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 the second portion of a two-part series where we get his perspective on SC16 and the industry in general.
What are some of the biggest challenges you expect to face as the conference ramps up?
We are fortunate to have a very experienced and dedicated team when it comes to planning this conference; we make it a priority to pass knowledge or “lessons learned” from one year to the next to ensure the conference goes as smoothly as possible. However, each venue presents a unique set of circumstances that always needs to be addressed as the conference grows and continues to transform every year.
This year will be no different. Our goal is to meet each challenge so that the attendee never even knew the it existed in the first place. We’re usually working furiously before, during, and even after the conference, which is especially true for the amazing people behind SCinet: they are the first to arrive and the last to leave.
During your preview presentation at SC15, you mentioned that attendees can expect SC16 to be more open and supportive to those with families. Can you elaborate more on what people can expect and why this is important to implement now?
Today it seems that both adults in a household are working and we wanted to be an organization that recognizes that fact. We did not want conference attendance to be a choice of either/or for such households, so for the first time, SC will be providing on-site child care services at the convention center for a small fee.
So regardless if both parents are involved in the field or not, this will provide an opportunity for the family to be together while one or both parents enjoy either parts or all of the conference. Of course, it is entirely optional, but we listened to our audience and this seemed to be a growing need. I realize this is a small step, but hopefully it is the first of many more small steps to come.
Why should people be excited that SC16 is being held in Salt Lake City, Utah?
The challenge of an SC Conference is that we have outgrown certain cities, but are also not big enough for others. We also have certain technical requirements that not all convention centers can meet. This limits our options when it comes to selecting a host city for a particular year. We also are sensitive to geographic location so that it isn’t a major travel challenge and has the transportation infrastructure to handle our numbers and freight load (last year SC handled more than 1 million pounds of freight for the first time).
Salt Lake City offers a fantastic downtown layout, incredible natural beauty, and a supportive and welcoming tourism and hotel community. The city itself has made many changes and improvements to better address the needs and demands of a conference of our size. We hope attendees will enjoy SC16 even more than SC12, the last time we were in Salt Lake City.
There is an added spotlight on diversity this year – how did this come about and how will it be impactful from an attendee standpoint?
This has been an important subject that we have discussed for several years–its importance has been evident in various sessions and activities onsite at previous SC conferences. This year we have formalized our efforts with the creation of the SC Diverse HPC Workforce committee. The goal of this committee is to not limit our efforts to onsite activities, but rather keep this discussion at the forefront of industry leaders and also smaller organizations throughout the year. It is important that we as an organization lead by example.
For the first time SC has published the demographics of its volunteer committee, and I’ve been updating those numbers throughout the year as our committee has grown. Understanding where we are today is the foundational step for making positive change for the future, and our own numbers show that, while we have a good start in some areas, we are not nearly as diverse as we should be.
In your opinion, what are a few of the challenges/opportunities facing the industry today?
HPC – or advanced computing, or supercomputing, or whatever we call it – is already having transformational impacts on just about every aspect of daily life. Computing is the fundamental enabler of advances in medicine, transportation, weather prediction, global warming, and even the development of better helmets for a child playing football. The problems we have to solve in order to meet the demands of the scientists and engineers that use our capabilities are unbelievably complex, and that gets back to why a diverse workforce is so important for our community. We need the best solutions to the challenges we face today, and we cannot be sure we are getting the best ideas unless we ask all the smart people we can find.
We also need to do a better job of explaining what we do to…everyone, from policy makers and legislators to students and scientists. The good news is that we do our jobs well enough that it is often just assumed HPC will be there with the tools science needs when it needs them. But the truth is that in order to secure the resources and talent we need to be successful, we need to be visible.
You’ve been posting on Facebook as #SCChair, should we expect more of these posts in the future?
It is important to me that people see the many faces behind the SC conferences. We are not some giant corporation, but rather a sea of volunteers spread across many different organizations and industries. I hope to continue this conversation in the months to come as we ramp up towards SC16 and encourage open discussion for the greater good of the conference and the industry in general.
Finally, what advice would you give for someone interested in getting involved as a volunteer?
Find a particular area that interests you and then talk to the folks volunteering in that area. With so many volunteers the odds are very good that you know someone who is already part of the conference. Just as we are always looking for the next wave of new scientists or researchers, we also need new volunteers to bring in energy and fresh ideas. A great resource to understand the scope of what we do and where you might fit is the committee listing on the conference website (click here). You can also fill out a volunteer form by clicking here, or go up to one of the information booths onsite in November.