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Part 4: Creating a Sustainable Reality for HPC.

Can you ‘burn in’ inclusivity into your organisation?

This is part three of a six-part series on what sustainability means for the High Performance Computing Community. Check out all the live posts from our events page!

It’s a common topic at every supercomputing conference – how do you hire and retain skilled HPC professionals?  And even more importantly, how can we be sure we are hiring and supporting inclusively, and not creating barriers for people to enter our field?

The Advanced Research Computing (ARC) team at Durham University have been taking a hard look at what, exactly, should go into an HPC hire and where we as a community can make changes and adjustments for a more equitable future.

The Alces Flight crew was honoured to host Alan Real, ARC Director, as he spoke about ‘burning in’ inclusive change at our Sustainable Reality event at the National Space Centre.  Here’s what we learned.

Inclusivity is complicated – just ask ChatGPT

Oftentimes it is the nature of the engineering minds in HPC to try to come up with practical solutions to dealing with people – but as Alan noted, dealing with people is not the same as working with a computer algorithm.  When he asked ChatGPT what it thought about inclusive change it resulted in a return response that mashed definitions and change management process together and wrote very little about the complexity of human nature.  Alan noted that there was a key flaw when trying to solve a people problem with a computer – trust.

“Trust,” Alan said, “Isn’t implied when it comes to people.  Trust has to be built from the ground up.”  This, according to the work Alan has done with his team in this space, is imperative if you wish to build a talented and diverse team.

Casting a wide net

In order to assist researchers at Durham University the ARC team needs to offer a wide range of services – this requires an equally wide range of skill sets.  Alan’s team has recognised that their team collaborates in five areas: research, systems, data, software, and stakeholder engagement.  As no one person can feasibly be exceptional with all five, an understanding of where the team member lands can help build up a better team structure, and find the means to identify skills gaps.  Knowing where an individual thrives helps build up a culture of respect and support as people know who to turn to in order to achieve project goals.

Understanding where a team member functions best is key to putting together a diverse and inclusive team.

The four components needed to ‘burn in’ inclusivity

Much like a proper integration test, to achieve an optimal system you must adhere to continuously testing and improving key components to create an equitable team.  These are:

  • Reviewing your hiring practices.  Alan’s team, along with the N8 CIR, spent considerable time researching how they hire and what can be directly addressed in order to reduce bias in the hiring process.  The result?  A handy checklist that anyone can use.
  • Assess team culture.  The team at Durham is very focused on lowering overall barriers to HPC adoption, which means considering how HPC (and, in equal respect AI and ML) skills are taught.  In order to create a positive culture, Alan and his team focus on training, mixed engagements, and informal meetings.  This diverse exposure can not only lead to stronger solutions, but a more welcoming environment to work in.
  • Support outreach.  To assist with maintaining a positive culture the ARC team spend part of their time in outreach – assisting, training, and understanding individuals in different and emerging fields in order to help them reframe problem solving and expose them to new ideas and opportunities.
  • Get the word out.  Durham is committed to talking about the success and setbacks that take place in their journey for greater equity in HPC.  Through open engagement and dialogue it is their hope to not only improve how they hire and support their staff, but also the whole of the HPC community.

Finally:  Lead by example.

In order to foster success you have to set an environment that allows it to flourish.  The ARC team understands that inclusivity is not a box-ticking exercise and problems – unlike code – aren’t binary.  At Durham, the team strives to create a safe, respectful environment where diverse skill sets are valued.  To maintain this they will continue to push themselves to improve, take on and transform their hiring and support packages, and share what they have learned.  As Alan summed up at the end of his presentation:

“When people bring their whole selves to our workplace, ARC is better for it.”

Get the full picture.

Would you like to see Alan’s full presentation? Check it out below:

The next part of our series will focus on the importance of optimisation – and how keeping your HPC solution well-run can result in more time for creative problem solving.

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