SC16 General Chair John West works at the Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC) as the Director of Strategic Initiatives. At TACC, he is involved in identifying new communities that can benefit from TACC’s advanced computing technologies and in connecting industry partners to TACC’s advanced computing expertise. He has been a volunteer with SC off and on since 1996.
Following is part one of a two-part series where we get his perspective on SC16 and the industry in general.
Undertaking the role as General Chair is no small task. What motivated you to take on such a significant responsibility?
The SC conference has meant a great deal to me on a personal and professional level over my entire career. SC is large enough – from the exhibit floor to papers, workshops, and tutorials – that you can adapt what you see from year to year and almost feel like you are attending a whole new conference. Being a volunteer is of course a chance to give back, but it has also been an enormous pursuit for me as well. I’ve been exposed to personal and professional opportunities that I likely would have never found other than through my connections with other conference volunteers. Now that I have served in a variety of volunteer roles, it seemed like a natural fit to be the general chair and I’m fortunate enough to have an employer who supports me in this role.
As an SC veteran, what advice do you give someone who is a first-time attendee?
You should spend time planning out each day that you are onsite, and by that I don’t mean lining up back-to-back sessions all day long. Give yourself time to experience the exhibit floor, and you absolutely need to make time for networking. The connections you make at an SC conference can enrich your professional and personal life in unexpected ways for years to come.
Also, take advantage of the sessions that are resources targeted at new attendees, take time to attend a “Birds-of-a-Feather” session, and definitely take a moment to stop by the info booths which are staffed by experienced SC volunteers who were once newbies themselves and are happy to help. I’m a pretty dedicated introvert, but with a conference as diverse as SC it just makes sense to get some advice on where to find the things that are most relevant to you.
How is SC trying to cultivate the next generation of computer scientists, networking, and high performance computing experts?
This is an important endeavor for both the SC committee and HPC community as well. We must look to the next generation to advance the field and break through our current technical challenges. You can find evidence of our efforts infused throughout the conference – whether that be in the revamped Students @ SC program (which includes student research opportunities, Student Cluster Competition, Student Volunteers, Student/Postdoc Job Fair, and Mentor-Protégé Program) or in our proactive outreach to local high schools inviting them to spend a day at an SC conference.
How did SC16’s emphasis on the HPC provider community come about and what can attendees expect as a result?
For SC16, we’re beginning a three-year thrust that will expand state-of-the-practice discussions with content throughout the conference tracks that emphasizes the innovation happening in operations, tools, and software through today’s HPC centers. I’ve spent my career so far in HPC operations of one kind or another, and I know firsthand that there is an incredible wealth of knowledge and expertise that gets developed in supercomputing centers. SC is well established as the place to share academic results; we believe SC can have a large impact on our community by providing developers and researchers with a more operational focus with a forum to share their results as well.
For those not well versed in the behind-the-scenes of an SC conference, what type of prep work is required in pulling it off?
The conference is built upon many layers and moving parts that most attendees do not even know exist – it takes about three years and a committee of 500 volunteers to organize and execute every SC! From building the flow of the technical sessions in the convention center to determining where the posters are displayed – we make it a point to consider how each decision could impact the attendee experience and we don’t take that responsibility lightly.
Unlike many similar conferences, SC is driven predominantly by volunteers, so we have “skin in the game” and take pride in making each conference the best experience possible. We also take attendee feedback very seriously and closely review attendee survey results from previous years, often implementing positive changes as a result.
Editorial note: Please check back here next week to read the second part of this conversation.