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 industy updates delivered to you every week!

Intel Debuts Pohoiki Beach, Its 8M Neuron Neuromorphic Development System

July 17, 2019

Neuromorphic computing has received less fanfare of late than quantum computing whose mystery has captured public attention and which seems to have generated more efforts (academic, government, and commercial) but whose Read more…

By John Russell

Goonhilly Unveils New Immersion-Cooled Platform, Doubles Down on Sustainability Mission

July 16, 2019

Goonhilly Earth Station has opened its new datacenter – an enhancement to its existing tier 3 facility – in Cornwall, England, touting an ambitious commitment to holistic sustainability as well as launching a managed Read more…

By Oliver Peckham

New CMU AI Poker Bot – Pluribus – Humbles the Pros Again

July 15, 2019

Remember Libratus, the Carnegie Mellon University developed AI poker bot that’s been humbling poker professionals at Texas hold’em for a couple of years. Well, say hello to Pluribus, an upgraded bot, which has now be Read more…

By John Russell

HPE Extreme Performance Solutions

Bring the Combined Power of HPC and AI to Your Business Transformation

A growing number of commercial businesses are implementing HPC solutions to derive actionable business insights, to run higher performance applications and to gain a competitive advantage. Read more…

IBM Accelerated Insights

Smarter Technology Revs Up Red Bull Racing

In 21st century business, companies that effectively leverage their information resources – thrive. As it turns out, the same is true in Formula One racing. Read more…

ISC19 Cluster Competition: Application Results, Finally!

July 15, 2019

Our exhaustive coverage of the ISC19 Student Cluster Competition continues as we discuss the application scores below. While the scores were typically high, some of the apps, like SWIFT and OpenFOAM, really pushed the st Read more…

By Dan Olds

Intel Debuts Pohoiki Beach, Its 8M Neuron Neuromorphic Development System

July 17, 2019

Neuromorphic computing has received less fanfare of late than quantum computing whose mystery has captured public attention and which seems to have generated mo Read more…

By John Russell

Goonhilly Unveils New Immersion-Cooled Platform, Doubles Down on Sustainability Mission

July 16, 2019

Goonhilly Earth Station has opened its new datacenter – an enhancement to its existing tier 3 facility – in Cornwall, England, touting an ambitious commitme Read more…

By Oliver Peckham

New CMU AI Poker Bot – Pluribus – Humbles the Pros Again

July 15, 2019

Remember Libratus, the Carnegie Mellon University developed AI poker bot that’s been humbling poker professionals at Texas hold’em for a couple of years. We Read more…

By John Russell

ISC19 Cluster Competition: Application Results, Finally!

July 15, 2019

Our exhaustive coverage of the ISC19 Student Cluster Competition continues as we discuss the application scores below. While the scores were typically high, som Read more…

By Dan Olds

Nvidia Expands DGX-Ready AI Program to 19 Countries

July 11, 2019

Nvidia’s DGX-Ready Data Center Program, announced in January and designed to provide colo and public cloud-like options to access the company’s GPU-powered Read more…

By Doug Black

Argonne Team Makes Record Globus File Transfer

July 10, 2019

A team of scientists at Argonne National Laboratory has broken a data transfer record by moving a staggering 2.9 petabytes of data for a research project.  The data – from three large cosmological simulations – was generated and stored on the Summit supercomputer at the Oak Ridge Leadership Computing Facility (OLCF)... Read more…

By Oliver Peckham

Nvidia, Google Tie in Second MLPerf Training ‘At-Scale’ Round

July 10, 2019

Results for the second round of the AI benchmarking suite known as MLPerf were published today with Google Cloud and Nvidia each picking up three wins in the at Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Applied Materials Embedding New Memory Technologies in Chips

July 9, 2019

Applied Materials, the $17 billion Santa Clara-based materials engineering company for the semiconductor industry, today announced manufacturing systems enablin Read more…

By Doug Black

High Performance (Potato) Chips

May 5, 2006

In this article, we focus on how Procter & Gamble is using high performance computing to create some common, everyday supermarket products. Tom Lange, a 27-year veteran of the company, tells us how P&G models products, processes and production systems for the betterment of consumer package goods. Read more…

By Michael Feldman

Cray, AMD to Extend DOE’s Exascale Frontier

May 7, 2019

Cray and AMD are coming back to Oak Ridge National Laboratory to partner on the world’s largest and most expensive supercomputer. The Department of Energy’s Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Graphene Surprises Again, This Time for Quantum Computing

May 8, 2019

Graphene is fascinating stuff with promise for use in a seeming endless number of applications. This month researchers from the University of Vienna and Institu Read more…

By John Russell

AMD Verifies Its Largest 7nm Chip Design in Ten Hours

June 5, 2019

AMD announced last week that its engineers had successfully executed the first physical verification of its largest 7nm chip design – in just ten hours. The AMD Radeon Instinct Vega20 – which boasts 13.2 billion transistors – was tested using a TSMC-certified Calibre nmDRC software platform from Mentor. Read more…

By Oliver Peckham

TSMC and Samsung Moving to 5nm; Whither Moore’s Law?

June 12, 2019

With reports that Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. (TMSC) and Samsung are moving quickly to 5nm manufacturing, it’s a good time to again ponder whither goes the venerable Moore’s law. Shrinking feature size has of course been the primary hallmark of achieving Moore’s law... Read more…

By John Russell

Deep Learning Competitors Stalk Nvidia

May 14, 2019

There is no shortage of processing architectures emerging to accelerate deep learning workloads, with two more options emerging this week to challenge GPU leader Nvidia. First, Intel researchers claimed a new deep learning record for image classification on the ResNet-50 convolutional neural network. Separately, Israeli AI chip startup Hailo.ai... Read more…

By George Leopold

Nvidia Embraces Arm, Declares Intent to Accelerate All CPU Architectures

June 17, 2019

As the Top500 list was being announced at ISC in Frankfurt today with an upgraded petascale Arm supercomputer in the top third of the list, Nvidia announced its Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Top500 Purely Petaflops; US Maintains Performance Lead

June 17, 2019

With the kick-off of the International Supercomputing Conference (ISC) in Frankfurt this morning, the 53rd Top500 list made its debut, and this one's for petafl Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Leading Solution Providers

ISC 2019 Virtual Booth Video Tour

CRAY
CRAY
DDN
DDN
DELL EMC
DELL EMC
GOOGLE
GOOGLE
ONE STOP SYSTEMS
ONE STOP SYSTEMS
PANASAS
PANASAS
VERNE GLOBAL
VERNE GLOBAL

Intel Launches Cascade Lake Xeons with Up to 56 Cores

April 2, 2019

At Intel's Data-Centric Innovation Day in San Francisco (April 2), the company unveiled its second-generation Xeon Scalable (Cascade Lake) family and debuted it Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Cray – and the Cray Brand – to Be Positioned at Tip of HPE’s HPC Spear

May 22, 2019

More so than with most acquisitions of this kind, HPE’s purchase of Cray for $1.3 billion, announced last week, seems to have elements of that overused, often Read more…

By Doug Black and Tiffany Trader

A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Hardware That Powered the Black Hole Image

June 24, 2019

Two months ago, the first-ever image of a black hole took the internet by storm. A team of scientists took years to produce and verify the striking image – an Read more…

By Oliver Peckham

Announcing four new HPC capabilities in Google Cloud Platform

April 15, 2019

When you’re running compute-bound or memory-bound applications for high performance computing or large, data-dependent machine learning training workloads on Read more…

By Wyatt Gorman, HPC Specialist, Google Cloud; Brad Calder, VP of Engineering, Google Cloud; Bart Sano, VP of Platforms, Google Cloud

It’s Official: Aurora on Track to Be First US Exascale Computer in 2021

March 18, 2019

The U.S. Department of Energy along with Intel and Cray confirmed today that an Intel/Cray supercomputer, "Aurora," capable of sustained performance of one exaf Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Why Nvidia Bought Mellanox: ‘Future Datacenters Will Be…Like High Performance Computers’

March 14, 2019

“Future datacenters of all kinds will be built like high performance computers,” said Nvidia CEO Jensen Huang during a phone briefing on Monday after Nvidia revealed scooping up the high performance networking company Mellanox for $6.9 billion. Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Chinese Company Sugon Placed on US ‘Entity List’ After Strong Showing at International Supercomputing Conference

June 26, 2019

After more than a decade of advancing its supercomputing prowess, operating the world’s most powerful supercomputer from June 2013 to June 2018, China is keep Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

In Wake of Nvidia-Mellanox: Xilinx to Acquire Solarflare

April 25, 2019

With echoes of Nvidia’s recent acquisition of Mellanox, FPGA maker Xilinx has announced a definitive agreement to acquire Solarflare Communications, provider Read more…

By Doug Black

  • arrow
  • Click Here for More Headlines
  • arrow
Do NOT follow this link or you will be banned from the site!
Share This