Faces of HPC: Clair Barrass
Clair currently works at EPCC at the University of Edinburgh, providing administrative support for HPC user training. She earned her BSc in Computer Science from the University of Edinburgh, and has taught Computing Science in several high schools around Edinburgh and the Lothians.
Clair describes herself as a ‘Nerdy middle-aged geek-girl.’ Her passion for computing began with a ZX80 build-it-yourself kit in high school, and her early interest led her to pursue a degree in Computing Science from the University of Edinburgh. Clair has worked for Scottish Life Assurance co., where she wrote database application systems in COBOL, and helped support the in-house accounting software systems. In addition to raising her family, she has also worked for more than a decade in education, inspiring younger generations as a high school Computing teacher. Clair is currently at EPCC at the University of Edinburgh, working on the User Support helpdesk, and helping with User Training, administration, systems and web management.
How would you describe yourself in one sentence?
Nerdy middle-aged geek-girl!
Briefly describe your path into HPC.
I knew I was destined to be a ‘geek’ by the time I was in high school – I loved maths and physics and when my maths teacher brought a ZX80 build-it-yourself kit in and asked if anyone wanted to help get it working at lunchtime, I knew I had found my future career path. As the only girl to accept the invitation, and the only girl to pursue Higher Physics, I knew I was a bit 'different,' but my friends treated me as an honorary bloke and I was determined to go with what I knew was the right thing for me.
I had a bit of a setback when I asked the school Rector to write my academic reference for my University Application to study "Electrical Engineering with Computing Science" when he declined, telling me that it was "an unsuitable course for a girl." I did manage to persuade him to complete it once modified to "Computing Science" only.
Finally, I was not alone, finding myself one of five(!) female undergraduates in a class of 200 studying Computing Science and - joy! - getting access to some 'real' computers. I was in my element. After graduating I went to work for a major Scottish life assurance company writing database application systems in COBOL and supporting the in-house accounting software systems.
After taking time out of the workplace to raise my family, I decided to change track and use my expertise and enthusiasm for computing to inspire the next generation of computer scientists and became a high school Computing teacher for a decade. During that time, I was determined to demonstrate that Computing was not just for geeky guys, and that everyone could find ways of succeeding with and enjoying technology.
Teaching was great, and working with many of the youngsters was energising and inspiring, but after more than a decade, I was starting to look for other avenues and challenges.
Then I saw an advert for a post at EPCC - they wanted someone to work on the User Support helpdesk, to help with User Training, with admin, systems and web skills. I could see a Clair-shaped hole, and knew I could fill it perfectly.
I've been working at EPCC for just over a year and have never been happier. All the experience I picked up on my path here has been invaluable, and the scope to build on my skills, attend training and learn about HPC and the additional challenges and opportunities it presents has been everything I had hoped, and more.
Describe any obstacles you encountered.
One of the biggest obstacles has always been my own lack of confidence in myself and my abilities - reinforced by the underlying societal impression that girls, and then middle-aged-women, aren't really supposed to be ‘geeks’.
What's the best thing about working in HPC?
It's exciting, dynamic and offers loads of opportunities to learn new stuff. My job also allows me to share my enthusiasm with others who may be starting out in HPC or to help people overcome problems they have encountered. I find it very rewarding, and I am lucky to be working as part of a great, friendly and supportive team.
If you could change one thing, what would it be?
The perception that only white, middle aged blokes are capable of understanding computers.
Clair was interviewed by Toni Collis in July 2015.