professionals, we hope to help them envision an alternative career path, especially women and other demographics that are underrepresented in research computing,” he added. Some may lack skills, but have everything else needed to succeed, and that’s the type of person Hetrick hopes to find.

With nine professional colleges on campus, and a growing number of computationally-intensive programs of study, there is broad interest in learning advanced computational and data science skills. In addition to encouraging the incorporation of relevant courses into existing curricula, Rogers notes that workshops offered by his team are well attended and might be a good place to recruit prospects. “Our Python workshop is held twice a semester, and it’s always full at 50 attendees; some sneak in without registering, so there might even be 53-55,” he said.

“We would also like to explore the concept of offering vocational training and courting more nontraditional students,” he said. There are more than 2,260 veterans attending UI in any given term. “Some vets may have security and engineering skills that would translate well to a career in research services, and it’s more likely they have roots in the community and will prefer to stay in Iowa City after graduating,” said Rogers.

We hope these discussions will continue at the Practice and Experience in Advanced Research Computing (PEARC19) conference in Chicago, Illinois July 28-August 1, 2019.

Brenna Miller and McKenna Kinley

After graduating from the University of Iowa (UI) with an undergraduate degree in computer science and working as a student employee, Brenna Miller served as a Senior Systems Administrator at UI for four years. In that role, she supported more than 700 faculty, post-doctoral and student researchers who used UI’s two HPC clusters. As a member of the UI Research Services team, mentored by Systems Architect Glenn Johnson, she integrated and deployed an expansion of compute nodes equipped with consumer-grade GPUs which were significantly modified to fit UI’s HPC cluster stack components. The expansion was deployed successfully without an interruption of service or disruption to the existing cluster. She also participated on a project to replace a legacy UNIX-based identity management system with Active Directory authentication on UI College of Liberal Arts & Sciences HPC systems.

Brenna’s UI HPC experience prepared her for a role with Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) in the storage team of their HPC and Data Operations Group. In the feature photo above, she is shown with ORNL’s “Summit” supercomputer; number one on the Top500 list in June, 2018. She said, “At ORNL, I am a part of the team managing the fastest compute, storage and archival systems in the world. My experience at the UI taught me to trust my skills and to be unfazed in the face of scale. The largest, fastest system you’ve ever seen won’t be number one for long. The scariest breakage you’ve ever caused won’t be so terrifying once you’ve figured out how to fix it. One should continually tackle problems of larger scale and complexity, and the greatest challenge with which you are presented should always be the one you strive to conquer.”

Brenna’s UI legacy is especially noteworthy; female HPC sysadmin role models are few and far between. Her presence at the university had a positive and lasting impact on female coworkers and student workers alike.

UI Computer Science Student McKenna Kinley worked with Brenna in the UI Research Services department for three years before graduating in 2018. It was Brenna’s mentoring that influenced McKenna’s decision to pursue a career in research computing.

While McKenna was poised to take a full-time position at UI upon graduation, she received a last-minute offer from Amazon Web Services (AWS) that was too good to turn down. At AWS in Seattle, McKenna will participate in a rotation series getting acquainted with multiple aspects of their portfolio before settling in with a specific team. Travel is important to McKenna; with a global footprint, it’s likely that AWS employment will satisfy this interest, too.

 

About the Author

HPCwire Contributing Editor Elizabeth Leake is a consultant, correspondent and advocate who serves the global high performance computing (HPC) and data science industries. In 2012, she founded STEM-Trek, a global, grassroots nonprofit organization that supports workforce development opportunities for science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) scholars from underserved regions and underrepresented groups.

As a program director, Leake has mentored hundreds of early-career professionals who are breaking cultural barriers in an effort to accelerate scientific and engineering discoveries. Her multinational programs have specific themes that resonate with global stakeholders, such as food security data science, blockchain for social good, cybersecurity/risk mitigation, and more. As a conference blogger and communicator, her work drew recognition when STEM-Trek received the 2016 and 2017 HPCwire Editors’ Choice Awards for Workforce Diversity Leadership.


Feature image caption: HPC Sysadmin Brenna Miller at ORNL with the Summit supercomputer. (Photo credit: Carlos Jones, ORNL)

Subscribe to HPCwire's Weekly Update!

Be the most informed person in the room! Stay ahead of the tech trends with industry updates delivered to you every week!

Natcast/NSTC Issues Roadmap to Implement CHIPS and Science Act

May 29, 2024

Yesterday, CHIPS for America and Natcast, the operator of the National Semiconductor Technology Center (NSTC), released a roadmap of early steps for implementing portions of the ambitious $5 billion program. Natcast is t Read more…

Scientists Use GenAI to Uncover New Insights in Materials Science

May 29, 2024

With the help of generative AI, researchers from MIT and the University of Basel in Switzerland have developed a new machine-learning framework that can help uncover new insights about materials science. The findings of Read more…

Microsoft’s ARM-based CPU Cobalt will Support Windows 11 in the Cloud

May 29, 2024

Microsoft's ARM-based CPU, called Cobalt, is now available in the cloud for public consumption. Cobalt is Microsoft's first homegrown CPU, which was first announced six months ago. The cloud-based Cobalt VMs will support Read more…

2024 Winter Classic Finale! Gala Awards Ceremony

May 28, 2024

We wrapped up the competition with our traditional Gala Awards Ceremony. This was an exciting show, given that only 40 points or so separated first place from fifth place after the Google GROMACS Challenge and heading in Read more…

IBM Makes a Push Towards Open-Source Services, Announces New watsonx Updates

May 28, 2024

Today, IBM declared that it is releasing a number of noteworthy changes to its watsonx platform, with the goal of increasing the openness, affordability, and flexibility of the platform’s AI capabilities. Announced Read more…

ISC 2024 Takeaways: Love for Top500, Extending HPC Systems, and Media Bashing

May 23, 2024

The ISC High Performance show is typically about time-to-science, but breakout sessions also focused on Europe's tech sovereignty, server infrastructure, storage, throughput, and new computing technologies. This round Read more…

Scientists Use GenAI to Uncover New Insights in Materials Science

May 29, 2024

With the help of generative AI, researchers from MIT and the University of Basel in Switzerland have developed a new machine-learning framework that can help un Read more…

watsonx

IBM Makes a Push Towards Open-Source Services, Announces New watsonx Updates

May 28, 2024

Today, IBM declared that it is releasing a number of noteworthy changes to its watsonx platform, with the goal of increasing the openness, affordability, and fl Read more…

ISC 2024 Takeaways: Love for Top500, Extending HPC Systems, and Media Bashing

May 23, 2024

The ISC High Performance show is typically about time-to-science, but breakout sessions also focused on Europe's tech sovereignty, server infrastructure, storag Read more…

ISC 2024 — A Few Quantum Gems and Slides from a Packed QC Agenda

May 22, 2024

If you were looking for quantum computing content, ISC 2024 was a good place to be last week — there were around 20 quantum computing related sessions. QC eve Read more…

Atos Outlines Plans to Get Acquired, and a Path Forward

May 21, 2024

Atos – via its subsidiary Eviden – is the second major supercomputer maker outside of HPE, while others have largely dropped out. The lack of integrators and Atos' financial turmoil have the HPC market worried. If Atos goes under, HPE will be the only major option for building large-scale systems. Read more…

Google Announces Sixth-generation AI Chip, a TPU Called Trillium

May 17, 2024

On Tuesday May 14th, Google announced its sixth-generation TPU (tensor processing unit) called Trillium.  The chip, essentially a TPU v6, is the company's l Read more…

Europe’s Race towards Quantum-HPC Integration and Quantum Advantage

May 16, 2024

What an interesting panel, Quantum Advantage — Where are We and What is Needed? While the panelists looked slightly weary — their’s was, after all, one of Read more…

The Future of AI in Science

May 15, 2024

AI is one of the most transformative and valuable scientific tools ever developed. By harnessing vast amounts of data and computational power, AI systems can un Read more…

Synopsys Eats Ansys: Does HPC Get Indigestion?

February 8, 2024

Recently, it was announced that Synopsys is buying HPC tool developer Ansys. Started in Pittsburgh, Pa., in 1970 as Swanson Analysis Systems, Inc. (SASI) by John Swanson (and eventually renamed), Ansys serves the CAE (Computer Aided Engineering)/multiphysics engineering simulation market. Read more…

Nvidia H100: Are 550,000 GPUs Enough for This Year?

August 17, 2023

The GPU Squeeze continues to place a premium on Nvidia H100 GPUs. In a recent Financial Times article, Nvidia reports that it expects to ship 550,000 of its lat Read more…

Comparing NVIDIA A100 and NVIDIA L40S: Which GPU is Ideal for AI and Graphics-Intensive Workloads?

October 30, 2023

With long lead times for the NVIDIA H100 and A100 GPUs, many organizations are looking at the new NVIDIA L40S GPU, which it’s a new GPU optimized for AI and g Read more…

Atos Outlines Plans to Get Acquired, and a Path Forward

May 21, 2024

Atos – via its subsidiary Eviden – is the second major supercomputer maker outside of HPE, while others have largely dropped out. The lack of integrators and Atos' financial turmoil have the HPC market worried. If Atos goes under, HPE will be the only major option for building large-scale systems. Read more…

Choosing the Right GPU for LLM Inference and Training

December 11, 2023

Accelerating the training and inference processes of deep learning models is crucial for unleashing their true potential and NVIDIA GPUs have emerged as a game- Read more…

Nvidia’s New Blackwell GPU Can Train AI Models with Trillions of Parameters

March 18, 2024

Nvidia's latest and fastest GPU, codenamed Blackwell, is here and will underpin the company's AI plans this year. The chip offers performance improvements from Read more…

Some Reasons Why Aurora Didn’t Take First Place in the Top500 List

May 15, 2024

The makers of the Aurora supercomputer, which is housed at the Argonne National Laboratory, gave some reasons why the system didn't make the top spot on the Top Read more…

AMD MI3000A

How AMD May Get Across the CUDA Moat

October 5, 2023

When discussing GenAI, the term "GPU" almost always enters the conversation and the topic often moves toward performance and access. Interestingly, the word "GPU" is assumed to mean "Nvidia" products. (As an aside, the popular Nvidia hardware used in GenAI are not technically... Read more…

Leading Solution Providers

Contributors

The GenAI Datacenter Squeeze Is Here

February 1, 2024

The immediate effect of the GenAI GPU Squeeze was to reduce availability, either direct purchase or cloud access, increase cost, and push demand through the roof. A secondary issue has been developing over the last several years. Even though your organization secured several racks... Read more…

The NASA Black Hole Plunge

May 7, 2024

We have all thought about it. No one has done it, but now, thanks to HPC, we see what it looks like. Hold on to your feet because NASA has released videos of wh Read more…

Shutterstock 1285747942

AMD’s Horsepower-packed MI300X GPU Beats Nvidia’s Upcoming H200

December 7, 2023

AMD and Nvidia are locked in an AI performance battle – much like the gaming GPU performance clash the companies have waged for decades. AMD has claimed it Read more…

Intel Plans Falcon Shores 2 GPU Supercomputing Chip for 2026  

August 8, 2023

Intel is planning to onboard a new version of the Falcon Shores chip in 2026, which is code-named Falcon Shores 2. The new product was announced by CEO Pat Gel Read more…

GenAI Having Major Impact on Data Culture, Survey Says

February 21, 2024

While 2023 was the year of GenAI, the adoption rates for GenAI did not match expectations. Most organizations are continuing to invest in GenAI but are yet to Read more…

Eyes on the Quantum Prize – D-Wave Says its Time is Now

January 30, 2024

Early quantum computing pioneer D-Wave again asserted – that at least for D-Wave – the commercial quantum era has begun. Speaking at its first in-person Ana Read more…

Q&A with Nvidia’s Chief of DGX Systems on the DGX-GB200 Rack-scale System

March 27, 2024

Pictures of Nvidia's new flagship mega-server, the DGX GB200, on the GTC show floor got favorable reactions on social media for the sheer amount of computing po Read more…

How the Chip Industry is Helping a Battery Company

May 8, 2024

Chip companies, once seen as engineering pure plays, are now at the center of geopolitical intrigue. Chip manufacturing firms, especially TSMC and Intel, have b Read more…

  • arrow
  • Click Here for More Headlines
  • arrow
HPCwire