Women in HPC

Raquel Alegre tells us more about UCL’s new super computer, and discusses how we can encourage more women into a career in Computer Science

Researchers from across University College London are now benefitting from a brand new High Performance Computing (HPC) system, named Grace, in honour of pioneering computer scientist Grace Hopper. 

Racquel Alegre is a Software Developer at University College London. Her job involves collaborating with researchers across campus, covering fields from Ancient History to Astrophysics, to facilitate their research by improving the quality of their software. 

Q. Could you describe your education and working environment? 

A. I studied an MSc in Computer Science back in Spain which I finished in 2007. Ever since I’ve been working as a Software Engineer in both Industry and Academia in projects related to satellite remote sensing and visualisation of geospatial data, working closely with Scientists and Researchers, which led me to my current job at UCL.

Working environments during all my experience have always allowed me get the most out of my job. I am very lucky I get to work with like-minded Software Engineers as well as Scientists and Researchers from whom I can learn a lot.

However, I can’t help but notice I’m often the only women in the teams I belong to. On one occasion I was the only woman in a 30-people department of Software Engineers and DevOps! Two more jobs after that, the situation is still quite similar. The teams are slightly more gender balanced, but the number of women is just a tiny minority.

Q. What kind of developer and computing focussed groups are out there for women?

A. There are many different events in the UK for women interested in software development to attend to broaden their network and learn new skills.

The meetup scene in the UK, specially in London, has presented me with lots of women in tech gatherings such as Women Who Code and Google Women TechMakers, who organise tech talks, seminars, hackathons and mentoring sessions. There are also language-specific meetups for women such as PyLadies, Rails Girls or Node Girls. These meetups are normally not only for women, they are open to anyone, but encourage female coders to join them, which seems to be working pretty well.

There is still a long way left to go in order to achieve gender parity in Computer Science-related fields, but I am happy to see there is a growing number of initiatives and organisations supporting and raising the visibility of women in technology

I also volunteer for an organisation called Women Hack For Non Profits, founded in 2015 by women from some of these meetup groups. The main aim of WHFNP is to increase the amount of Open Source software that is produced by women. We invite non-profits who need techie expertise to our events and we organise ourselves in small teams of volunteer developers to have fun and learn from each other, providing a good social motivation to deliver.

One of my favourite non-profits we work with is STEMettes. Their mission is to inspire the new generations of females into Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) fields by organising panel events, coding bootcamps, exhibitions and mentoring schemes with women who work in STEM jobs. Their aim is to bring science and technology alive in a way that will inspire girls and women to take it up as a career. Similar initiatives that work with companies as well as young and professional women to help increase the number of women in tech are Code First Girls and Girls in Tech. 

There is still a long way left to go in order to achieve gender parity in Computer Science-related fields, but I am happy to see there is a growing number of initiatives and organisations supporting and raising the visibility of women in technology.

Q. What is HPC like at UCL? Tell us about this new machine.

A. My colleagues in the UCL Research Computing Platform Services team have been working hard these last months on UCL’s new HPC facility intended for large multinode parallel jobs. UCL’s new HPC facility was launched at the end of 2015 and is devised to take care of large parallel computing tasks. For this purpose specifically, it is designed with a high-speed Infiniband network linking together its compute nodes and allowing them to coordinate effort on a single task very effectively.

Q. Who is Grace Hopper and what does she mean for women in computing?

A. The new HPC machine has been named GRACE (https://www.ucl.ac.uk/isd/news/isd-news/research-it/introducing-grace), in honour of pioneering computer scientist Grace Hopper. Admiral Grace Hopper began working with computers for the US military after the attack on Pearl Harbour, and over her lifetime, rose to the rank of Rear Admiral in the US Navy, based entirely on her work as a computer scientist.

She is credited with:

* Convincing the US military to abandon its plan to stick to one large computer and instead adopt networks of smaller computers. She implemented standardised tests, which machines from any manufacturer had to pass to be suitable, in turn leading to the standardisation of computer languages from different vendors.
* Writing the earliest compiler, the A compiler, for UNIVAC-1; the first commercial computer produced in the United States.
* Popularizing the term “debugging” for fixing computer glitches (in one instance, removing a moth from a computer). 

W: www.ucl.ac.uk

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