Greg Becker scales projects and mountains
A climber working his way up a mountain may plan his route beforehand, but when he’s face to face with the rock—his chalky fingers jammed into crevices and a single toe bearing his weight—he has to make some decisions on the fly. The path is not always straight.
Greg Becker thought he wanted to become a professor. With a double major in math and philosophy, he had options. But during his sophomore year at Williams College (Williamstown, MA), he took a computer science course. After a particularly frustrating day in other classes, Becker became engrossed in his homework in the computer lab. What he thought was one hour turned into four. “So, I switched majors,” he says.
Becker first came to LLNL as a summer intern in 2014. “I didn’t know this kind of place existed before I applied,” he recalls, describing his job as a combination of research and development. He was hired full time in 2015, and today he is an integral part of Computing’s Livermore Computing (LC) division.
Within LC, Becker belongs to a team called ProTools, which researches and productizes high performance computing (HPC) tools. When HPC code teams request new features or provide new requirements, the ProTools team handles the upgrades. “Scientific researchers don’t build these features themselves but need them to do their work,” states Becker, citing examples such as supporting additional directory structures and porting libraries to other machines. Becker and the ProTools team are bridging the feature gap for projects as varied as LLNL’s SCR (checkpoint/restart) and Caliper (performance analysis).
One of Becker’s major projects is LLNL’s popular open-source package manager, Spack. Originally designed to ease cumbersome software installation for individual users, Spack has grown dramatically in recent years to operate on multiple platforms for an even wider range of use cases. “Spack needed to accommodate large institutions deploying entire software ecosystems for scientific applications,” says Becker, so he helped build the necessary scalable infrastructure.
Not only has Becker published a paper detailing these deployment techniques, he has also crossed the Atlantic Ocean to meet with Spack users at other HPC centers. In 2018, Becker and project leader Todd Gamblin visited the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (Switzerland), the Commissariat à l’Energie Atomique et aux Energies Alternatives (France), and the OpenSource Collective Knowledge team (U.K.). Becker continued on to the U.K.’s Atomic Weapons Establishment. The trip enabled Becker and Gamblin to learn how others are using Spack and collaborate on future development.
Becker also aims his outreach efforts internally. He’s a fixture at (and sometime organizer of) Computing’s seasonal hackathons. Unlike many participants who use the 24 hours to try something new, Becker likes to focus on lower-priority tasks or features. He explains, “A lot of interesting ideas and concepts hover around the periphery of my projects, and something could end up becoming a higher priority after the hackathon—especially since the event has the ancillary benefit of congregating many of my users in one place.”
As a college student, Becker couldn’t have predicted that within a few short years he would work at one of the U.S.’s leading HPC centers, let alone present his projects to international audiences. Though his career is young, he’s glad he landed at LLNL. “I really lucked out. In Silicon Valley, computer scientists can easily spend their time optimizing ad buys,” states Becker. “I would rather do something more useful that helps the country.”
Indeed, Becker didn’t anticipate how fulfilling his role at LLNL would be. “I wasn’t looking for a job with a mission like ours, but now it would be very hard to give that up. I’ve found emotionally and intellectually fulfilling work,” he says. Becker also values his flexible schedule, with every other Friday off, that allows him to pursue his passions of travel and rock climbing. He can relate the latter to on-the-job challenges: “For any given problem, you can solve it if you’re strong enough and smart enough.”
I work with both researchers and code developers, and I like that I’m not focused solely on software development. It’s rare to have an undergraduate degree and still be involved with, and contribute to, research.
In 2018, I visited Switzerland, France, and England on behalf of LLNL. I met with teams who use Spack at their institutions, many of whom are major contributors to the software. While in France, I got to see the national team win a World Cup semifinal match.