The high-performance computing (HPC) Sysadmin might cross-train with the Scientific Software Specialist, Storage Architect, and/or Network Administrator. In small environments, they might wear all of those hats, and more! Most are responsible for system health on large collections of servers numbering in the hundreds and being aware of current cybersecurity threats. It’s also their job to support the researchers who use the clusters, and that support occasionally involves recoding or “optimizing” the jobs so they run more efficiently.
HPC sysadmins must be excellent problem solvers, and if they possess strong interpersonal skills their job will be easier when it comes to customer interaction. Many provide training and one-on-one consultation. Some become XSEDE Campus Champions and serve as a liaison between the National Science Foundation’s XSEDE program portfolio of federated resources. The best HPC Sysadmins are campus advocates who help non-technical stakeholders understand how advanced technology helps attract technically-proficient research faculty and compete for grants.
How does one prepare for a career as an HPC systems administrator? Few academic programs offer the right form of preparation. Most become specialized through apprenticeship programs, internships or student employment opportunities.
As far as career mobility, however, there is higher demand for HPC Sysadmin-generalists who understand a variety of platforms since they can cover a broader range of responsibilities with less training.
UI Computer Science Student McKenna Kinley worked with Brenna Miller (former UI HPC Sysadmin) in the UI Research Services department for three years before graduating in 2018. It was Brenna’s mentoring that influenced McKenna’s decision to pursue a career in research computing.
While McKenna was poised to take a full-time position at UI upon graduation, she received a last-minute offer from Amazon Web Services (AWS) that was too good to turn down. At AWS in Seattle, McKenna will participate in a rotation series getting acquainted with multiple aspects of their portfolio before settling in with a specific team. Travel is important to McKenna; with a global footprint, it’s likely that AWS employment will satisfy this interest, too.