In conversation with Brendan (boof) Bouffler, Head of Developer Relations at AWS Engineering

Special thanks to our WHPC Communications volunteer, Nandhana, for bringing these interviews together.

We are delighted to present a short series of interviews with some of our SC’23 Workshop Speakers, continuing with Brendan (boof) Bouffler. boof will be presenting, “Surviving and thriving as an ‘outsider’ – with the help of allies.”  boof’s journey into HPC has allowed him to travel all over the world where he’s been able to see first hand how the field of supercomputing is making a positive impact.

When you achieve something meaningful for you, no matter how small, celebrate it. You can never know who’s watching. From their vantage point what you did might just keep them going for another day or two, and that could lead to something incredible. – boof

boof’s bio

Brendan Bouffler has 25 years of experience in the global tech industry creating large-scale systems for HPC environments. He’s been responsible for designing and building thousands of systems for researchers and engineers, in every continent. Many of these efforts fed the top500 list, including some that made the top 5.

After leading the HPC organization in Asia for a hardware maker, Brendan joined Amazon in 2014 when it became clear to him that cloud would become the exceptional computing tool the global research and engineering community needed to bring forward the discoveries that would change the world for us all.

He holds a degree in Physics and an interest in testing several of its laws as they apply to bicycles. This has frequently resulted in hospitalization. He is based in London.

Why did you choose a career in HPC?

I gravitated towards HPC mainly because I need to feel good about the work I’m supporting with the tech I build. When my tech is being used by someone to builder a better widget or get supply chain efficiency … that’s … nice as far as it goes. I know it helps someone. But when it’s being used to find a cure for a disease, or – more recently – a vaccine for a virus, it feels instinctively awesome to be part of the food chain that made something like that happen. HPC is full of these kinds of opportunities to change the world in a truly meaningful way.

What excites you about the future of HPC?

Since deep learning burst onto the scene, and its younger siblings – AI and generative AI – I’m certain that HPC’s methods of “solving Great Big Problems by throwing massive compute at them” is going to be around for a long time, and has a hell of a course yet to run.

What did you study? How did you begin your HPC Career?

I studied physics, but I “took a year off” in post grad to earn some money before continuing and … well … you know the story. I never went back because I got comfy earning money, and had an opportunity to do a start up with some friends, which took me to New York, London, and then all over the world. I’ve been to 49 states (missed Alaska, but I’ll get there), and countless countries. I worked for nearly a decade in Asia, and got to build a business there. Physics taught me to solve hard problems and to enjoy them, especially when they looked too hard. I’m pretty sure that helped me in my career in a lot of orthogonal ways.

What are the top three things you would advise to someone considering a career in HPC?

  1. Do it – HPC is a computational technique, a way of solving hard problems, and a community. If you like solving hard
    problems, there’s no better job.
  2. HPC is full of people with incredibly strong opinions. Don’t let this put you off. Sometime they’re incredibly well
    formed opinions, but very often they’re just as wrong as the next person, and need to find out. Take the higher road
    and point out how wrong they are, but in a less condescending way than they’d usually deliver the news.
  3. HPC is (nowadays) everywhere. A career in HPC might find you landing into almost any sector of the economy or any
    country in the world.

What is your most proud accomplishment in this sector to date?

Being a key part of the team that’s put cloud on the map in HPC. In tech terms, it involved a lot of innovation and invention. But in commercial/sociological terms: it’s a great example of how hard it can be as an outsider to break into the inside of a social group and gain acceptance. Cloud went for the longest time being the ugly cousin of the HPC world – lots of naysayers and detractors (still is) – and honestly it’s taken a lot of perseverance to hold the course, stick to our guns and … finally … start to get accepted.

What are the problems faced by people in the HPC sector? Any advice to overcome them?
It’s sometimes hard in HPC – the sector that’s well known for being bleeding edge – to acknowledge when someone else solves a problem in a better way.

What is your source of motivation/support during difficult times in your professional life?

When I have a tough day in the office, I dwell on the fact that regardless of how hard my day was, my dog Elmo just doesn’t care. She still loves me, and still wants to go for a walk, or sit on the sofa and snuggle. Apart from the fact that she distracts me when I’m stressed, she reminds me that in the greater scheme of things I have all the things I need in life, and that the stuff I’m stressing about isn’t life or death, but probably a “first world problem”.

How to get rid of gender bias and diversity issues in workplaces?

I’ve watched lots of attempts to programmatically make gender (and other) bias go away. They vary in their success. But I’m yet to see anything as effective as vocal, noisy, lead-by-example. Easily the most effective change I’ve seen has come from seriously great women working hard and being visible and successful while they do it. Highlighting their achievements acts like a magnet to others and does more good than a thousand D+I seminars. That means, IMHO, that we need to put extra effort into talking about the accomplishments of the women in our work places, so others (younger women, early career etc) know that someone is out there ‘doing it’ and that it can be done.

What is the best thing about working in HPC in the private sector? Any advice for people who want to do the same as you?

I worked in academia briefly at the start of my career, and made lots of life-long friends there. I’m still in a tight orbit around academia. But I love the private sector for its speed of decision making, and it’s calculated risk taking. I think it opens up a lot of doors and different ways of thinking about a problem than I might have been able to explore when I was at a university.