Speaking up for Gender Diversity in High Performance Computing

Posted on
30 Nov 2017

Qingqing Liao is a HPC Applications Support Engineer at NAG, although her actual workplace is at a large blue chip Oil & Gas organisation in the USA, where she works in a team of HPC specialists who develop, parallelize and optimize new cutting-edge algorithms for use in production.

Recently she was invited to talk to an audience of attendees at SC17 - the largest HPC event in the world - during the ‘Women in HPC’ event. Diversity has become an increasingly dominant theme at supercomputing events. Coming to the fore for NAG in 2015 when they published their gender diversity workplace figures at SC15 as part of John West’s, Texas Advanced Computing Center’s initiative. Since then, NAG has been actively supporting the ‘Women in HPC’ organization and seeks to encourage and attract women into technical careers. At the grass-roots level NAG promotes the learning of STEM subjects to girls in education.

Fresh from her busy week at SC17 in Denver, I chatted to Qingqing about her route into HPC and asked her about speaking at the ‘Women in HPC’ event.

Qingqing, tell us about your path into working in tech and HPC?

I obtained my PhD in Applied Mathematics from the University of Houston. My dissertation was focused on Wavelet approaches to seismic signal analysis. One of the applications of my research was on pre-processing seismic data for Full Waveform Inversion (FWI). After my PhD, I worked as an Intern at Total E&P; one of my projects was to incorporate my workflow of pre-processing seismic data for FWI into production. I learned that the field seismic data is too big to be processed using one computer. Armed with this knowledge I implemented my workflow using Message Passing Interface (MPI) in order to process large field data on super computers. This was my first experience in supercomputing and it gave me a “super” sense of achievement! When the opportunity arose to work in supercomputing for my current employer, the Numerical Algorithms Group (NAG), I was excited to accept.

Has your gender ever made you feel that you shouldn’t work in a technical environment?

I have never felt that I shouldn’t work in HPC because of being female. It has never been an issue for me at all. 

Why do you feel that attracting women into HPC is important?

I think women can change the dynamics in the HPC community. Diversity is really important in any organisation. I believe that having a diverse workforce leads to greater innovation.

How did the speaking opportunity at SC17 arise?

NAG has been supporting the ‘Women in HPC’ initiative for a few years. As a sponsor of their SC17 event: Networking and Career Reception I was suggested by NAG Vice-President of HPC Business, Andrew Jones, to give a ‘snapshot’ 2-minute career speech. I was delighted to accept the invitation.

Can you give us a summary of your speech?

Here is a condensed version of my talk. “It is my honour to talk about my career at NAG. I work in a team of HPC specialists that support the organisation’s internal seismic processing and imaging toolkit. This software toolkit helps the Geoscientists identify the oil-and-gas-bearing reservoirs. I work closely with Geoscience Researchers to develop new algorithms and implement codes for production  ̶  this is exciting work and very rewarding. One of the key benefits of working at NAG is the opportunity to continue learning ‘on-the-job’, plus getting to work with my awesome colleagues. During my career at NAG I have had two children. My son is 4 years old and my daughter is 2 years old. Since having them, I have been working reduced hours. This flexibility works well for me and has not affected my career prospects with the organisation.”

How can organisations attract more women into tech and HPC?

I think organisations can attract women into tech and HPC by offering opportunities to further develop their skills, by providing flexible working hours and generous maternity leave, vacation days and sick leave.

Is there anything else that you’d like to add?

I initiated an annual lunch to celebrate International Women’s Day with my female colleagues. This event has now become a tradition and we have celebrated for four years now. In the first year, there were only four of us; next year we should have six of us, which is great! I hope this increase continues each year.

 

November 2017