Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Snippets from GHC2010 - Part 2: Five reasons to participate in the PhD Forum

One of the many ways you can participate in the Grace Hopper Conference is through the PhD Forum. The PhD Forum is intended for PhD students in their last year of the program to share their thesis research.

Why should you participate in this forum when you already have other technical conferences? I participated this year and found it more beneficial than I imagined. I didn't know what to expect because this was my very first GHC. In five bullet points, this is why you should participate in the PhD Forum

  • The forum is split in several sessions. This year each session had 3 presentations. Each session has a mentor assigned that helps you through the presentation and before and after the event. My mentor was the amazing Patty Lopez from Intel. Patty was extremely useful before, during, and after the presentation, and after the conference was over. I am happy to have found such a mentor!
  • The audience is from a wide range of technical backgrounds. Unlike most presentations we give during grad school, this time around I was presenting to students from outside my area of expertise, people from industry and even undergrads. I found it challenging and fun to present to such a diverse audience, but, beyond all, it made me think about how to distill my research to its fundamental concepts that can be explained to anyone with some technical computing background.
  • GHC in general is a very friendly community and place for mentoring and networking. I was very impressed with the questions from the audience, both in technical content and interest in the work. I also presented my research during a poster session, which allowed people that were interested in more details to drop by and chat some more on the subject.
  • This was the very first time when I received written anonymous feedback on a research presentation. I was overwhelmed with the response: people took the time to write thoughtful comments and provide written feedback on the technical content, the presentation delivery and the appealing factor of my research. I remember one of the comments that made laugh: "cool idea, I can't wait to see it in my next processor!" :)
  • Several people from industry got interested in my research and asked me whether I am interested in internships. Unfortunately, I'm planning to graduate soon and I couldn't take advantage of such opportunities, but it's important to know that such opportunities exist and GHC is the place to "grab" them. One person in particular made my day when she came after lunch that day to let me know that her academic department is hiring and they could use more computer architects! 
If you participated in a PhD Forum at GHC what are your five reasons to encourage others to take advantage of this special opportunity?

Update: Somehow, I forgot one of the most useful aspects of submitting your work to the PhD Forum: when you submit your work, you are required to provide the name of several reviewers that get to read your proposal and give you feedback. When I received my reviews for my PhD Forum proposal, it was such a boost of confidence to see what others thought about my research. Who doesn't need a boost of confidence?! You may think that it requires time to apply for the PhD Forum, but it is time very well invested! 

Monday, October 4, 2010

Snippets from GHC2010 - Part 1: Anita Borg

One early morning (7:30 am to be more precise :D) at GHC2010, I had a special breakfast with Google scholars from all over the world.  I felt very fortunate to be part of this crowd. But even more fortunate to listen to Alan Eustace (Google Senior Vice President, Engineering & Research - at the time of this writing) talking about Anita Borg. It turns out Alan and Anita joined DEC's Western Research Laboratory the same day and they were friends for 15 years. 

Listening to Alan's memories of Anita Borg confirmed my impression of her. She was a fearless technical woman! I wish I remember all that was said... I'll try to document what I do remember. 

Anita Bord did research in systems with publications in the top conferences of the field (ASPLOS, ISCA, SOSP - check out her DBLP entry). It was during one of the SOSP conferences that she managed to get together all women in the conference (a handful), start the Systers mailing list and initiate what years later became Anita Borg Institute. It turns out that the first discussion happened in the ladies room. All women in the conference fit into one. I really think Anita would be really happy and proud to learn that at GHC this year, there were so many women that all men restrooms on several floors of the hotel were thoughtfully transformed in ladies rooms. Hard to believe? See it for yourself! 

Anita was a fearless spirit, she loved to dance, she loved to dress up, she didn't only talk about Woodstock, she actually went to Woodstock, and when she had an idea, it took only weeks to start making it happen. Apparently Alan and Anita used to walk to a coffee shop in Palo Alto and during these walks, she used to talk about her ideas on various topics. It took only a few trips to cristalize her idea of a conference for technical women, what is known today as Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing. She was a leader in her field, not because she called herself one, but because everybody that truly knew her wanted to contribute and help make her ideas happen. Alan mentioned that although she's no longer among us, he can still "hear" her persuasive voice and vision. 

Anita had an amazing talent for public speaking. Her illness affected her ability to speak, but she did not give up on talking about women and technology even when it was hard to stay coherent. She truly dedicated her life to encourage women to be fearless and involve themselves in technology.  

I believe GHC is full of events that would make Anita proud: technical presentations, mentoring workshops, brainstorming on how we can encourage more women to participate in computing, and... dance. Oh, yeah, we danced! Someone saw me dancing and said something along these lines: "When I saw you talk in your session, I thought you were sooo serious. You're not that serious..." I added: "I'm very serious! I'm serious at work, serious at play too." :)

It took me three years of thinking about GHC before I actually participated in one. If you haven't started thinking about it, please do! Don't miss on the opportunity of meeting and be inspired by 2K+ women in computing. Next year, GHC is in Portland (Oregon), Nov 8-12. Save the date! (and the money to participate...) Or if you can, even better, participate in this year's GHC India

Snippets from Grace Hopper Celebration 2010

I just came back from my first Grace Hopper in Atlanta. I've had a blast! There are so many things that I would like to mention about this conference that I don't know where to start... This year's conference had 2100 participants. Yep, there is no misspelling there, you got it: 2100. I counted them myself :P

I remember the first day surrounded by so many people - (almost) all women for a BIG change -  made me think of the Microsoft TechEd conferences that I attended during my undergrad. That is the last time I saw so many technical people in the same place. I couldn't stop to think about what it takes to organize such an event. My respect and admiration for the organizers has no limit!

I left the conference energized, inspired, humbled and empowered. Everybody that I talked to says the same thing about the event. I want to make it last! I decided to write - for weeks to come - about my experiences that made this GHC so special to me. My goal is to recreate some of the atmosphere there for me to remember, and for the ones that didn't attend to make them think about attending. I've been thinking about attending for 3 years now and I'm really happy that I finally made it! I would like to thank Google that sponsored my trip this year,  ACM for supporting my poster presentation and to all that donated money for the GHC scholarships.

For tons of pictures from the event, check out this amazing collection.

And now... let's get started: Snippets from GHC2010 - Part 1: Anita Borg.

Friday, May 7, 2010

How Long Does A PhD Take?

Every spring I usually get a flurry of questions from prospective students about how it's like to do a PhD. They vary in content, from how many courses are required to how expensive it is to live in Toronto (expensive!).

There is one question that I have a problem with: How long does it take to do a PhD? Don't take me wrong, it's a pertinent question, you embark in a long journey and you really want to know how long it will take to reach the end. I get that. The problem that I have is that this question hides a misconception about the PhD process.  Or two, depending how you look at it. I've seen many students, both undergrads and early grads, that think at least one the following:

  1. If you spend enough time enrolled as a PhD, you get a degree in the end.
  2. You need to spend X number of years in the PhD to get a degree. 
It's perfectly justified to think this way. After all, all degrees that we get before the PhD can be quantified in years. Four years of primary school, four of secondary, four of high school and five of undergrad (that's my case in numbers). And really, in my case, there was no way around it. It had to take that long (which I don't think it's a good idea, but that's a totally different conversation). But when it comes to the PhD the story changes drastically.

In my opinion, none of these ways of thinking (i.e., number 1 and 2 above) is right. The PhD doesn't take time, it takes results. And how long it takes to get results depends on many, many things. Among which: your domain, your topic, how quickly you find a topic, your enthusiasm and your grain of luck, what you want to do once you are done with the PhD, how much your work is appreciated by the research community, how much help you need and get from your supervisor. And the list could go on for a while. 

I have seen students that take 2-3 years to finish and I've seen 10 years as well. Ok, 5-6 is a common number. My .2$: you should focus on the process and the results, rather than on the time. If you're in a hurry, maybe a PhD is not the right answer to your question. No matter how long it takes, it usually requires lots and lots of patience.  =)


I discovered my definition of success during my first trip to New York some four years ago. Every time I read it, it reminds me of what I want to achieve while here...

To laugh often and much; To win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; To earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; To appreciate beauty, to find the best in others; To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition; To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.
                                                            -- Emerson

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

My Ada Lovelace Post

Better later than never! A short post to celebrate Ada Lovelace Day. My post today goes to cheer the women from our support group and the ladies that will be helping me with the panel of the CRA-W DLS that I'm co-organizing at UofT. What a diverse group! Although we are all studying (or teaching :) ) at Canadian universities, we are originally from Greece, China, Lebanon, Iran, Turkey, Serbia, US, Israel, Mexico and Romania.  It's hard to get more diverse than this :)

I want to cheer for all of our plans: leadership positions in technical companies, project managers, professors, and - why not - PhDs! I wish you all of it to come true! And who knows, maybe before leaving UofT behind, we'll make our group "official".

Keep on being awesome!

Monday, March 8, 2010

Julia Child Is Amazing!

I've been in North America only for a few years, so I didn't know about Julia Child. I learned about her like an ignorant, from the movies :P. I got fascinated with Julia's personality and Meryl Streep's interpretation of her. Not so fascinated with the price of the cook books, though... So, I was thrilled when I recently found both volumes of the Mastering the Art of French Cooking in mint condition at a used bookstore for 40% of the original price. Of course I bought them!

For the last two weekends I experimented with new recipes from the book: beef bourguignon, chicken fricassee, creme brulee, blueberry clafoutis and Livio made some delicious lady fingers. What can I say? I'm impressed! Everything is tasting soooo good, they are a bit different than what I usually cook and, with my personal shortcuts, everything was very easy to make. And fast!

What I really liked about this book is that all ingredients are in North American language and measures :). I  don't have to search for one substitute or the other. That makes cooking French dishes much easier.

Now I only have to figure out how to add more exercise in my schedule to make up for the French sauces :)

Sunday, March 7, 2010

In Memoriam: Irina Athanasiu

I am indebted to a lot of professors that I've had throughout the years. They all encouraged me in my studies and inspired my love of learning and teaching.
One of these very special professors was Irina Athanasiu. Unfortunately, cancer took her away. I miss her. While she was still alive, I didn't dare to talk to her as much as I would have liked, even when friends from back home said that she used to mention my name quite often. I didn't want to bug her with my own issues and worries...

If I were to say only one thing about Irina was that she was the most straightforward person I've ever met. She really said it like it was, even when it wasn't pretty at all. I have a couple of emails from her from a tough period in my life and I can't help to smile when I read them. She says something like this: "what I have to say is not pretty, but here it is". I miss her advice. She had this rare skill of thinking about things from your own perspective, but with her years of experience and her very particular wisdom.

For the people that did not meet her, it's hard to describe her. And then for those that were lucky to know her, any word does not mean much compared to the experience of interacting with her. She touched the lives of an unbelievably high number of students!

It was is her birthday today. And I wanted to do something to remember her. She used to write a column in one of the Romanian IT magazines. I want to translate one of her articles. I read them again and again and never get bored with them. Her ideas are fresh even years and years after being published. This is my little offering for today. This way, hopefully more people will read her words. And I may repeat the experiment with other articles of hers in the future. The original can be found here in Romanian. I tried to really translate it and not adapt it such that I don't transform her words.

Shall I Be Proud?
          by Irina Athanasiu

"You must be really proud to have so many former students that are now employees of Microsoft US"... someone told me recently. There are two assumptions behind this statement. First, the fact that someone works for Microsoft in US is an accomplishment in itself. Second, students' accomplishments are ascribed to their professors, and school, in general.

Why is it that if someone works for Microsoft US is a bigger accomplishment than if they work at Google in US or if they work for Microsoft Romania or Freescale, Oracle or IBM Romania? What if someone works in a company that does not have an international reputation, does it count less? Should I have considered that the ones that developed RAV during the time when the first R meant Romania and not Reliable, in other words when the product was not renowned internationally, valued less than now when they are employed by Microsoft and RAV became just a memory?

Getting hired by a company like Microsoft means passing successfully a suite of interviews that are not easy, but that are just exams, probably more difficult than the ones in school. It's about knowledge and ability testing, in other words it's about testing some premises not certifying some accomplishments. Someone that is successful during the interviews becomes one of the thousands of employees in a mechanism developed in such a way that it does not depend on the deviations of each employee from the average one (not the ideal one). The number of those that have indeed a way to influence the Microsoft products is very small, irrespective of considering technical or marketing aspects. Now I can remember only two names from the top of my head: Toma Tudor and Crisitan Petculescu.

Speaking about accomplishments, I think that George Ciprian Necula getting the Grace Murray Hopper award for the best young researcher of the year in 2001 (http://awards.acm.org/hopper/) and Ion Stoica obtaining the ACM prize for the best PhD thesis in CS (http://portal.acm.org/citation.cfm?id=1014887) are reasons to be proud for these two. I also think that my former student Daniel Bogdan, one of the two founders fo IPDevel (www.ipdevel.ro) have reasons to be proud, given the spectacular evolution of the company started in 2000 when Daniel was still a student.

How much of students' accomplishments are due to their professors is a question that I will answer with my favorite answer: it really depends. Recently, one of the graduates, Vivi, wrote me an email to let me know that he passed successfully all interviews and he will start working for Google USA starting this fall. In the same email, he reminded me that he worked during his undergrad studies and he didn't finish the most difficult major in our department. In other words, he was successful for what he wanted while not following the advice that I always give to the students. Does that mean that Vivi succeeded without the school's help? For me, the fact that Vivi felt the need to write back to me means that he heard and he wondered if I were right or not. I would be proud if all students that I talk to would listen to what I have to say and think whether I'm right or wrong. If then they act according to their own conclusions, it would mean that at least part of my job description was covered.

What part of the multiple successes obtained by our Computer Science and Engineering Department team of students (http://icpc.baylor.edu/past/icpc2005/finals/Standings.html) in international competitions are ascribed to the school? What if these students were studying at a different university in Romania or abroad, do you think they wouldn't have obtained the same prizes? Probably the merit of the school is that because it's renowned, it attracts a lot of very good students that you can build winning teams with. Also, the group of professors and TAs that manage every year to select and advise a group of students is a contribution of the school. Does this mean anything about the whole school in general?

To be proud of someone else's success, you must have done something to contribute to this success. Otherwise, of course we've always been and ar proud of Nadia Comaneci's* successes.

* Nadia Comaneci is a famous Romanian gymnast that got the first full 10 in the Olympics Games for gymnastic. 

Monday, February 15, 2010

Hiring 101: We Want YOU!

I'm cheering for a dear friend that is embarking on her - I'm sure - very successful technical career. While talking about her interviewing experience, I couldn't stop thinking how important the way your prospective employer treats you really is! When all is equal (and for jobs at famous companies that happens often), how "wanted" you feel when offered the job becomes very important.

When trying to hire your brightest prospective employee, don't count on your hip work place with great benefits and prime-color cubes. Don't forget to tell your candidate how much you want them for the job!

Much better said from the connoisseur: Wanted!

Monday, February 8, 2010

The Importance of Internships

My path in grad school was definitely not a straight one. I've had quite some adventures that I now think of as fortunate events (they didn't really feel that way when they happened :) ). All in all, I didn't have time to do more than one internship and that happened late in my PhD (I went last year for a long internship with Intel @ Santa Clara).

I received today an email about an internship that I would have really-really liked to apply for. You know how it is: the perfect internship at the impossible time. I'm very tempted, but I was reminded that I should focus on my list of priorities and that means finishing the work for my PhD thesis this month.

Oh, well, what else can I do than write a post about why I think internships are important and why you should do a couple with different companies.

Like everything in life, there are pros and there are cons. I'll start with the pros.

Few of the pros:

  • New Environment: I can't stress enough the importance of getting exposed to new environments as early as possible in your PhD. New environments means new people, new ideas, renewed excitement, learning, networking and - why not? - new friendships. 
  • Company Culture: I didn't understand this one until I got to experience -first-hand - the culture of a company. One extremely important requirement for you to enjoy your job and be successful at it is to be in line with the company value system. Allow me a joke: it's like marriage: doomed to fail unless there is a serious overlap in the value system of the two. Same thing with working for a company. You don't appreciate what they're after, you won't find motivation to put in the work, you won't have fun, and you won't succeed at your job. There is no other way you can understand and learn the culture of the company than working there. You get to see what gets rewarded, what they are shooting for and how they do it. In other words, you learn the definition of success and the means to obtain it. And needless to say, companies are not all the same, hence you should plan for at least two internships in different companies.
  • Publications: If you plan your internship carefully and with the adequate amount of luck, you can get out of there with a publication or the idea for a publication. If that doesn't happen, you gain some experience on doing research on something else than your thesis. 
  • Fun: Let's admit it, all companies have great locations for their internships and they also pay you quite well. So... you are in a new place with resources (read money) for traveling. What are you waiting for?
Some cons:
  • Time: If you're not so lucky (I wasn't...), you may end up working on something unrelated to your thesis that - most likely - you won't even be allowed to talk about externally. All this means that you may feel at times that your time was wasted. I have to admit, I was tempted to feel that I wasted precious time during my internship. It's true that I would have finished my PhD earlier (in this economy, I'm not so sure it would have been a good idea :P), but the experience and the confidence that I've gained in my internship wouldn't have happened otherwise. I got to play with cutting edge tools in my research domain that I have no access to otherwise. I got to see what "real" industry is interested in and how they approach their ideas. I got to see what type of work gets appreciated. I understood the different career paths that you can have inside that company. And I understood what it means and what it takes to be working for Intel. 
  • Supervisors: Reality is not all supervisors are supportive of their students' internships. This is a delicate matter, but I'm sure there are ways to deal with it. Ultimately, your supervisor should be interested in your professional development and you can clearly make a case that an internship would add value to your portfolio.
  • Loss of Momentum: This is one I'm still dealing with... It takes time to swing back into your schedule and research rhythm. It takes time until you ramp up again and feel productive back in school. Again, this depends on your particular situation, and I argue this con is worth dealing with.
My .02$ on the matter: try to do a couple of internships early in your PhD. Enjoy the benefits, work around the cons and take advantage of the opportunity of meeting and analyzing your future employer up close and personal. One tip that not everyone is willing to share is this: go for a short internship (3.5 months). If interest is on both sides, internships can be extended so easily. Good luck and have fun!

Update: You never know when you receive an email from your internship manager asking you if you're interested in a full time position before the announcement about the available position goes public...

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Life Is Worth Losing...

... That's the title of a George Carlin show that I enjoyed watching on New Year's Day. And it is a perfect way to start a new year! I discovered George Carlin recently when I very dear friend replied to my satirical description of the "stuff" we brought back from California with the "too much stuff" clip from George Carlin.

This stand-up comedian is impressive! I rarely find stand-up comedy entertaining (ok, maybe I haven't seen enough...), but I really enjoy George Carlin. And it's easy to explain: not only that he makes me laugh out loud, he makes me think. And that's the type of entertainment I like the most: the one that entertains and teaches you something at the same time.

I watched some of the early George Carlin clips, and, as himself explains in some interview I watched, they are not the same style as his later ones. They are still funny, but not as insightful. The last two HBO shows I've seen from him (Life is Worth Losing and It's Bad For Ya') are highly recommended.

When I got back from Google CS GRAD Forum* I treated myself buying "Last Words", George Carlin's memoir. That's on my (long) to read list.

Here it is a teaser for you. If this doesn't make you try to watch some more George Carlin, then he's not your type: The Modern Man.

* Many thanks go to Gail for telling me about the forum and for encouraging me to apply. Without her notice and support, I would have not applied and missed on this great opportunity!