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Fernanda Foertter: Hackathons Reflect Interests, Learning Style

June 16, 2016 – Fernanda Foertter, a user support specialist at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory, considers herself a tinkerer.

Foertter’s tinkering started when she was a child, but her innate inquisitiveness still influences her work at the Oak Ridge Leadership Computing Facility (OLCF), a DOE Office of Science User Facility located at ORNL.

For the past two years, Foertter has helped spearhead the OLCF’s role in organizing and hosting hackathons—events meant to bring researchers together to work on a particular problem related to coding or programming.

“Hackathons represent my love for collaborative work,” Foertter said. But her road to being a high-performance computing expert began as a result of isolation.

When she was 12 years old, Fernanda Foertter moved with her mother from Brazil to the United States. At the time her lack of English skills left her feeling alone, so she found solace in activities such as dual-booting her mother’s personal computer to run multiple operating systems and taking apart old appliances to build circuits.

Whenever the language barrier and her eclectic interests turned to doubts, mentors, such as her mother or a teacher, were always there to encourage her to continue pursuing her interests in science, math and tinkering in general.

On January 28, 1986, nine-year-old Foertter’s interests were cemented when she witnessed the space shuttle Challenger break apart shortly after liftoff. “That day, I told my mom, ‘I want to make sure this doesn’t happen again,'” Foertter said.

Shortly after joining the OLCF in March 2012, Foertter volunteered to make training one of her main focus areas. “My thinking was, ‘this isn’t the most high-profile job, but it is really important,’” Foertter said.

Foertter knew from experience that much of the training related to high-performance computing was individualized and passive in nature—researchers would attend lectures or watch training videos, but little training was done with hands-on learners in mind.

“The appeal of hackathons might come from my time in the military. The goal is tunnel vision—you work on one aspect of the problem, you trust your team and the process, and you will get a successful outcome,” Foertter said. She also compares hackathons to her time in large music ensembles in which individuals play a specific part in a much bigger goal.

In addition to offering researchers an alternative way to learn about HPC programming, Foertter says hackathons help train future researchers in a forward-thinking manner. “The days of the hero programmer are gone,” Foertter said. “At a certain point, one person could do everything from theory to scaling. Computers are bigger and more complex now, meaning there has to be teamwork to get the best science out of them.”

To date, Foertter has helped organize eight hackathons, several as far away as the Swiss National Supercomputing Centre (CSCS), and the Technical University of Dresden in Germany.

 “The question I asked myself about the hackathons is, ‘What would I like in a training session?’” she said. “I like to take a deep dive in what I’m learning about, roll my sleeves up, and then kill myself to get a job done, so hackathons are a natural fit.”