Our CMO interviewed over 40 women in High Performance Computing, here’s five things she learned.
For three years Alces Flight CMO Cristin Merritt has had the opportunity to learn some valuable lessons about how female tech leaders found their career path in supercomputing.
I’ve always been a big believer in contributing to positive change. So, in 2021, I got the opportunity to volunteer for the Supercomputing (SC) conference series and for the past three years I’ve been part of the communications and media team. I’ve been able to do a lot for the global HPC community thanks to my time there, but what I’m most proud of (to date) is I have had the ability to showcase the profiles women leaders in HPC every March.
March is Women’s History Month and is recognised globally as a time to lift up and highlight the work women do to make this world a better and more equitable place. My volunteer project started off small in 2021 and continued on in 2022, but 2023 offered us an even bigger opportunity. With the theme of ‘I am HPC’ and a group of volunteers keen to profile as many people and roles in the field of supercomputing as possible, I set the ambitious goal of seeing if I could profile 31 women for the 31 days that make up the month of March.
I got 40.
After interviewing, compiling and editing their profiles I noticed five key things that led to these women to not only getting into the field of HPC, but staying there. And while I know we still have more work to do in promoting more inclusivity, these five points seem to form such a solid foundation for anyone wishing to get into our field — or any scientific or technical pursuit for that matter- that I’m happy to share them with you now.
So, in celebration of Women’s History Month and the SC23, “I am HPC” profile series, here are the five things I’ve learned from talking with 40 women in HPC:
1. There is no ‘right age’ or ‘right way’ to get into HPC, computing or tech.
Across all interviews there was no common age or point that anyone seemed to enter the field of HPC, computing or tech. Some women knew straight-away what they wanted to do, while others came in ‘by accident’ or as part of a natural progression of their studies or careers. So, for anyone thinking that they are ‘too young/old/inexperienced’ to be a part I would say I have 40+ reasons you should not believe this in the slightest.
2. While the overall contributors did study in computers, science, or engineering a surprising number of individuals came from humanities and business backgrounds.
I thought I was a rarity having a humanities background and winding up in HPC, but it turns out that history, languages, and business are a part of many of our contributor’s backgrounds! Being able to translate requirements, work strategy, write code, manage people and systems is more than just having a specific degree type. So if you think your background excludes you from making the transition into HPC or tech — think again.
3. Almost every profile submission included a mention of a teacher, sponsor, mentor, or ally that encouraged them to pursue their career in tech and HPC.
Every time the question, “How did you get into HPC?” was posed, nearly all of them referred to a person or person(s) who stood by, championed, and/or coached them to come in to a remain a part of this field. In short, allies in all forms cannot be stressed enough. In fact, if there was one thing I would have people takeaway from this project it’s this: Do whatever you can, no matter how big or small, to help the women and underrepresented groups who want to be in this field feel included. It can really be as simple as showing up and being a positive voice in the work they do, to as big as pledging and keeping to diversity hire initiatives across your institution.
“…if there was one thing I would have people takeaway from this project it’s this: Do whatever you can, no matter how big or small, to help the women and underrepresented groups who want to be in this field feel included.”
4. Almost every single contributor was generous in recommending other women to profile.
My biggest fear when I started this project was I was not going to get enough profiles or people would turn me down in mass. The deadlines are tight and because it is profiling people this project is very personal. I did not want to mess it up. Instead of begging for submissions, of the nominations made from the community 63% are going to be published. And not only respond, but they recommended others. For every completed submission I had an average of two more women to approach. For those thinking it, that’s my 2024 and 2025 Women’s History Month project sorted. I was blown away by the generosity of the women in our community.
5. The overriding factor in our profile contributor’s success was that they truly believed in themselves and the work they do.
Every profile I worked through talked of resilience and self-belief. Unfortunately, women and underrepresented groups often find themselves working longer and harder to achieve success in HPC and tech, and many of those who submitted profiles readily admitted to the hardships they faced. But armed with their firm beliefs and with many of them having allies at their sides they pushed ahead. Without them we wouldn’t be where we are today and I found a lot of comfort in reading through their stories, as I hope many others will as they unfold over the month of March.
The SC23 Women’s History Month profile series will start March 1st and run through March 31st. Every day at least one woman in our field will be profiled, with others stepping up for blog features in the themes of scientific discovery, new career paths, sustainability, and more. You can find the features on the SC23 blog, and the short profiles on Instagram, LinkedIn, and Facebook.
I’d like to thank Women in HPC, especially the chapters and affiliates, for stepping in with nominations. Specific thanks needs to go to the following persons: Christine Bassiac, Todd Symanski, Waleed Atallah, Marion Weinzierl, Marion O’Sullivan, Aditi Subramanya, AJ Lauer, Adam Huttner-Koros, Melyssa Fratkin, Matt Probert, Rachel Pruitt, Georgina Ellis, Wil Mayers, Katy Gunderson, and Robin Flaus Scibek. A special mention needs to go to Amanda Hassenplug, whose response to the project helped me shape the blog series.