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)

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