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Hunting for the rare beast

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Recruiters at HPC facilities face a huge challenge due to the shortage of qualified applicants. They are turning to social media and increased support for academia, as Paul Schreier found out

Even in today’s economy, anyone with HPC experience is in high demand and will have little trouble finding work. Companies and institutions, in turn, are turning to new and creative ways of finding the right people and of making their workplaces look interesting and attractive. Given that HPC engineers are so tech savvy, it’s no surprise that these recruiters are increasingly turning to social media, which has dramatically changed how companies advertise their vacancies and how scientists and engineers find out about jobs.

Quantifying the need

In last year’s September/October issue, Scientific Computing World published some findings from a study that the market research company IDC had conducted with the US Department of Energy. Although the results are a year old, IDC says that discussions since then have, if anything, confirmed the results. To refresh, here are some key findings.

First, almost all (93 per cent) of HPC centres say it is ‘somewhat hard’ or ‘very hard’ to hire staff with the required skills. The hardest categories to fill are scientists with HPC capabilities, parallel programmers, algorithm developers and system administrators with high-end computing experience. The main reason is a shortage is the industry’s shift to systems based on large numbers of multicore processors – systems that pose enormous challenges for existing algorithms and applications. The most fruitful source of qualified candidates (cited by 63 per cent of respondents) consisted of university graduates in maths, engineering, or the physical sciences; somewhat fewer (48 per cent) pointed to graduates in computer science. The most productive non-academic source of qualified HPC candidates (again 48 per cent) was employees of other HPC data centres.

Social media

In recruiting, most staffing professionals have abandoned the ‘post and pray’ approach of placing classified ads in print media. Instead, they are turning increasingly to social media. This is exemplified by Jeff Todd, a senior recruiter at Berkeley Lab, whose email signature includes links for LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter and a company blog. ‘Social media is our number one source for finding people, and I’m using other methods less and less and am even cancelling some job boards. I get more traction from social media than others because it is more targeted. Further, we don’t generally advertise a lot of jobs directly, but instead put out content such as stories or titbits to generate interest in our organisation. It then turns into a “one person knows another person who might be interested…” kind of thing. We have a new LinkedIn account, and in just over two years we have 1,500 followers. The main thing is relationships, and it takes work to build up and maintain them.’

Todd notes that Berkeley has an applicant tracking system, and presently the top source is from their own website, number two is from indeed.com (a job-search consolidation site), and the third is referrals from LinkedIn. Facebook, he explains, is more of a casual relationship. By using HootSuite, if he posts an ad on Twitter, it automatically goes to Facebook and LinkedIn all at the same time. Todd points to job fairs as being the least effective method, because they bring in a non-targeted broad audience. And he hasn’t purchased a newspaper ad for years.

Berkeley’s blog is also a way of building relationships. The idea is to get viewers by pulling interesting stories from the lab in areas where they are hiring. ‘The most-read story on our blog, however, deals with a rejection letter we sent to a candidate, and he in turn sent us a rejection letter to our rejection letter.’ It’s this kind of material that draws in people. ‘I also just got a question via Twitter: “what makes a good HPC candidate?” I posted this and my response on the blog. I even allow negative comments on the blog and do little editing, although I do get rid of ads and clearly inappropriate material.’

A charter to educate

Many recruiters spend time at universities looking for bright students as future employees, but CERN, the European Laboratory for Particle Physics near Geneva, Switzerland, takes this further than most. The institution’s charter covers not only advancing technology and knowledge, but also education and technology transfer, in this case to create and train talent for the member states. In fact, CERN was created in 1954 partially to stop the brain drain at that time to the USA and create a site for advanced research where Europeans could find satisfying and challenging jobs. ‘We are involved in increasing human knowledge, rather than shareholder value,’ explains James Purvis, head of Talent Acquisition. CERN currently has hundreds of students and interns, along with some 500 graduate fellowships. That same charter, however, makes his job more difficult, because he has to try to maintain a balance of employees among all the member states.

A great deal of technical training takes place at CERN, for instance with more than 6,000 courses. This type of continuing education is one aspect that he uses to attract candidates. ‘We can’t offer private sector salaries, some of which can be as much as 40 per cent higher than here, although we do pay quite well. We offer other things: an international environment; perhaps the chance to learn or improve a new language; a beautiful campus setting to work in; and, above all, very challenging computing.’

One job Purvis faces is ‘branding’ – to let people know they don’t have to be a physicist to work at CERN and that there are challenging posts in many other disciplines. For this, CERN has uploaded informative, but light-hearted videos to YouTube. One famous video is the Large Hadron Rap, which has had almost 7.5 million hits. ‘In addition, using a new strategy, I recently sent an email to students working here, asking them to post their videos that show what a great place to work we have and show our high employee engagement.’ Social media such as this gets the CERN name out, and with social media in general there is significant power in referrals. One person may update their Facebook status to say, ‘I’m interviewing at CERN’ and others then learn that there are plenty of interesting opportunities there.

Dominik Ulmer, general manager of the Swiss National Supercomputing Centre (CSCS), notes that people with a scientific background are more mobile than systems people, who build their own ‘world’ and don’t want to leave the world they have created. He also points out that it’s necessary to have a good age-distribution in a computing centre, so he is always trying to get junior people, but then they have a longer ramp-up time. The length depends to some extent on which systems the candidate has worked with; CSCS uses a Cray supercomputer, so someone who has experience on that hardware will certainly ramp up faster than someone who hasn’t.

For its services group, CSCS also sponsors sabbaticals. ‘R&D people often visit conferences or other computing sites, whereas we also send systems people out to get new ideas and ways of doing things. Someone must come to me with a solid proposal of how a given project will benefit our centre, and they need somebody at the computing centre they plan to visit to serve as a tutor or mentor. Then, upon their return, they make a presentation to our entire centre. Another benefit is expanding their personal networks, which are so important in the small HPC world, and that can help us with recruiting.’

The facility’s location also plays a role in recruiting. The CSCS is located in Ticino, Switzerland’s Italian canton, but people generally think of Zurich, Geneva or Lausanne as having most of the opportunities. To attract qualified candidates, Ulmer focuses on the entire family. In examining candidates, he starts with a Skype interview; then invites the person to come; and, in a third step, also invites the spouse to come, because the spouse plays a major role in the final decision. ‘We help them find housing, and now we’ve even reserved spaces in day-care centres in the city, which are typically very full and tough to find spots in.’ As for education, while there is an international school nearby giving instruction in English, CSCS no longer subsidises attendance for employees’ children. ‘We find that if people integrate, there is less probability that they will leave us, which is an important aspect when you consider the investment we make in acquiring people and getting them up to speed. When we previously subsidised the international school, it turned into an English-language “island”. Now their children get to know the local children and play in local sports teams. The spouses are more likely to learn some Italian and make local friends. When they set down roots, they stay longer.’

Being pro-active
is key

How tough is it to find HPC staff? ‘About a hundred times more difficult than normal,’ says Jonathan Howell, the HR coordinator at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. He adds that it’s an exception to land an HPC engineer with significant experience; they’re staying tight with current employers due to the economy, difficulty in selling homes, school situations and the like. Thus, at NCSA they’re starting to broaden the applicant pool and search for people with ‘knowledge of’ and not necessarily ‘experience with’ HPC.

In his efforts, Howell has virtually abandoned passive recruitment, such as traditional ads in print and online. ‘The flow of applications decreased, and we’re not getting the calibre we’re looking for.’ Instead, he spends a great deal of time surfing the web for CVs, and making cold calls to people not actively searching for a job. He relates that some of his best applicants were never looking to begin with. NCSA has also started to train its managers to help out, so when they are travelling they can speak to good people and tell them what NCSA can offer.

NCSA is also ramping up its involvement with students. Howell explains: ‘We have lots of students who work with us all through undergrad and their grad programmes, which is always exciting for us to see them grow in knowledge and experience, then parlay that into a great job with us or outside the NCSA world. We’re also currently formulating a programme that would enable undergrads to do mini-fellowships with NCSA in an effort to stimulate interest in the HPC world and expose them to technologies and tools that their future employers will simply expect people to have by then. It’s a great way to nurture talent from day one.’

Getting a new staff member sometimes takes years of perseverance. Howell remarks: ‘As part of my efforts to source applicants who may not be actively looking for positions, I once contacted a woman whose CV I had found online. She was still finishing her studies, but indicated that down the road it might be worth considering coming to work at NCSA. I promised to stay in touch and called her about seven months later to see how school had gone and what her status was. She had completed her studies and thought an interview would be a great idea. During our talks, we learned that her fiancé had recently applied for an NCSA position and it turned out it was the same job she was being considered for. Luckily we had multiple openings! We brought him in and both ended up having great interviews and were extremely knowledgeable applicants, both with HPC backgrounds. They then relocated quickly to start with our Blue Water’s project.’

Merce Calvet, who is involved in HR at the Barcelona Supercomputer Center, relates that the type of work sometimes scares off potential applicants. ‘Especially with junior positions, sometimes we find that many candidates don’t apply, because they think we are looking for people with very high qualifications and skills. They think that our centre has a very good reputation and we only offer high-level positions, but in many cases they could do the job.’ To get in touch with junior staffers, Calvet finds that a very effective method is to visit universities and academic events such as HPC workshops, summer programmes, etc. BSC also tries to stay in regular contact with this kind of academic institutions and research centres to collaborate.

Always better pay with commercial companies?

Most government-sponsored or university supercomputer centres feel they are at a disadvantage compared to commercial companies when it comes to the salaries they can pay. One dissenting voice comes from Andrew Carr, sales and marketing director at Bull for the UK and Ireland: ‘Some large government bodies are using HPC for mission-critical requirements, and they typically pay top rates to get the best people.’

One of Carr’s laments is that universities are training applied researchers, but not the system administrators of the future. A challenge is to work with higher education to give students the skills they will need for the business world. That has prompted Bull to get more involved with universities than in the past. For instance, Bull is participating in the UK’s ‘Catapult centres’, which are trying to accelerate the engagement between industry and universities. He also notes that one of his largest competitors is the individual HPC consultant, who these days can command very good money. Further, ‘HPC is an incredibly loyal, vertical market; consultants will not move on until they have completed the customer assignment.’ Bull is increasingly using social media to reach out and maintain a network of consultants who might turn into employees. Carr adds that getting a new hire is almost like the sales cycle ‘where you develop and nurture close relationships, and you only see the benefits after a period of time’.

Opportunities not only at HPC centres

It’s not just supercomputer centres that are looking for HPC talent. The MathWorks, for example, needs software developers to create algorithms that make full use of machines with hundreds or thousands of cores, for products such as its Parallel Computing Toolbox. That’s a special skill that few people have, and it’s generally not yet being taught at universities, says Jos Martin, the principal architect for parallel computing tools. ‘Hiring people is nearly as tough as writing algorithms,’ he says. ‘I don’t try to hire people with experience – there’s just too few of them. I look for people we think we can develop, people with good computer, math, and integration skills.’

The company places considerable efforts in university outreach programmes. ‘The MathWorks is committed to supporting academia through programmes that inspire learning and advance education in engineering, science, and mathematics. For example, we support student competitions, programmes such as BLOODHOUND SSC [whose education programme is made available to all pupils in primary and secondary schools, and to students in further and higher education] and participate in guest lectures to help students understand how the theory applies to real-world problems. We thus ensure students are interested and engaged in their studies, while preparing them for future careers in industry and helping maintain a pipeline of strong candidates for recruitment.’

Besides giving seminars and talking to professors, The MathWorks also selectively supports engineering students who excel in using their tools. It funds a number of graduate fellowships and university studentships at 12 organisations worldwide including University of Cambridge, University of Oxford, and Technical University of Munich. The purpose of the programme is to provide financial grants and employment opportunities to science and engineering students at selected universities. The company provides a studentship to one Oxford and one Cambridge PhD student every three years, and every year two final-year undergraduates from each university are awarded a grant and a mentor to focus on a specific MathWorks-related project.