Structure in HPC Support

HPC Support Student Malcolm Yeary critically analyzes the positives and negatives of HPC structures, offering solutions and optimism for the future.

It has come to the attention of the HPC group, through the prompting of Asya, to find both problems and potential solutions. HPC support has become an agglomeration of highly talented and curious students under the guidance of a patient and knowledgeable leader. Now, it may be fair to ask, what’s the problem? Groups without structure can sacrifice some productivity and efficiency. I remain open to the possibility that a trade-off is made in our group where some portion of productivity is lost for greater creativity, which would probably benefit the group in the long term. So, this post is dedicated to uncovering reasons for creating more structure in the HPC Support community. Just how much would benefit our group remains an ongoing discussion, and I encourage anyone reading this to reply below to help continue the conversation. Here, in this entry, I hope to set the groundwork of the discussion.

I will begin by recapitulating the problems as Asya and others briefly discussed in our meeting on May 16th, 2019. I will present three problems: the continuous stream of new members to HPC, student burn-out, and HPC’s current anonymity.

In the first case, due to HPC support’s effort to be open and inclusive, it used a rolling application that allows students to come sit-in on meetings, talk with Asya, and get involved if approved for a project. This policy has prevented some of the senior members of the group from diving deeper into the topics they enjoy and has curtailed the learning of more advanced skills. By having to explain the basics over and over again, the group loses its ability to progress because it entails leaving the newest members behind.

Of course, whatever structure HPC and Asya decide to implement, this welcoming spirit is something everyone wants to keep going. Recently, I felt the tremendous power of this positive attitude when I joined. Asya welcomed me into the meeting and dedicated time to answering my questions while managing to help other people with questions about their projects too. I recognize that some people at the meeting were listening to the information for the 5th or 6th time. As good as it is for cementing the basics, I can imagine some desire further exploration on HPC related themes.

The second reoccurring problem is student burn-out. Pomona students, and 5C students, opt into a system that takes their time in exchange for skills and knowledge. It takes tremendous effort and concentration to become a practicing biologist, programmer, writer, or artist. So, professors assign an amount of work that they feel apt to training us in the ways they feel are needed. This fact of life at college affects HPC and all other campus jobs and groups. I find it a privilege to have such specialized attention and so much responsibility coming from my course load, and I sometimes find my time strained to accommodate more work. It seems other members of HPC have felt the same. Commitment and interest run high at the beginning of the semesters when course work is light and intellectual curiosity has not felt the punch of imminent deadlines. People take on projects but soon lose the ability to both keep up with classes and participate fully in HPC work.

The third and final problem to highlight is the lack of awareness that the Pomona community has about our group. One goal in creating this group was to spread the knowledge that high performance computing can help many different fields of study. This potential to advance a research project or create new ways of thinking is not limited to the STEM disciplines. Professors and the student body at large has not had a sufficient introduction to the HPC community. This lack of awareness could also contribute to the problem of lacking a stable funding source from Pomona administration.

So, for these three problems, I propose a three part solution. HPC may thrive from delineating three groups of people: (1) a group of teachers and mentors, (2) a group committed to HPC support during the semester, and (3) HPC advocates. I will briefly explicate what the duties and benefits of each group may be.

The first group would mitigate the constant reiteration of basic topics to the entire group. A select portion of the HPC members would volunteer to become mentors that meet with new students that wish to join (and who were previously vetted by Asya). They would explain the basics of what HPC is and why we exist. If this structure goes into place, then the mentors could explain how the group works and get the new person to start thinking about where she may like to go.

This mentor meeting could either be at one of the weekly meetings, in which case the 2 weekly meeting should be split by experience. Thursday would be a beginner meeting where everyone is welcome, and new people are encouraged to ask Asya and the team about topics and interests. And Friday would be the advanced meeting where again everyone is welcome, and it is geared toward discussing the more detailed questions of people currently working directly with Asya or with a faculty adviser on an assigned project. Splitting the meeting like this would offer the benefit of both easing new people into the fold and getting them acquainted with terms as well as allowing more experienced members to dive deeper.

The second group, the helpers of HPC support, would examine their upcoming semester and commit to some number of hours of working directly on HPC projects. With the increase in amount and kind of HPC tasks, it may be pertinent to hire a “student staff” working directly under Asya. This would ease the work load for Asya and give curious students a direct experience working with an ITS team. Moreover, this would stop the second problem, burn-out, from presenting the group with an issue. Students who know that they will not have enough time in the semester can sit in on the meeting and follow the messages on Slack. They will be able to signal this desire in advance so that Asya can plan in advance how to divide the projects. This dedicated group could help achieve more efficiency within the group and allow more people to express their desired number of hours committed to HPC.

I foresee a potential objection to the line of reasoning use to promote the creation of the second group. An objector may claim that this will in fact limit productivity because people will be unsure as to their exact course load. Due to this fear and uncertainty, fewer people will sign up for the committed support position. If we keep the group the way it is with an open structure of doing projects when you can, more people may actually work on them throughout the semester. I am open to this criticism, but I have an intuition that it is not the case for HPC. I would love to hear more in person if anyone has this view (or respond below!).

The third group, the HPC advocates, are tasked with the duty of spreading the word. They would meet regularly outside of the HPC meetings and create plans to get HPC information out into the open. This group’s job is the dissemination of knowledge. A couple ideas that jump to mind right away are info-posters, meetings with administration to work on getting a budget, attending the trustee event (this time we can do it!), hosting workshops to teach basic command line coding (with snacks for incentives). Of course, these are first thoughts and if put into place the team will spend some more time focusing on effective strategies to teach about this new world of knowledge.

The last thing to mention is that Asya also brought up the possibility of distinguishing between groups on a temporal basis. In other words, there would be a fall semester group, a spring semester group and a summer group. This would help with organization. It would allow the students to check-in with themselves. They could reflect if they wish to continue at the level they are going, up their commitment and responsibility, or lessen their involvement due to an upcoming hard semester.

This post is supposed to be the beginning of a longer conversation about what to do. If anyone disagrees with the problems as conceptualized in the beginning or the solutions proposed, please write a response! I hope this helps get the ball rolling.

By Malcolm Yeary