Faces of HPC: Neil Chue Hong
Neil works at EPCC at the University of Edinburgh (UK). He is the Director of the Software Sustainability Institute, facilitating the use of software and computer infrastructure to researchers in the UK. Neil seeks to understand which people are using computing, how they’re using it and what is it that they would need to go further?
Neil works at EPCC at the University of Edinburgh and is Director of the Software Sustainability Institute. After completing an undergraduate Masters degree in Computational Physics, Neil started working for EPCC after having a childhood surrounded by computers and realising that the ‘really interesting programming’ lay in the use of HPC. Neil now aims to help as many researchers as possible use software for their research viewing part of his role as helping those that fall into the ‘interdisciplinary cracks’ as well as helping people move on from using laptops and desktops towards making use of the largest supercomputers.
Tell us a bit about yourself.
I studied Computational Physics at the University of Edinburgh originally, but I was wavering between whether I did physics or English literature at University so I have always straddled a divide between the sciences and the art and humanities which gives me, I think, a slightly different perspective: outside of my work within HPC and scientific computing, I am a writer and work in film as well. In my current role I am the Director of the Software Sustainability Institute: I don’t consider this a ‘Science’ job, it’s working on the use of computing and, in particular, software by all researchers across all domains.
I have a very standard career path for someone working in HPC: studying physics at university; summer jobs involving computing in different ways; internships within EPCC and the business systems department of a multi-national company; and then moving gradually into the world of HPC via technology transfer.
Outside work I am involved in what you would call the Community Cinema sector. I help people establish cinema venues within their own villages or towns or local areas, and I try and write, mostly short fiction, poetry and plays.
What is your current job? Describe what you’re doing in HPC.
My current job is as the Director of the Software Sustainability Institute. The Institute is collaboration between four different UK universities: Edinburgh, Manchester, Oxford and Southampton. It supports researchers working in the area of research computing: researchers who are using computing and particular software to help their research. About 90% of researchers use specialist software as part of their research. This feeds into HPC because if you see HPC as being the specialised resources that people can use at one end of the spectrum, and their laptops and desktop computers as being the other end of the spectrum, the job of the Institute is to take them almost all the way to being able to use HPC, and other similar resources like cloud computing, and then hand them over to people who are HPC specialists.
How did you become interested in HPC?
I don’t know if HPC is something I fell into, but it was not my main interest. I started off as an applications consultant working on parallelisation and optimisation of particular industrial based HPC software, so looking at how you could use parallel computing to improve things like medical processes or manufacturing and food industry processes but from there I moved on to looking at the effects of this kind of work on the people that were trying to use it and then understanding the barriers in the way of people trying to use HPC resources, and so it’s been a gradual drift along there. I think also, as I’ve discovered that my skills do not lie in parallelisation and optimisation, my skills lie in helping other people use these facilities.
I became interested in HPC partly because when growing up I was always interested in computers, and programming computers. I come of a kind of age (and there will be a lot of people who are in their late 30s – early 40s who are similar) where the personal computer at home was a big thing when we were young, so naturally people got interested in computing and particularly programming. When I came to university the only real way of getting into what I would consider really interesting programming was going into HPC, there was no wider field at that point, so unless you were doing something like Computational Physics, which I studied, or worked, perhaps, in say, databases, there wasn’t a chance to play with large machines, and at that point large machines were interesting. Things like the Cray supercomputers had a style that you don’t get nowadays, so there’s excitement: you had a concept of what a computer looks like and what a big computer looks like from TV and films, and so I became interested in HPC because it was a way of interacting with the kind of systems I saw in James Bond movies!
We want to celebrate the diversity of HPC, in particular to promote equality against the nine protected characteristics in the UK Equality Act. Do you feel an affiliation with this matter, and if so, how has this impacted your job in the HPC community?
I guess I feel an affiliation, particularly with the characteristics of race and ethnicity, and I have a complex relationship with them. Externally, people would consider me of Chinese ethnicity but my family history is more varied. My great-grandparents emigrated from different parts of China to an island called Mauritius, which is in Africa, and my parents came from Mauritius to Edinburgh to study and live. I was born in Edinburgh and have lived in Edinburgh for most of my life but there is this duality in that whilst I would never consider myself to be Chinese - I would consider myself to be either Scottish or British or European or Mauritian - most people would consider me to be Chinese and particularly when I travel to other countries, which I do a lot for work, there is this difficulty to see past the external characteristics. Having said that, it’s something where in HPC I don’t think there has ever been a significant problem because of, for instance, the large scale representation from Japan and latterly from China, Korea and Singapore in HPC-related industries, so in some sense, of all of the ethnic minorities, the Asian, and in particular East Asian ethnicity is over-represented. When I’ve been working in the UK I think my ethnicity has given me an advantage. I sit on a lot of strategic committees, and in some sense being young and non-white means that I fulfil some of the diversity criteria that I believe some of these committees are looking to fill, so for me it has been an advantage to have these protected characteristics.
Unlike many people in HPC, I did not do a PhD, I came straight in from doing an Undergraduate Masters. In some sense I came in early, earlier than a lot of my colleagues, earlier than a lot of other people in this, and then worked through gaining experience rather than doing a PhD so it’s slightly different. I’ve found it interesting because for a long time I was always younger than the people I was working alongside. Now that’s no longer the case. I haven’t noticed particular barriers but then I guess it’s a little bit difficult to tell because age is one of the things that people do not generally talk about in the UK in the HPC community, they instead talk about experience – so “How long have you been in the job”, and so for me, in some sense, I have been in the job for longer than other people. I definitely think there is a bias related to your experience so having a PhD counts for something – Professors are considered differently from Postgrads and so on, so I do think there is a meritocracy that is protected but it’s not the same thing as age specifically, I think it’s experience.
Is there something about you that has given you a unique work related approach to what you do?
I think, going back to how I couldn’t decide whether to study Physics or English Literature, the main thing that I’ve taken forward is never becoming someone who is closeted in one particular subject area. I have been interested in seeing what the latest advances are across many different areas. When I am talking to people this helps me, as I look for what falls between the disciplinary cracks. A lot of the most interesting work, and some of the work that I’m most interested in just now, is at the interface of biology, physics, chemistry and philosophy. There is a whole set of things to do with things like genetics and epigenetics and understanding, for instance, why it seems that some traits are passed from your grandparents’ experiences to your genetics, so all of this is really, really interesting. It requires HPC to understand because the size of the problem sets are huge. It requires the ability to think outside of a traditional scientific discipline to understand why it might be the case.
There are other fascinating things to do with, for instance, gender response in animal experimentation. The fact that the gender of the researcher that’s conducting the experiment has an impact on the experiment is something which you would never think of if you were just looking purely at, for instance, neurology or psychology, you’d have to go wider and kind of think more about the meta aspects of science. So that’s what I think has given me a unique outlook – I’ve never considered myself just to be a scientist or just a physicist. It’s really interesting, understanding all of this, particularly now we’re going into a lot of things to do with big data and data science. One of the things I don’t hear a lot of people come up with is “Where are the philosophers? Where are the people who understand morality and ethics in a data science team?”.
Were there any challenges when you first entered the field?
I think the main challenge when I first entered the field of HPC was that there were not a lot of HPC centres, so the number of jobs was relatively limited in the UK. It has become even worse recently because a number of the large HPC centres that were around when I started are not there any more. The other thing when I started out was that there were relatively few tailor-made degrees: there were no Masters in HPC, there were no undergraduate degrees that specifically targeted HPC. I think my Computational Physics degree was one of the first ones that suggested that this was somehow different from mainstream physics. I had the opportunity of getting to program on computers at school and there were opportunities for me as an undergraduate to do summer jobs and internships that were all involved in the area that I was interested in getting involved in. I think if I hadn’t had those opportunities, it would have been harder, so in some sense, if I were to do it now, I would almost feel it would be much harder because there are so many more people who are all trying to get these kind of degrees because the banking industry, supermarket and data science industries that are all seeking people who are very similar to what I was when I was starting out in my career.
What’s the best thing about working in HPC?
The best thing is being able to talk to researchers who are the leading lights in their particular fields. I’ve talked to the first female scientist granted access to study volcanos in North Korea. I’ve talked to the people who have been involved in sequencing the human genome. I’ve talked to people who have been involved in the International Panel on Climate Change. It’s kind of a bit like celebrity spotting in some sense but it’s also the opportunity to meet a lot of young and upcoming researchers who are saying crazy things which will turn out to be true. I think working in HPC has given me is an entry point into this and it’s given me the opportunity not to just become stuck in one area but allow me to witness and observe and be a part of a whole set of different areas.
If there was one thing about HPC you could change, what would it be?
The one thing that I would change is that for some odd reason there is an artificial distinction that HPC is somehow separate from the rest of scientific computing. I think in the UK, certainly, and in other places in the world, there is a sort of HPC versus the rest attitude. HPC is seen by a lot of researchers as not being for them because it is elitist or out of their grasp, and I think that’s terrible because it means that the majority of researchers are going “Well, you know, that’s something for other people”. I think part of that is because HPC can be a self-selecting group. The people who can make best use of the resources are the people who get use of the resources. However, the reason that they have become good at using these resources is either historical - they were the first to have the opportunity - or simply because there are more researchers in that area so they can devote more effort. So what you end up with is people in particular disciplines, mostly humanities, who are excluded, and do not get the opportunity to use HPC even though some of the problems in their discipline are just as computationally complex as in the physical sciences. Another example is that if you come from certain universities, you will not have the same access to HPC resources because your university will not be able to buy in HPC resources and this in turn means you will not gain the ability and experience to develop software that you can apply for time on the national HPC resources to run.
In regards to the discussion on protected characteristics earlier, we’ve been doing some work in the Institute to look at things to do with gender diversity as well, and one of the things I find most sad is that whilst there’s an equal split of male and female researchers who consider software use to be important for their research, the number who choose to develop software themselves changes quite a lot. You have fewer women than men programming and bizarrely it seems the numbers get worse when they are given training and I’d like to know why there’s that barrier. What are we doing wrong that means that women are being put off programming, being put off scientific computing and being put off the use of HPC?
What’s next for you in your career?
I guess there are lots of things but the one that is most relevant here is trying to understand why, who and what people are using computing to do scientific research. One of the problems we have is that we have very little information about the people who use computing in academia, in research and industry and so on. It would be difficult for us to say just now even approximately how many people are relying on computing in the UK to do their research. If we can’t do that, we have no way of identifying the people who could benefit from HPC and we have no way of creating evidence-based courses, evidence-based pathways that allow them to progress from what they’re doing just now to harnessing the full power of computing for their research. What I’d really like to know is which people are using computing, how they’re using it and what is it that they would need to go further?
Neil was interviewed by Vivian Uhlir in September 2015.