Leaders’ Insights: JC Desplat, director of the Irish Centre for High-End Computing

11 Jan 2017

JC Desplat, director, Irish Centre for High-End Computing. Image: Image: Jason Clarke Photography

Prof Jean-Christophe ‘JC’ Desplat, director of the Irish Centre for High-End Computing, offers his insight on how company culture can be nurtured and why Arsène Wenger can be considered a business hero.

Prof JC Desplat is director of the Irish Centre for High-End Computing (ICHEC). A technology expert with over 25 years’ experience in high-performance computing, his particular interest lies in the innovative use of high-performance computing (HPC) technologies in emerging domains.

Describe your role and what you do

I direct the centre in Ireland that makes HPC available for Irish researchers and companies, and, more generally, we look to increase the power and methods of HPC as a whole.

Often, the first thing I need to do is to explain that HPC is much more than just supercomputers. Yes, we host supercomputers, but our true focus is to use software and a broad range of hardware more smartly to get more performance from them.

As director, my main role is to provide strategic leadership and oversee the operational management of the centre. I am in regular communication with key stakeholders such as our funders (the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation; the Department of Education and Skills and the Higher Education Authority), our host NUI Galway, and partner organisations in Ireland and abroad.

Relationship building is another important aspect of my role, particularly in the early stages where involvement at director level provides the necessary corporate guarantees.

‘I am a great believer in emotional intelligence, and my management style reflects this’

Another important aspect of my role is to nurture a corporate culture leading to the formation of high-performance teams. I am a great believer in emotional intelligence, and my management style reflects this. As such, I dedicate suitable time for mentorship and career development advice.

Finally, I am also involved in a small number of advisory committees and councils in Ireland and abroad.

How do you prioritise and organise your working life?

This can prove particularly challenging at times. Paradoxically, the recent recession brought both an increase in administration and a reduction in admin support, so a significant amount of my time is eaten up by admin tasks. Frustrating, but necessary.

The trick for high productivity is to decrease the email clutter first thing in the morning (during the commute by train) so that I am in the rhythm by the time I make it to the office. What is equally important is to completely ‘switch off’ during weekends and holidays and adopt a stress-relief routine. This helps to ensure that high levels of productivity are maintained throughout the week.

There is no point in working long hours for the sake of it. It is better to work on productivity and stop when it drops below a certain threshold.

‘The trick for high productivity is to decrease the email clutter first thing in the morning’

My working day typically consists of a series of meetings, both internal and external. I am fortunate to have a very strong senior technical and operational team by my side (Michael Browne and Niall Wilson in particular) so I have been able to reduce my participation in internal meetings to focus on those with a strategic or corporate dimension. Due to the distributed nature of our centre (with offices in Dublin and Galway), most of our business is carried out by video conference or over the phone.

What are the biggest challenges facing your business and how are you tackling them?

Without a doubt, sustainability. It requires strong performance at the technical, operational and financial levels (ie a healthy funding diversification), a fine-tuned strategy, a strong understanding of politics, as well as (a lot of) patience and resilience.

At an operational level, staff retention and recruitment are key challenges. With the significant shortage in experienced technologists worldwide coupled with recent hiring restrictions, we need to be smart to reach our objectives.

We encourage technology students to see the centre as the place to be for gifted and, driven ICT technologists wishing to accelerate their route to senior technical positions in industry – where else would you gain project management accreditation, software development experience with industry and public sector clients and partners, take part in technology co-development with major technology corporations and access to leading-edge prototypes?

I am glad to say that we have made very good progress on all fronts.

What are the key industry opportunities you’re capitalising on?

Our key domains of activities are: performance engineering (for speed, scale and/or energy efficiency); provision of near-mission-critical services; applications in the environmental sector (renewable energy, remote observation and others).

To engage with them, I follow a few simple rules:

  1. Make more of existing skills
  2. Stay away from buzzwords and overcrowded domains (no, ‘me too’)
  3. Be attentive and responsive to clients’ and partners’ needs
  4. Aim for genuinely internationally competitive solutions
  5. Avoid overlaps with academic groups

In practice, our skills are cross-cutting and relevant where highly optimised and innovative software can make a difference. For example, we had significant success in the oil and gas exploration through collaboration with Tullow Oil; in medical devices, where we collaborate with Prof Dermot Kenny (RCSI) and Becton, Dickinson & Company; and big data through our collaboration with DataDirect Networks (DDN).

As was demonstrated as part of our recent public debate on HPC, competitiveness and innovation – which gathered the European Commission director general of DG CONNECT and global industry experts – the breadth of application domains where HPC is becoming a crucial tool is rapidly expanding. So we expect our domain of activities to grow accordingly in the coming months, with the most likely domains being precision medicine, precision agriculture and the financial services industry.

What set you on the road to where you are in the technology industry?

I got here by accident. I deliberately avoided computers until my early 20s. They were far too geeky for someone whose passions were motorbikes, mechanics, windsurfing and playing bass guitar in a hard rock band.

‘I got here by accident. I deliberately avoided computers until my early 20s’

At university, I learned my first lines of code (Quick Basic interface to LabWindows) and I made my decision to get an Amiga 500 to catch up. The rest is history. I learnt Modula-2, Pascal, C, Perl, and chose a PhD in computer modelling at the Materials Research Institute in Sheffield (UK) where I made my first steps on parallel systems (T800 transputers and Intel i860).

Parallel computing really grew on me and then I joined EPCC at the University of Edinburgh in 1995 – the dream first job in Europe’s premiere HPC centre. Then, after 10 years in EPCC, I decided to join ICHEC as technical manager and employee number five, to help set up a national centre from a green field situation – it was quite a buzz!

What was your biggest mistake and what did you learn from it?

My biggest mistake was to allow external influences to create self-imposed limitations and seek compliance with convention. Both are seriously inhibiting to ambitious and innovative thinking. So my lesson learnt is not to allow negative people and people with vested interests to influence me.

How do you get the best out of your team?

I try to foster job satisfaction and a strong sense of belonging. I also nurture strong and positive corporate values and I encourage creative thinking, continuous development and, importantly, team spirit.

We have focused on removing barriers to knowledge transfer within the organisation, particularly silos. With smart and ambitious people, job satisfaction is optimal when placed in a situation where they are challenged and stretched, but safe in the knowledge that other team members (and, indeed, colleagues at the centre) are here to help if and when necessary.

Bonding is crucial for high-performance teams, and we in ICHEC are particularly strong on this front. As evidence of this, a number of former ICHEC employees were recently interviewed as part of our 10th anniversary video and asked what they missed the most about ICHEC. Their answer was unanimous: people.

Finally, our ambition is resolutely outward-looking, striving to compete with US national labs and large national centres worldwide. In that respect, we are delighted to receive frequent testimonials from our partners and clients (whether in industry, academia or the public sector) on the impact ICHEC is having on their output.

STEM sectors receive a lot of criticism for a lack of diversity. What are your thoughts on this and what’s needed to effect change?

So much talent is being wasted by railroading young women into ‘conventional’ (non-technological) career paths. It is ridiculous.

Hopefully, we are soon going to experience a significant improvement (at least in ICT) thanks to the CoderDojo movement – so a big thank you to James Whelton and Bill Liao, co-founders of CoderDojo! Through their movement, they have successfully demonstrated that programming is fun and creative and can be enjoyed by everyone, challenging the clichés that you had to be like a character from The Big Bang Theory to be good at it or enjoy it.

Change needs to occur at a young age, from primary school. But all those concerned – from parents to the media and others – have to take responsibility here.

‘So much talent is being wasted by railroading young women into ‘conventional’ (non-technological) career paths. It is ridiculous’

In ICHEC, we are supporting the Women in HPC initiative, which seeks to promote HPC as a women-friendly career path.

The most interesting comment I heard in recent time was from Marc Carrel-Billiard (global managing director of technology R&D at Accenture) at our discussion panel on HPC and competitiveness. Marc explained that some evidence suggested that young women were more attracted to occupations that made a difference (in terms of global good). This suggests that, instead of marketing jobs in our sector on the technology, we should focus on its positive applications, particularly when it is relevant to health, the environment and other application with strong societal impact. This would be easy to fix, so definitely worth putting in practice.

Who is your business hero and why?

Can I have two? The first one is fellow Frenchman Arsène Wenger, the manager of Arsenal FC. He has demonstrated that high levels of performance can be sustained over decades without sacrificing one’s principles. His success is based on principles I can relate to, such as placing the team above the individual, loyalty, nurturing talent and being resilient in the face of adversity. I greatly admire him for this.

My second hero is Prof Martin Curley of Maynooth University, formerly of Intel. Recognised as one of three European CTOs of the Year in 2015 and a pioneer of Open Innovation 2.0, Martin has demonstrated genuine technical leadership and ambition on a global scale. Just like my first hero, this is someone who understands the importance of a positive and dynamic culture on team performance. I am a strong believer in positive corporate culture.

What books have you read that you would recommend?

Currently I am going through La Nuit des Temps from Barjavel, one of the fathers of French science-fiction. The style is a little quaint, but I love the old science fiction as it gives some perspective on our ability to predict the future.

For a more serious read, try Industrial Applications of High-Performance Computing by Anwar Osseyran and Merle Giles.

What are the essential tools and resources that get you through the working week?

Heavy use of video conferencing and email daily. Then there is the essential stress-management and energy-boosting routine which includes regular visits to the gym, long walks on the beach in Skerries (where I live), and hours working in our organic allotment with my very patient and understanding wife Breda.

For further information on ICHEC’s Women in HPC initiative, please contact Emma Hogan, who is actively involved in this initiative.

Disclosure: Bill Liao is a partner at SOSV, which is an investor in Silicon Republic