The Paths to HPC series, presented in collaboration with Women in HPC, showcases the women working in high-performance computing. Our hope is that by highlighting these trailblazers—and the sometimes unique paths they followed into the field—other women will feel inspired to envision themselves in similar roles.
Today we talk with Misbah Mubarak, software development engineer at Amazon Web Services.
What was your path to working with HPC?
While I was growing up in Pakistan, computer science was introduced in my high school for the first time. I was one of the two girls who took it as a course. The typical profession recommended for smart students at that time was medical sciences. That is why later, when I decided to take computer science as a major in college, there were only two options available.
While I was fortunate to get into one of them, the journey of an undergraduate in computer science was a new concept in my family and it was a challenging path. With two of my siblings being in college, I had to work hard to get a scholarship that covered my tuition. Given the long commute involved to that school, at first it seemed impossible to earn good grades. But with consistency and hard work, it became achievable. In addition to hard work, I learned to become tough to survive the everyday travel for several hours in temperatures that were sometimes more than 110F.
Throughout my undergraduate degree, I got the indirect feedback from my peers that guys are smarter than girls when it comes to programming, and I almost started to believe it. When my undergraduate final-year project won in an All-Pakistan software competition, I realized that successful programming is not specific to a gender.
I faced backlash from some guys in the school as they thought that the programming done by girls is not good enough. Now when I look back, I am glad I stood up for myself and kept questioning their thoughts.
I was fortunate to get a job at Teradata after undergrad, but I had a passion for research and advanced studies, so I decided to go to graduate school. That was a unique decision as well, because I am the first girl in my family to go to the US for higher education.
When I came to the US as a grad student at Rensselaer, I got the opportunity to take a course on parallel programming. I worked on Rensselaer’s supercomputer, an IBM Blue Gene/L system. That is when I decided my MS and PhD thesis should be about HPC. From that point onwards, new HPC related opportunities kept showing up.
What’s cool about working with HPC?
During my HPC journey, it was cool that I got to work with the fastest supercomputers in the world at the time (even as a grad student). I also liked the fact that my field of HPC and data center system design is an evolving area.
Starting off as a student, it was directed towards having more compute power to solve the most complex problems in the world. Later it evolved into data intensive HPC systems, and now there is ongoing work about solving AI problems with HPC systems. Researchers are now analyzing the relations between quantum computing and HPC, which is another promising direction.
What are some of the challenges you face or have faced in taking this path?
I faced many different challenges at both the professional and personal level. There is a misconception about HPC research that it does not build high-quality software and instead relies on prototyping. While that may be true in some cases, much quality software is based on novel ideas that come through the HPC research industry. During my career as a researcher, I kept working to resolve this misconception by working with my team to write quality software.
At a personal level, I defended my PhD dissertation while having a 4-month old. Subsequently, I did my postdoc and later became a research scientist while working remotely due to a two body problem. Despite these constraints, the experience was a success because I had a supporting manager and mentors.
I realized that when women have the right level of support from their employers, it is much easier for them to overcome such challenges.
Are there any mentors you would like to thank?
I have had several mentors in my journey and they have played a major role in my career development. Dr. Rob Ross served as an excellent supervisor and role model at Argonne National Laboratory, and he mentored me throughout my PhD dissertation.
Dr. Philip Carns served as my mentor during my research career and doctoral studies, and he kept coaching me about problem-solving and writing quality software. Prof. Chris Carothers, my doctoral thesis advisor also helped set the bar for success.