Originally Printed in the Summer/Fall 2015 Newsletter .
Interviewed by Amanda Stent, Yahoo Labs
Dilma Da Silva is Department Head and holder of the Ford Motor Company Design Professorship II at the Department of Computer Science and Engineering at Texas A&M University. Previously, she was a Principal Engineer and manager at Qualcomm Research Silicon Valley, where she was project lead for mobile cloud; a Research Staff Member in the Advanced Operating System Group at IBM T.J. Watson Research Center; and Assistant Professor at the Department of Computer Science, University of Sao Paulo, Brazil. She is an ACM Distinguished Scientist (2011), treasurer of ACM SIGOPS (2011-2015), member of the CRA-W board, and Founding Leader of the Latinas in Computing group.
Q: What made you choose a career in computer science?
I was tempted to take the medical school route to make my parents very proud, but I ended up deciding to get a degree in math. In my first week in school I took CS 101 and I fell in love. Thirty-two years later, I am still totally enamored with computer science.
Q: Explain a bit about your technical interests and how your research has evolved over time.
I am interested in enabling applications to benefit from the full power of the hardware platform, without requiring application developers to pay attention to low-level issues. I pursue a “plumbing” infrastructure that works in the presence of disaster (datacenter failures, security attacks, bugs) to enable efficient usage of available resources. I have worked in operating systems, virtualization, runtime systems, distributed systems, high performance computing, and cloud computing. A common theme has been autonomic update of services, where the software updates itself to better serve current workload requirements. Over time, my appreciation for simple solutions that have a chance to be deployed in real environments has increased significantly. Clever but complex approaches do not hold my attention as much as they did when I was in graduate school.
Q: What role has professional service played in your career?
I appreciate career success as much as the next person, but technical and business achievements seem not to be sufficient to get me running to work with excitement every day. I am much happier if I feel I am making a difference to other people’s lives and their own ability to make a difference to our world. Service to the computing community has also made my career more fun and provides me with a sense of community and belonging.
Q: What contributions have you made through administrative roles?
While in industry research, I enjoyed the challenge of connecting the objectives defined by company leadership to the research goals and career aspirations of people in my teams. My best contributions happened by identifying ways to convey our technical innovation through a story that could appeal to
the decision makers in the company. I believe I also made organizations better by valuing collaboration with other teams and by helping people to move to positions best suited to them, even if that meant that critical expertise was leaving my team. I am now in the interesting phase of adjusting my established administrative practices to the world of academia.
Q: What are some similarities and differences between life in industry and in academia?
Both environments can enable wonderful, satisfying careers. In my experience, in industry it is easier to have concrete impact since projects are conceived to address real problems or opportunities and have measurable outcomes. Also, in industry you often have access to the technical expertise you need when you need it instead of having to build it up in students who are meant to leave when they become experts. On the other hand, I believe that in most industry research labs it is very challenging to carry out research that will yield fruit only in the long term. Even when such efforts are put in place, they are subject to changes in overall company strategy. In academia, professors are the CEOs of their own small innovation ventures. Professors have flexibility in defining their research agendas, but they still need to be successful in securing funding. In terms of student mentoring, in industry I received my interns when they were on their best behavior and motivated to do well in their summer jobs. Now I am exposed to the ups and downs of the routine student progress path.
Two aspects that drove my job changes were (1) how much I could learn in the new environment and (2) how much the core organization mission captured my imagination at a given stage of my career. I went to industry to be surrounded by people I could learn from by working with them, and it went very well. I moved to another company when I wanted to put myself in a position that required me to acquire new technical expertise. And I am back in academia because it may allow me to have a significant impact on developing the next wave of talent.
Q: How do you maintain a career path open to both industry and academia?
I was deliberate in my actions so as to keep the doors open on both sides. This meant that while in industry I invested my own time and resources to pursue academic collaborations and service opportunities that I knew would be of no value in terms of my performance reviews. I chose my activities in terms of long-term career goals and I was not seduced by short-term company-internal recognition. I also followed the work done by the academic research community, and this helped in my industry job (people knew that I had this awareness and came to me for a layout of the current landscape, increasing my sphere of influence). And this practice made my networking with academia happen naturally.
Q: What advice do you have for a new manager?
You work for your team as much as you work for the leaders above you, so make sure that your decision process includes the team perspective. I did not compromise the trust my team had in me even if to keep it I had to go against directives from above. I was a very hands-on manager, and assigned technical work for myself (out of the critical path if necessary) so that the team perceived me as part of the technical team. A couple of git pushes a month worked wonders for my reputation.
Q: What advice do you have for doing a mid-career move?
Make sure that you reach out to people you trust and admire and ask for time to discuss the move you are contemplating. In my experience people are very generous with their time if they understand what we expect from them. Be prepared for a tough integration into a new environment when you have some level of seniority, as expectations tend to be high and your ability to achieve may be constrained by the lack of established collaboration partners and sponsors.
Q: What challenges have you had to overcome as a woman leader in the field?
I am still surprised by situations in which I appear to be invisible, as if my (loud) voice is only speaking up in my head. I have not found a great response yet for subtle suggestions that I get more leadership opportunities than others because I am female and Latina. But those poor interactions have been relatively rare. On the positive side, I appreciate the leadership training and networking opportunities that I had because I am a woman.
Q: How have you been involved in CRA-W? What has this involvement meant to you?
I have been a member of the CRA-W board for many years and I am still in awe of how amazing the group is. It is a privilege to have a chance to work with women who are rock stars in their technical fields, know how to get things done, and are such interesting people. I have also been on the receiving end of CRA-W, as for many years I have co-organized Discipline-Specific Workshops at top operating systems conferences. And if my work energy level and passion ever go down, I know that volunteering at CRA-W Grad Cohort will get me right back where I should be.
Q: Do you have any involvement in other volunteer organizations that support women in computing?
I was a co-founder of the Latinas in Computing group, and I cherish my involvement with them. I am also a member of the CDC (Coalition for Diversifying Computing). I have participated in NCWIT events and currently I am working with them to improve our recruiting practices at Texas A&M.
Q: What do you enjoy most about your career right now?
The level of independence and flexibility I have as a faculty member. As a department head I am more constrained in my activities than most faculty, but I am still my own boss in the realm of research, able to pursue scholarship as I see it to a great extent. Many administrative problems land in my lap daily, and I enjoy the problem solving involved. I also enjoy mentoring.
Q: What activities do you pursue outside of work?
I am passionate about literature, and never too busy to read novels. I also make myself read one non-fiction book a month, because they often teach me something important. I knit, mostly socks and lace shawls, and rarely give my knitting away, so my collection is quite impressive. I also spin and weave at a beginner’s level. My painting is void of skill but now that I live in a house with a large garage, I plan to have my own permanent exhibition. Most importantly, I code for fun, as it is hard to justify spending my “work time” coding at this stage of my career (although I still do it). I also dedicate a lot of time to handling health crises around me, as many people my age do.
Q: What are your future plans?
I started at my current job a year ago, so my next few years are focused on identifying ways to accelerate my department’s path towards excellence. And I am ambitious: I want to build a great research group even though administration takes a lot of my time. I also plan to write a book about my family, which is likely to require more conflict management skills than my day job!
Q: Do you have any advice for women at any stage of their careers?
Something that has worked for me is to take risks redefining the role or tasks assigned to me so that they better align with my beliefs, curiosities and growth plan. By making sure that I make the redefined role even more useful and exciting to other stakeholders than the original, I get the space I need to make it work for me.