Vanessa Sochat has built her software engineering and computer science career in an unconventional way. After earning an undergraduate degree in Psychology, her first research assistant job involved using command line software and writing scripts. “I had no idea what I was doing, nor did anyone teach me, but I thrived in this environment,” she says.
Programming captured Sochat’s interest in a way nothing else had, and eventually she decided to explore graduate school. She recalls, “I knew it would take several years to catch up to where I might have been had I pursued a computer science or STEM background as an undergrad, but I loved every minute of it.” She earned a PhD in Biomedical Informatics at Stanford University where she combined computer science, cognitive neuroscience, and medical imaging.
Sochat stayed on at Stanford as a research software engineer and was one of the original developers of the Singularity container technology. In this role she created all the related tooling including Singularity Hub, Singularity Registry Server, and Singularity Compose. Her talents drew the attention of LLNL computer scientist Todd Gamblin, who suggested collaboration on Computing’s newly launched BUILD project.
Initially Sochat intended to pursue the collaboration under Stanford’s aegis, but, she says, “Curiosity got the best of me.” Speaking with Computing staff changed her perception of national labs. She continues, “My expectation was that national labs are slow and sleepy. But while talking to different teams I heard a very different story. LLNL seemed to be a stable place to work where I could be surrounded by brilliant people and work on challenging technical problems. I knew I could thrive here, and decided to make the jump.”
Sochat was hired as LLNL was nearly a year into a maximum telework posture due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Although she hasn’t met any of her colleagues in person yet, Sochat very much feels part of a team. “Onboarding was a bit stressful at first, but I’m starting to settle into my new routine,” she states. “I’ve never had so much interaction with people from different parts of an organization, and I feel comfortable being myself on the various communication channels.”
As part of Livermore Computing’s Tools Development Group, Sochat works on the BUILD project parsing binaries, assessing ABI (application binary interface) compatibility, integrating the resulting logic into solvers, and adding related features to the Spack package manager. “I love having a vision, putting my head down, and making it a reality,” she says.
Sochat has also quickly become involved in the Lab’s open-source software community. A daily contributor to a variety of GitHub repositories, she explains, “Open-source communities were the first engagements that really made me feel like I had found a team of people that cared about similar things.” She hopes to help LLNL expand its open-source activities and drive innovation in research software.
Outside of LLNL—and when she’s not going for a run—Sochat is a member of the U.S. Research Software Engineer Association and in 2019 created the RSE Stories podcast. Podcasting has taken her outside her comfort zone, providing insight into the many kinds of interactions necessary for teamwork and collaboration. Sochat reflects, “The experience has taught me that I can enter a social situation, not be perfect, and it’s okay.”
As her career evolves, Sochat has learned a lot about how she approaches new challenges. For instance, jumping into the deep end and solving problems as she encounters them are more effective for her than reading papers or watching tutorials. When faced with a learning method she finds boring or unproductive, she seeks another way to tackle the problem. “I like programming a lot, and I like to build things,” she explains. “I want to inspire others to pursue their ideas and have fun while they do it.”