SGCI's Julia Looney Featured in the Science Node Paths to HPC Series
Our new series, Paths to HPC, showcases 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.
What was your path to working with HPC?
I always loved science, so my parents encouraged me to take STEM classes in high school. For two years, I was the only girl in my high school's only engineering class. I was always so intimidated to even make suggestions during projects. I was convinced that I had no idea what I was doing, and that no one really noticed me. All the boys would joke around with each other, and even the teacher, but I felt out of place. Even during my school's parents night, when my dad hit it off with my engineering teacher, the teacher asked my dad, "Who's your son?"
My senior year of high school, things changed a bit. I took a Java programming class taught by one of the best teachers I ever had in high school. She made complicated programming concepts seem so much less intimidating and even fun. I did really well in the class, and convinced myself that I was good enough to try for a CS degree.
Even during my time at university, I often struggled with my confidence. I love learning, and I really enjoyed learning about computer science, but I was intimidated by some of the advanced programming projects.
I was fortunate enough to get a job right after I graduated. I started with writing SQL queries and database-loading scripts for a small department at the University of Texas. I felt like I had found my place being a 'database person'. The lingering doubts I had about programming assignments in college kept me satisfied that I wasn't writing software with Python or Java anymore.
As I've grown in my career, I've learned that as long as I keep learning new things, I will indeed be good enough.
About a year after I started, my little department grew. They needed more Python developers, and even though I had serious doubts that I could suddenly switch from databases to web apps, they promoted me to software developer. Despite my initial lack of confidence, I hit the ground running with learning everything I needed to know.
During my college education I was never taught anything about web development, but seeing how much it was needed, I was enthusiastic about learning more. I got promoted again. I became the lead developer on several projects. But after a few years there I felt that I had no room to grow. That's when I noticed an opening at TACC.
Knowing that I'm helping people whose research will help the world makes me very grateful that I landed in the HPC field.
I had heard some of my coworkers mention TACC. Some had even interviewed there. Hearing their stories made me think I needed a PhD to even work there, with all the HPC work they did. But after I double- and triple-checked that all I needed for the open position was a BS in computer science, I submitted my resume.
After I got hired onto the Cloud and Interactive Computing team at TACC, I had no idea I'd actually be doing any HPC work. I thought it was still way above my skill-level, and I'd just be writing some Python code for cloud applications. But soon I began diving into projects where I was working directly with HPC resources, developing applications for researchers to more easily do their research.
It’s not only fun to learn about, but also very satisfying. Knowing that I'm helping people whose research will help the world makes me very grateful that I landed in the HPC field.
What’s cool about working with HPC?
For me, it's really cool knowing that our HPC resources are being used for studying so many interesting things from natural disasters to microbiology. Knowing that things we build at TACC are literally being used to help change the world for the better is incredibly satisfying. Also, just getting to work with very smart and very nice people makes me happy to be working with HPC. I get to learn so much!
What are some of the challenges you have faced in taking this path?
Definitely impostor syndrome. As I mentioned earlier, I’ve always struggled with confidence and the age-old question: "Am I good enough?" As I've grown in my career, I've learned that as long as I keep learning new things, I will indeed be good enough.
Are there any mentors you would like to thank?
Most recently in my career, I'd like to thank my manager Joe Stubbs. Since my first day at TACC he has very patiently taught me about HPC and cloud computing with enthusiasm. I would also like to thank my director, Maytal Dahan, for always being so encouraging to not only me, but our entire team. Our team is so welcoming and everyone is happy to help each other, and I think she has a lot to do with creating that kind of environment.