On the clock, Mike Pingleton, a computer operations manager for the National Center for Supercomputing Applications, monitors the building-size computer system that will become the Blue Waters project in December.
Off the clock, the waters get a little murkier.
“I like to observe reptiles and amphibians and I spend a lot of time out in the field participating in research,” he said from the fishbowl-like control center on the upper floor of the National Petascale Computing Facility, where a team of nine employees monitors NPCF systems in anticipation of the startup of NCSA’s Blue Waters system.
The interests are admittedly incongruent, but Pingleton’s commitment to scientific exploration makes the two worlds seem not that far apart.
“If something isn’t working here, it’s science that’s not getting done,” he said. “That’s important to me and everybody here because we know this university runs on research.”
Science also drives his thinking while knee-deep in a muddy river, tagging a hellbender salamander, or deep in the Peruvian Amazon rainforest, searching for a bushmaster, one of the largest venomous snakes in the world.
“I’ve looked for everything,” he said, noting his involvement with “a party of like-minded” people – amateur herpetologists – who like to scour soggy places looking for reptiles and amphibians.
Pingleton started working at the UI 21 years ago as a digital computer operator. Originally from St. Louis, he worked after high school as a steel fabricator and attended some college classes, discovering he had proficiency for understanding and operating computers. It was in the late 1980s, at the beginning of the personal computing revolution, and Pingleton saw an opportunity.
“I found I really liked working with computers and it led me to decide I needed to change direction,” he said. “The more I learned about computers, the more interesting they became. It was a time when technologies were really starting to mature.”
He took a job as a computer supervisor at a bank, then learned of the UI opening.
“I wanted to move to a smaller town and I was looking to get on at the university and finish my education,” he said.
Between raising three daughters and trudging through swamps in his free time, the degree never happened. But Pingleton continued to keep up with changing technologies and worked his way through the ranks.
“In this business, one of the tricks is just keeping up with it all,” he said. “You have to wrap your head around the current system, drop that, and then relearn a new one. We’re in a constant state of change.”
Pingleton and his team monitors the building and its systems over three shifts, 24 hours a day. They also operate a national help desk and call center for researchers experiencing operational problems large and small.
“It can become complicated because we’re not dealing with off-the-shelf products here,” he said. “It keeps us very busy and it’s very challenging – but I really love it. There’s always a new problem to solve.”
Pingleton said as frontline troubleshooters, his team found that communication skills are many times as important as analytical acumen.
“We do a lot of monitoring of the systems, but we’re not just computer-room jockeys – we’re user advocates,” he said. “Communicating is an art and science in and of itself. We have to not only solve their problems, we have to communicate the solutions effectively.”
He said the entire NCSA team is highly experienced and works well together – which allows him to hunt for snakes with confidence during off-time.
“We’ve got a really good crew who covers each other’s time off,” he said. “I think we’ve put to together a great team here.”
Pingleton, the author of a book about red-foot tortoises, is working on a children’s e-book about “cool snakes,” illustrated with photos from his many expeditions.
“It’s a really good way to get some use out of these pictures,” he said, and the book on turtles came about after he couldn’t easily find information on the subject.
He has another research trip to Peru planned in January with his reptile-friendly and sometimes amphibious friends.
Pingleton’s wife, Nell, isn’t quite as gaga as her husband for the creatures many consider creepy, but she’s not a hater either.
“She’s very supportive and she doesn’t have a fear of snakes,” he said. “But we have an agreement – no spiders.”