In conversation with Elisabeth Ortega, HPC Specialist at Do IT Now

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 Elisabeth Ortega. Elisabeth will be presenting, “Our success case of full remote working.” Her path to a career in supercomputing started with the fascination of all things science and technology.  Learn more about Elisabeth and how she embraces future advancements in the field with open arms.

“If you feel you’re not ready, it’s because you already are.”

Elisabeth’s bio

Dr. Elisabeth Ortega is a Theoretical Chemist converted to an HPC specialist. Since she was a child, she has been an enthusiast of science and technology, and it motivated her to get a first degree in chemistry and a second in computer science, followed by a master’s degree and a Ph.D. in theoretical and computational chemistry. She tasted the HPC world, being the only system administrator of the chemistry department for one year, just to pay the bills when her doctorate scholarship ended. Still, she realized that academic life was not for her and moved to the industry right after presenting her dissertation. She spent seven years designing and developing software for pharmaceutical companies, teaching her customers how to use the solutions provided, and traveling as a salesperson. When the lockdown affected her daily tasks, and after spending a few months working from home, she decided to change her career and restart her experience in the HPC with a position in customer support and as a technician for European projects. A few months later, she was promoted to create her department and start the company’s ” quantum journey, ” focusing on innovative solutions to improve user accessibility to HPC and the optimization of computational resources. Today, she is the R&D&I manager and one of the decision-makers of an HPC services and consulting company. Her career was combined with her participation in local community events, participating actively in PyLadiesBCN initiative more than 10 years ago until today (+100 members), being part of the coordination team of “Hablemos Python” discord channel for Latin community of Python developers (with close to 9000 members) and co-creator of the WHPC local chapter.

Why did you choose a career in HPC?

In fact, HPC chose me. I started my career in HPC at the exact moment when 1) I just finished my scholarship, and 2) the system administrator who was working for the University left. The principal investigators of the different research groups contacted me to cover the vacancy until the day of my dissertation. So, I worked at the university for one year, taking care of the HPC facilities of the chemistry department on my own. After that, I worked for seven years in a software company. One day, I looked at myself in a mirror and loudly said, “Is this what I want to do when I grow up?” (I was 35 then, but the age is just a number!). At that moment, I contacted an old friend who owns an HPC services and consulting company, and a few months later, I resumed my career in this beautiful field.

What excites you about the future of HPC?

I enjoy the uncertainty. It may sound odd, but my comfort zone is made of slippery rocks and wavy floors. It is what excites me about the future of HPC. As R&D Manager, I face different technologies in my daily tasks at work: new updates in a job scheduler, an improvement of a well-known algorithm, the increasing interest in AI or quantum computing, a new processor architecture… The HPC field is evolving every day, and this situation won’t change in the future.

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

That’s an excellent question. I want to start with some advice to students or newcomers: the moves you take today do not constrain your future. When I was in high school, thinking about my future, it was hard to decide between Chemistry and Computer Science. Still, I decided to study Chemistry in the first place and left Computer Science for the future since there was the possibility to do it online. So this is what I did! Unfortunately, I could not find a job as a chemist, so that was my push to pursue a Master’s degree and a later Ph.D. in Theoretical and Computational Chemistry. There, I started as an HPC user, and I already told you about the rest of the story, but as a summary, I can say that it was a perfect coincidence! I’m improving my skills today with a second Master’s degree in Quantum Computing.

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

  1. Don’t underestimate yourself. It is easy to say and difficult to practice, I know, but you are worth the same as the rest of the employees of the company.
  2. Don’t stop learning new things. Please do not consider it as a contradiction of the first advice! The HPC field is quite big (networking, applications, hardware, benchmarking, cloud computing, etc.). Take your time to explore the different areas.
  3. Be nice. It can sound slightly obvious, but you will never know if a contact you have on your agenda now could be key in your career development in the future.

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

I managed the chemistry department’s infrastructure on my own without prior experience. I was the only system administrator at the Faculty. I can’t stop saying thanks to the previous system administrator, who documented everything in detail.

What are the problems faced by women in HPC sector? Any advices to overcome them?

There are several problems faced by women in HPC, which are not exclusive to HPC. Some are mild, and others need the company’s action or even can finish in court. The most common are the first ones, like paternalism and mansplaining, and can be overcome by informing the other person that this behavior is awkward.

Then, we could find some situations that can start to be scary, like comments about our bodies or sexuality or even someone putting his hand in a place where it shouldn’t be. In that situation, I encourage you to contact human resources or similar to protect yourself and start legal actions if needed.

In general, and the most critical point, is that those situations are not our fault or responsibility. It’s not your dress, it’s not your make-up (or its absence), it’s not your hairstyle, neither your voice nor your way of treating people. None of these define your professionalism. Women have constantly been demeaned for their acts just because men do not like them or it’s “too girly” for a business.

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

I’m surrounded by wonderful women in HPC and Quantum Computing. I’m fortunate because of that. When I need
extra motivation or some support, I just need some minutes with them, sharing a coffee, doing a short call, or sharing some messages. My other source of motivation is the members of my team. As each of them develops a different technology, sometimes it is hard to understand the details, and this fact pushes me to be better day by day or find new opportunities.

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

That’s the critical question. Individually, we can only do two things: educate others and respect ourselves. Educating by explaining the situations where we find some gender bias and respecting ourselves to accept that it is not our fault and we are worth the same as the man sitting in front of us.

We can also participate in collective actions, like supporting groups such as the local chapters of Women in HPC, to find solutions together.

What is the best thing about being a computational scientist? Any advices for people who wants to become a
computational scientist?

The best thing about being a computational scientist is being exposed to a new virtual universe. The usual entry level to the computational science degree is similar to coding some applications or mounting/dismantling our PC. I advise people who want to become computational scientists to have fun and enjoy the learning process.