There are times in life that it’s OK when you’re not sure what to say. To feel clueless (somewhat), and feel comfort in the newness of realized ignorance. To savor the moment. To look at your prior frame of reference, challenge your own assumptions, and then build a response from knowledge and experience that you believe, and that others can appreciate, understand, and accept. At times, this experience can be refreshing; even more so: eye opening!
My most recent example is changing jobs (more on this later). But I also recently had the pleasure on different occasions in the same month to explain the meaning and practice of facilitation to three different audiences. Silently, I laughed at myself at the irony of being speechless, as I’d been the lead facilitator for the ACI-REF program for the last two years, working with 10 very capable, gifted individuals at 5 other universities; not to mention their faculty mentors. And my mindset had been in that space as I talked to my peers in the group, colleagues at other research computing centers, and the like. So imagine my surprise when the words did not flow as easily as I had expected.
My first challenging occasion was to talk to colleagues who advise on research projects at other on-campus research computing centers. Their focus has been on solving researcher’s computation problems for them to just get work done, versus helping researchers to achieve transformative impacts for themselves. To their credit, they’ve approached this from a consultant’s point of view. But like solving problems in Office Hours, I fear their perspective is that of putting out small fires without addressing potential, larger issues at hand.
My second challenge was to speak to RC directors and network engineers at a regional conference on campus cyberinfrastructure. There, the emphasis had been on the hardware: the compute, the networks, the storage. Suggesting an if-you-build-it-they-will-come approach, they talked about successes, but not as many as they had hoped.
And my third challenge was to demonstrate to a room full of traditional HPC center directors, CIOs, and RC consultants at our 3rd national Advances in Research Computing on Campuses meeting how facilitation can help non-traditional users of large-scale research computing: Acknowledging that human capital is important, what steps can we take to lower the threshold for researchers not traditionally trained in code development and ACI usage, and convincing this new user group that it is worth the time and effort to learn how to properly use ACI resources.
In hindsight, what struck me is that each experience emphasized a facet of the facilitation approach. But our role as facilitators is to look at the research trajectory from a holistic point of view, so that we partner in planning the use of ACI over the course of the research program as a part of an ongoing conversation – one that happens over months and years, not simple one-stop recommendations. As facilitation is not a common term, as in facilitating computing, the puzzled looks were understandable. Oddly, many of my colleagues are already practicing facilitation in some way; but I’m not sure that we pause and wonder if we are asking the correct questions. And I think that’s where the value of the facilitator is most needed.
Over the past two years at Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences Research Computing (FASRC), I’ve helped researchers of many backgrounds and disciplines use 60K+ compute cores in their work, and it’s clear that facilitations benefit both traditional (physics, astronomy, and computational chemistry) and non-traditional (biology and social sciences) researchers alike. For the non-traditionals, it’s rather obvious, as their discipline is rather late to the cluster computing game. But for traditionals, it’s more complicated: for many, their knowledge of the computing environment is frozen at what they learned when their took their HPC Intro course years ago, if there was one, at the start of their research program. Or the cluster has changed around them, and RC centers are so busy that communicating new resources (or hardware or policy changes) as a part of an outreach/education effort is usually last on the to-do list. So to the end-user, the cluster seemingly doesn’t work as well as it used to.
And to further underscore the important opportunities we have as facilitators: If I look back at all the data we’ve collected at FASRC during this period, only 33% of core hours consumed were from non-traditionals; but they constituted 2/3 of the Office Hours attendees. So they’re coming to the table; we just have to be ready to fully help them!
My new digs have taken me from the wholly familiar to uncharted territory … working as Director of Technology Operations Manager at Harvard Business School. Despite what the title seems, half of my time is devoted to working with faculty to ensure they can use computing resources effectively, whether it’s Harvard’s FASRC, another university’s computing center, or national resources like XSEDE. I welcome this new challenge with rolled up sleeves, as there are many opportunities to help.
Looking back, once again my assumptions and ignorance got the best of me; but I took the opportunity to learn about my blind spot, and to slip into someone else’s shoes for a period of time. New shoes feel good.