Friday, July 9, 2021

Humans of Computer Systems

Professor Murat  has an interesting section in his blog called the Humans of Computer Systems. I've been thinking about documenting my own "history in computing/systems" so I decided to answer some of the questions in HCS.


How did you learn to program?

I first learned to program using programmable calculators which I borrowed from my rich high school classmates. I was amazed how using variables saves time when computing some formula. Some of my classmates even have graphing calculators. I usually borrow their calculator and the manual overnight to try it out. I then learned BASIC on my own when my father brought home an IBM PS/2 laptop. I learned other programming languages in school. 

Tell us about the most interesting/significant piece of code you wrote.

When I was in college and taking an assembly language programming course, I wrote a text editor in C, which I called ASMEdit.  It allows me to assemble and link inside the editor. For me, this was an interesting project since I learned how to use pointers to functions to implement the menu system. I also learned to call external programs, TASM.EXE and TLINK.EXE, inside another program. I also implemented syntax coloring for the assembly instructions. This project was developed for the MS-DOS operating system.

Who did you learn most from about computer systems?

I learned about computer systems in my undergraduate OS class, mostly by reading the dinosaur book by Silberschatz et. al. It was in this class that was able to use a Unix OS called Solaris running on Sun hardware. My undergraduate SP/Thesis adviser was a systems and networks guy so I also learned a lot from him. I even learned a lot more about systems when I switched to linux desktop starting with Red Hat 7.3. 

Who is the greatest programmer you met, and what is impressive about them?

Some of my college classmates were really good programmers. They can easily implement advanced data structures and algorithms, especially graph and network algorithms. There was no Stack Overflow then.

What is the best code you have seen?

Over time, I realized that there is actually no best code. I do admire readable and maintainable code. OS kernel source code is quite messy.

What do you believe are the most important skills to be successful in your field?

Desire to learn new things. Oral and written communication. Working in a team. Navigating the academic politics.

What quality or ability do you value most in a computer systems person?

The desire to learn and experiment or tinker with various things. The ability to "see" the big picture at the same time can work on the specifics. Courage to break things.


Which of your work/code/accomplishments are you most proud of?

I am proud that I was able to get tenure at the university. This gave me the freedom to work on various areas in computer systems that interest me without worrying too much about job security despite the low pay. The ICS-OS paper actually gave me tenure. I enjoyed working on it and using it in my classes.

What comes to you easy that others find hard? What are your superpowers?

Understanding systems. Connecting/integrating things together.

What was a blessing in disguise for you? What seemed like a failure at the time but led to something better later for you?

I was not accepted in the private company that I applied to after graduation. My rejection in that company led me to apply as an Instructor in the university since I also want to pursue graduate studies. 

What do you feel most grateful for?

I feel grateful for everything I have right now. 

What does your perfect day look like?

Learning something new. Helping some people. Exercising and playing sports.

What made you most happy in the last year?

I was able to survive despite the pandemic. Though anxiety kicks in from time to time.


What was your biggest mess up? What was the aftermath?

Some colleagues were pissed when they lost internet access because my private cloud setup has an exposed DHCP server which assigned IP addresses to their machines. We were able to isolate and resolve the problem but it was already late in the afternoon.

What was your most interesting/surprising or disappointing interaction at work?

I need to babysit the son of my colleague on a weekend because he needs to argue/discuss with another colleague about the "draconian" network access filtering.

What do you like most about your job/profession?

The freedom to tinker. The opportunity to share what I know. The chance to mentor and help others. Working with smart people. Playing the publications game. Navigating academic politics.

What would be the single change that would improve your work environment most?

Improving the research culture. Most of my colleagues are great teachers but they disregard the research aspect of the profession. CS is a fast-changing field. We need to keep up with the advances.


What do you think are the hardest questions in your field?

System reliability and performance. Ethics. Should we build this system because we can?  Is there one operating system to rule them all?

What are you most disappointed about the state-of-the-art in your field?

Sometimes the state of the art is just an incremental step or just scaling up. 

What are the topics that you wish received more attention? What do you think is a promising future direction in your field?

System reliability and performance. Ethics. 

What is your favorite computer systems paper? Why?

*XEN and the Art of Virtualization *A view of cloud computing *MapReduce: Simplified Data Processing on Large Clusters

I reread these papers from time to time.


Is there an interesting story you like to tell us?


Tell us your story.

I wrote an EXE non-overwriting computer virus bundled with ASMEdit I described above. My classmates and instructor who copied the program had no idea of the presence of the virus. The virus just replicates though, there is no destructive payload. AV then were signature-based so they never detected the virus I wrote.

Rant your heart out.

We are in a research university. Why are we not reading at least one research paper per week? :)