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Then and Now: A Far-Reaching Conversation with Two Trailblazers

roscoe giles

This year marks the 35th anniversary of SC, and unless you were present at its inception in 1988 in Orlando, Florida—when it was originally known as Supercomputing—it’s impossible to appreciate how much the conference has evolved in size and diversity. Once mainly aligned with the goals and missions of the national labs and practitioner-focused, today’s SC serves as a leading academic forum for both practitioners and researchers keen on staying updated with the latest in high performance computing (HPC).

At the same time, if you were to look at who was on the floor 35 years ago versus today, you would see a much more diverse picture of genders, ethnicities, and nationalities. As Roscoe Giles, the first African American SC Conference Chair in 2002, and Dorian C. Arnold, this year’s General Chair, can attest, this transformation was no accident. It took concerted and, at times, controversial efforts by SC’s senior leadership and volunteers, including the establishment of an inclusivity committee around 2015.

We sat down with Giles and Arnold for a far-reaching conversation about the conference’s evolution. Arnold and Giles shared insights from their experiences as General Chairs and attendees of SC. They also shared their thoughts on fostering diversity at SC and within the HPC community in general and the significance of this year’s theme: I Am HPC.

Beginning at the End

Roscoe Giles

SC2002 General Chair

Both Arnold and Giles appreciate the provocative nature of this year’s theme, “I Am HPC,” which challenges attendees to contemplate their roles within the HPC sphere. Arnold explains: “One of my personal ambitions is creating a more inclusive and diverse world. As the General Chair who has the honor of choosing the conference theme, I wanted to understand what the conference meant to my executive committee to capture the essence of our collective experience. Though technical aspects were discussed, it was the human-centric theme that most captivated us. We landed on ‘I Am HPC’ because we felt it pays homage to all who contribute to the industry—from technical pioneers to the global community benefiting from HPC advancements. After all, the main reason for HPC is to learn more about the world so we can make it a better place for the sake of the people living in it.”

Giles believes the theme is essentially the embodiment of inclusivity. “It underscores the human dimension of HPC. It invites all attendees to see themselves as part of the overarching HPC narrative. Regardless of our backgrounds—be they technical, ethnic, or personal—we are united in our quest to advance HPC, and every story leading us here is valid. The theme prompts us to take ownership and responsibility for HPC’s direction in technology, applications, and the future. I envision someone new or from a non-traditional background initially feeling disconnected from ‘I Am HPC’ but ultimately embracing the idea, realizing that they too belong and contribute to the field,” he says.

Reflecting on his first SC conference in 1991, Giles underscores the importance of community building through interpersonal connections. “I remember a moment where I was on the up escalator, and another black attendee was passing by on the down escalator, and we both saw each other and locked eyes,” explains Giles. “It was striking, and I was curious about what was happening in his world. That moment stuck with me, and I know as we look to broaden diversity in the field, every connection and every shared experience adds a brick to a stronger and more inclusive foundation.”

dorian C. Arnold

SC23 General Chair

Steps in the Right Direction

Both Giles and Arnold are SC veterans, with Arnold participating consistently for over two decades and Giles attending most years since 1991. They concur that the most prominent change over time has been the conference’s exponential growth. Arnold attributes part of this growth to the diversification of its programs and exhibits, now including a robust academic component.

While both are happy to see increased diversity at SC, both acknowledge that inclusivity isn’t without its hurdles. Giles says that the nature of the conference itself makes the path to inclusivity nonlinear. “The SC conference’s structure, where each year is a fresh start, helps ensure its flexibility, adaptability, and ongoing growth. This same structure also makes it challenging to embed lasting programs. For example, some diversity programs from my tenure and around that time no longer exist today. But having said that, I do think the overall diversity within the conference has increased considerably. Early on, around the 2002 timeframe, we had some specialized programs in the education framework, along with collaborations with minority-serving institutions, that made a difference. Today, the commitment to holistic diversity and broadened participation is more systematic, spanning beyond a singular year’s agenda,” he notes.

Roscoe Giles with the SC2002 Committee.

Dorian Arnold with past and future General Chairs.

Arnold applauds the senior leadership for the progress, noting, “Transitioning from a mindset where diversity initiatives were considered ‘broader engagement’ to the establishment of an inclusivity committee around 2015 marked a pivotal shift. I believe it really paved the way for more comprehensive and effective inclusivity efforts. While there is still much work to be done, I think it really provides a fabric for making not just the conference but the entire HPC community, more diverse and inclusive. Over the coming years, we hope to see increasingly bigger and more impactful changes until we don’t need to have these conversations anymore.”

Navigating Enduring Barriers

Arnold identifies a lack of awareness on a couple of levels as one of the ongoing barriers to entry for marginalized groups. “Raising awareness about the challenges for these groups remains important,” notes Arnold, “but at the same time, we also need to increase awareness of the opportunities linked to diversity and inclusion. That’s easier said than done since we’re all only human and often default to understanding and evaluating experiences based on gender identity, race, nationality, socio-economic conditions, and so on. This might lead to unintentional or intentional myopia, where we may be unaware or dismissive of others’ experiences. So, raising awareness is crucial because progress will always be limited without that awareness. But awareness is only the start.  After gaining this awareness, we need to take action and ask, ‘How can I make a difference?’ And the more resources, seminars, books, and tools that we have to foster understanding and guide actions, the better.”

“Over time, we’ve seen more diverse communities emerge within HPC, including women and people of color. These communities support and reinforce each other, which is crucial for fostering diversity.”

Giles, meanwhile, underscores the importance of community building: “Rather than solely focusing on individual entry into the field, it’s vital to create and nurture groups of people, building communities that empower and reinforce each other,” says Giles. “Over time, we’ve seen more diverse communities emerge within HPC, including women and people of color. These communities support and reinforce each other, which is crucial for fostering diversity.”

To encourage participation from underserved communities and institutions at SC23, Arnold notes that he and his team tried to always put people at the core of the conference’s decisions and actions in support of the ‘I Am HPC’ theme. The initial efforts began by urging committee leaders to broaden their inclusivity scope and consider integrating new groups and perspectives. Arnold’s team has also actively sought to expand the conference’s technical reach, delving into new and impactful areas within HPC. Two of the team’s initiatives will be featured prominently at SC23. “This year, we’re launching the Illuminations Pavilion—a space for researchers who, due to financial limitations, couldn’t attend otherwise,” says Arnold. “The conference offers everything from exhibit space to travel assistance for accepted applicants. For the 35th anniversary celebration, we’re also focusing on the people behind pivotal technical advances in HPC. We’re particularly looking to highlight contributions from ‘hidden groups’ that have impacted the HPC realm over the years.”

A Wonderful Flash

Reflecting on his role as General Chair, Arnold admits a newfound respect for the intricacies of organizing such a large-scale event. “The aim is to make everything seem effortless to the attendees, but that belies the monumental effort of an army of volunteers that goes on behind the scenes for the better part of three years.”

Looking ahead to SC23 itself, both Giles and Arnold are most excited about interacting with the incredible community. “Ultimately, the seeing and sharing is what I’m really looking forward to. And I hope that some of the elements like the ‘I Am HPC’ theme and the celebration of people we’re trying to infuse into the conference are as visible as possible and impactful to the attendees,” says Arnold. “I really want everyone to walk away feeling included and charged up about what’s possible far beyond the conference itself.”

Roscoe in front of his SC2002 history panel.

Dorian greeting a prospective SC23 attendee.

Giles said that after helping to coordinate this year’s speakers, he’s excited to see the program actually happen. “Personally, coming from an applications background as a theoretical physicist, I always look forward to the research exhibits and opportunities to interact with researchers using HPC to advance science and engineering across many interesting disciplines. One of my great recollections from when I was chair is how fast the conference goes by compared to the amount of time you spend planning it. It’s sort of over in a flash, but it’s a “wonderful flash.”

About Dorian C. Arnold

Dorian Arnold is a tenured associate professor of computer science at Emory University. He specializes in research on distributed systems, fault tolerance, and HPC with an emphasis on performance and reliability in large-scale environments. With over 60 peer-reviewed publications amassing more than 1800 citations, Arnold’s contributions have earned him two R&D 100 awards. Beyond academia, Arnold has been a leading voice in the HPC community, undertaking steering committee roles for SC, General Chair for SC23, and Associate Editor of IEEE Transactions on Parallel and Distributed Systems. A passionate advocate for diversity, he has chaired events such as the 2017 ACM Richard Tapia Celebration of Diversity and the 2016 CRA HPC Pipeline Workshop. Arnold holds a doctorate from the University of Wisconsin, an M.S. from the University of Tennessee, and undergraduate degrees from Regis University and St. John’s College.

About Roscoe Giles

Roscoe Giles is a professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Boston University, where his research focuses on the application of high-performance and parallel computing to physics and materials problems. Over his distinguished career, he has held numerous leadership roles in the scientific community, including chairing the Department of Energy’s Advanced Scientific Computing Advisory Committee, Boston University Faculty Council, and SC02. A dedicated advocate for inclusivity in the tech realm, Giles was honored with the A. Nico Habermann award in 2000 for his efforts to increase minority participation in computer and computational science. He earned his Ph.D. in physics from Stanford University in 1975, marking a historic milestone as one of the first African American doctorates in the field at Stanford. He also holds a Bachelor of Arts in physics from the University of Chicago.

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