Q&A with Brendan McGinty, Director of Industry, National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA)

Nizar and Brendan

Canada and the United States have enjoyed a special relationship for years. This relationship is special, partly because of the shared geographic border and trade relations, but largely because of the people who share similar ideologies and ambitions for our citizenry. Brendan McGinty, Director of Industry, National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) one of the oldest and most reputable supercomputing organizations in the world — is such a person. 

I had the unique pleasure of first connecting with Brendan on LinkedIn and a written relationship burgeoned rapidly into a valued friendship. I recently consulted with Brendan seeking advice on the future of NDRIO and discussing collaborative opportunities between our organizations. 

My friend, as you know, NDRIO is seeking to bring together Research Data Management, Research Software sectors and Advanced Research Computing. What advice do you have as we embark in establishing our organization?

At least in my experience, Nizar, eliminating silos so that these groups can truly collaborate is key. Thanks in large part to the data deluge of the past few years, data available to researchers has exploded and, as usual, compute power remains ahead of software in terms of just what one can do with all that data. Yet, the gap is closing. Software to enable artificial intelligence alone is providing more sophisticated intelligence and solutions, while the ability to store and manage data has largely matched the pace of data collection. The more collaboration that occurs between data management, software, and compute, the better the outcome. Silos limit that potential.

The University of Illinois and NCSA enjoy a global reputation that is unparalleled. What is the secret sauce?

Great question. I grew up on campus, sneaking out of the house much to my mother’s chagrin, to play” on the computers, PLATO at the time, where I burnt out on gaming and began programming games. PLATO was innovative because the inventor, Dr. Donald Bitzer, encouraged an environment of discovery from early educational games to understanding hacking; enhancing the security of the system by learning from the hackers themselves. From the invention of the LED by Dr. Nick Holonyak to Mosaic, the first graphical web browser invented at NCSA and so many more innovations, Illinois has always provided an environment for discovery, encouraging it, and reaping the benefits of young talent joined by top academics with a focus on technology. The secret sauce? Commitment to all of it, even if some of it wasn’t successful.

NDRIO recognizes that it must forge a relationship with Industry. One of our strategic ambitions will most certainly be to strengthen that relationship into a true partnership. As the Director of Industry, what advice do you have for us as we embark on that journey?

Generally speaking, Industry is concerned about their own world: competition, market share, net income, quarterly results, etc. In my experience, research organizations like universities tend to focus on their research and presenting it to companies hoping that an idea resonates to help fund a research lab, students, or equipment. Yet, the best results occur when the researchers are consultative with companies — truly concerned about the companies’ needs and challenges. Large research universities do not lack solutions or talent and, typically, their solutions come at affordable rates, be it from faculty or students. Talking less about our talent and solutions from a university standpoint and listening more, aligning corporate needs with research-based solutions, has proven to create a higher probability of creating a successful engagement with companies. 

As you look back on your illustrious career to date, there will undoubtedly be things you are proud of and things you wished you had done differently with the benefit of hindsight. What are some of those things?

Such a thoughtful question. I am proud of helping to bridge the gap between sophisticated technical solutions and an understanding of how to describe and apply them in broad yet impactful ways. I’m also proud of believing that things are possible when some may think not. For instance, the successful privatization and tech transfer of PLATO, already an aging system when we moved it from the University to a private company, creating a commercial success and helping young people learn through technology. I like being in fearless mode. As for doing things differently, I have conceptualized or been a part of other innovations as they were happening and haven’t always seized the moment to make a dream become reality. It’s likely an embarrassment of riches, being around so many great minds in my life but still, I would have liked to have seen every good idea reach its full potential.

Do you have any closing thoughts for our colleagues in advanced technology?

Companies have huge datasets that can provide great use cases in advanced computing research and development. In fact, companies are just now catching up to us in high-performance computing; they all need it now because of the data deluge and their massively growing data. Our experience can help them to better understand what is possible, how to innovate, and how to maximize the benefits of solutions derived from a sophisticated advanced computing environment. Ultimately, this leads to improved return on investment for the companies, increases global competitiveness, and enhances the economy — win-win-win-win!