Whatever it takes – GET TO PEARC!

Carlie Oakenshield (Southwest Oklahoma State University)

I’m writing this two weeks since returning from PEARC22 and I still don’t have the words to describe the event properly, but I guess it’s time to try.

I landed in the world of high-performance computing (HPC) quite by accident. At my small university, SWOSU, we don’t have a true HPC department. However, we do have one professor who is passionate about making computers, specifically clusters, run as fast as possible. After having Dr. Jeremy Evert, the professor I just described, for two computer science classes, he alluded to the need of another student worker. I was conveniently looking for work and inquired further. The only description of HPC work I would be doing, was his statement, “I need a student who wants to make big computers talk, and FAST.” After being encouraged to do anything other than take him up on his offer, due to the difficulty of the tasks at hand, I took the job as the SWOSU system administrator. 

Three weeks after accepting the position, I competed in the Oklahoma High Performance Computing competition hosted by the University of Tulsa. In order to compete, I had a single Raspberry Pi (the tiniest and cutest computer of them all) and used it to solve the “Determinant problem.” The determinant problem is an equation that solves a matrix of numbers, and they all must have the same answer. I tested the speed of the Raspberry Pi using 1-4 threads to compare the difference in times. This was to demonstrate the hard and soft scaling of how the number or cores, or in some cases nodes, improves the speed of the computing.

I’m happy to report that both teams from my school won first place in our divisions. After winning and eating our victory donuts, my professor proclaimed that I would be attending PEARC22. Although I had no idea what that meant, I was on a victory/sugar high and promptly agreed to attend. Luckily for me, the HPC community is eager to have new students and recruits join their ranks. With the help of my mentor, we reached out to every group that funded students and began our applications. As we waited for confirmation of our funding, or lack thereof, I partnered with Arianna Martin to create a poster based on the Raspberry-Pi Cluster tutorial they built.

To make the most efficient tutorial, I began building my own Raspberry Pi cluster. I ran into several issues: not enough power, overheating, and a general lack of understanding that most freshmen, like myself, would encounter in such a project. There was good news though, I had been funded to attend PEARC22 thanks to Campus Champions, XSEDE, and STEM-Trek. I had the wonderful opportunity to work with Elizabeth Leake and book my flight, only one issue remained. I hadn’t completed my cluster yet.

After months of depressed attempts at networking my cluster together, I finally went to my professor about building it with me. He promptly connected and we spent the next two weeks building the cluster together. Because he and I are both visual learners, we built a comprehensive tutorial with an absurd number of screenshots. Arianna and I spent a few evenings for a couple of weeks adding all of our resources and research to our STEM-Trek Poster. With just a week till PEARC22, we had completed our work!

We now have the tutorial, along with the original by Arianna Martin, and our STEM-Trek poster at : https://linktr.ee/pi_performancecomputing

Our training system is targeted for High school students and college freshman and explains the basic concepts of HPC using inexpensive hardware, and a straightforward approach to networking. We hope to decrease the learning curve for all students attempting to enter the HPC world.

For me, half of the journey to PEARC22 was the preparation, expectations, and anticipation for the event. I had attended many other conferences in my life and was prepared for the cold rooms, long days, and sore feet. However, I wasn’t prepared to meet the greatest people in the world in one location.

There is a tendency for people in every industry to exaggerate how much they love it, and how great the people are. Because of my love of hyperbole, I would love to say that this is the case for me and my perception of the crew in HPC. However, all flattery and exaggeration aside, be prepared to be mind blown and ecstatic after meeting the humans in HPC. I spent a week mingling with some of the greatest minds in computing, and they all spoke to me as friends. No question was a stupid one. Jokes were abundant and community was everywhere. Not only did the community make that happen but PEARC22 was structured to prompt conversation and connection. Between each hour and a half session was a half hour break with coffee and water in every possible common area. This allowed all attendees to frequently meet up, exchange ideas, and enjoy the company of fellow nerds.

The student program offered so much valuable training for students, and I have made many lifelong connections because of it. The student program was structured in a way that allowed students to attend tutorials they wanted to expand their knowledge in, or better yet, volunteer to assist the presenters. I had the unique opportunity to volunteer for Microsoft Azure’s tutorial. I met and was able to connect with five separate Microsoft professionals who specialize in cloud computing. Although my university is too small to need to make the transfer to cloud computing, it gave me experience and connections in that world! I now know that although my professor prefers on premises HPC, cloud computing is something I am very interested in. They also conveyed a unique and effective way to safeguard and control their networks on the cloud and that information was helpful in my current cyber security course. 

The separate sessions that the Student Program put on were essential in creating my networking skills and building my confidence as a system administrator. We were able to attend a Resume Clinic, Internship Spotlight, Networking Workshop, and a Pitch-It Workshop. At the resume clinic we had the opportunity to sit down with a professional in our industry and have them give pointers on our resumes. This was such a valuable interaction because most of my experience with resumes has come from different industries. I have a very flamboyant resume because I was previously in the visual and performing arts. My resume included my headshot and my experience with a Rubik’s cube. Although that is all great, it really isn’t ideal for the work I am doing in HPC. I have completely reworked my resume and I’m excited to be turning it into all of my future internships or job applications. The internship spotlight was a very fun and informative session because students that had had internships were able to talk about what they had learned in theirs and how it had changed the trajectory of their career and aspirations. Although I’ve always understood the importance of real work experience while in school, it is valuable for students to see how perspectives and wants change with experience. It illustrates the importance of finding your niche or what makes you tick and going for it.

The networking/pitch-it workshops were the most valuable to me. We created an “elevator pitch” and then had the opportunity to sit down with various companies and use our pitch on them. Afterwards, they critiqued our pitch and gave us advice on how to improve it. After stopping at 16 tables, I felt that I had really narrowed down what I wanted and how to professionally convey that information to the people around me.

If it were possible to sum up my experience at PEARC22 in one concluding paragraph it would go something like this:

Whatever it takes, GET TO PEARC. I don’t care how many groups or networks you must connect with, or administration you have to woo. PEARC has absolutely been one of the most essential things I have done for the future or my career and schooling. It may be stressful attempting to obtain funding, but it is so worth it in the end. Make sure you stay hydrated, bring walking shoes, save your receipts, and be prepared to talk to EVERYONE you stand, sit, or eat next to. You’ll be glad you did.

Thank you!

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