The HPC community is very diverse – as are the jobs in the field – and there are many paths into HPC. In this mini-series we will share our personal journeys into HPC. We will describe our roles and explain how we got to our current positions.
My name is Anna and I recently got the opportunity to join our newly founded Office for (Inter)national Coordination and Networking at the Jülich Supercomputing Centre (JSC) after having worked at this institute for 15 years. Although I in principle know how to efficiently use an HPC system, my job is rather at a coordination level. But how did I get here? If one had asked me as a high school student if I wanted to do something management-like, I would have laughed and shaken my head vigorously.
Let’s time travel to the year 2006. I was in my second-to last high school year. Mathematics was one of my favourite subjects, as were Spanish and biology. One day my aunt, who had worked at Forschungszentrum Jülich (FZJ) some years ago, called us to tell us that the “Tag der Neugier” (the FZJ’s Open Day) would happen soon on campus. So my mother and I went to visit – maybe I could get some ideas what to study after school. At the time I was thinking about becoming a teacher, or maybe studying biotech, but I really wasn’t sure. There were just too many topics that I was interested in.
At the Open Day I found out that the apprenticeship training “Mathematical Technical Software Developer” (MaTSE) is offered as dual studies (Duales Studium), where a bachelor course replaces the compulsory theoretical training of the apprenticeship, so that the students obtain two degrees within only three years. I really wasn’t sure if that’s for me. I loved mathematics, but I did not take the computer science class at school. Like many teenage girls, I didn’t have a high self-esteem and was worried I could fail or at least not satisfy my own expectations. The awesome JSC colleagues at the booth reassured me that no prior knowledge in computer science is required, but only relatively good skills in mathematics. I was offered an opportunity to join for a few days as an intern to be a guest in some MaTSE lectures and try out some easy tasks.
So it happened that I indeed did an internship at the JSC during school vacations. When I got home, I wrote my application to join the MaTSE programme and was invited for an admission test and interview (that happened to be on 9 October 2007 – the day that the Nobel prize for our FZJ colleague Peter Grünberg was announced, which I found out about on the way back home). Only a few days later I got a message from my mother, that I had received a letter from the JSC, while I was sitting in my mathematics class – yet another funny coincidence.
The 1st of September 2008 was my first day at the FZJ (and also the day I met my future husband – a fellow student in the programme). My apprenticeship job was directly at the JSC, while other students were placed in other institutes. After three years I got my apprenticeship diploma and bachelor of science degree. During the consecutive master programme (technomathematics) I continued to work part-time at the JSC. Interestingly, my focus was then already rather on computing and HPC, and no longer on mathematics. I was offered to collaborate with the Institute of Neuroscience and Medicine (INM-1) for my master project. They were optimising a complex image processing and analysis workflow of a new imaging technique (3D-Polarised Light Imaging), and needed some support of the JSC for developing and optimising workflow elements for the JSC’s GPU cluster. While I was writing my thesis about an image segmentation algorithm suitable for a GPU cluster, the European Commission announced that the Human Brain Project (HBP) was selected as one of its two first Flagship projects – which led to the foundation of the “HPC in Neuroscience” division at the JSC. This was a great coincidence for me, as I was asked if I wanted to join this new group after I had finished my thesis, and I happily accepted. At that time, I was not sure what exactly I wanted to do, but that I did not want to immediately get into the stressful time of getting a PhD after two years with a full-time master programme and a part-time job at the JSC.
Initially the plan was that I would continue to develop and optimise neuroscience applications for HPC, but – yet another coincidence – the research coordinator in my new team got pregnant and I was asked by the head of our division if I wanted to take over her tasks while she was on parental leave. I hesitated a bit – I always thought that management is not for me – but I was promised that I did not need to continue these activities once she was back if I did not want to. To cut a long story short, I figured out very soon that coordination, management, keeping things organised and making chaos a little smaller every day are my thing.
What should I say. We are now, ten years later, about to wrap up the Human Brain Project with its final review. I managed the supercomputing part of this huge project, which was led by Prof. Thomas Lippert, almost from the beginning until the very end of our flagship journey. In the beginning I supported my boss, who was back then officially as the “subproject manager”, over time I took over most responsibilities and thus eventually became the project manager myself. It definitely helped me a lot to have a background in HPC, to be familiar with methods and terminology, as I was able to, e.g., proof-read or write reports, deliverables and prepare and give presentations as I understood the contents of what our project partners were working on. Also, I became the deputy head of our division once the previous one had left our team.
The last decade of my work life was a ride – as it was personally. I married that guy I met at the entrance of FZJ on my very first day (and who is one of the reasons I hadn’t given up in the first weeks during the computer science trainings where everything was new and kind of overwhelming for me). In the beginning of 2020 not only a global pandemic spread, as the HBP kicked off its final phase, but I also gave birth to our daughter.
The legacy of the HBP, the digital research infrastructure EBRAINS, will continue, so I could have continued that journey as well, but I felt it was time for a new chapter in my work life. As many times before, chances and coincidences played a role: I got to know that the Office for (Inter)national Coordination and Networking was being founded at the JSC and was asked if I wanted to be a part of it. Here we come full circle.
I love being part of the HPC community, as I love contributing to it in a coordinating rather than developing way. For me, personally, it feels like the best way I can contribute. Looking back, chances and coincidences played a big role on the path that led me to where I am now. Equally important were my line managers, supervisors and colleagues. Without them trusting in me, offering me interesting opportunities and caring about my future career, I probably would have gone a different path. Many times I have been asked if I wanted to do a PhD and was offered PhD positions, but – sometimes firmly, sometimes with hesitation – I have always decided against it. I never wanted to become a professor, go the academic way. I love working in HPC, as it enables so many science communities to do their research that it never gets boring. If you work in HPC, you also have the chance to get a glimpse into many other research areas. This is such a unique opportunity and I love contributing my tiny little bit to it.