#winning: William Hill, Engineering for the Earth

William “MJ” Hill, currently a front end developer at New Relic, has been involved in environment-related software engineering for over six years. For this month’s bonus #winning member spotlight, we connected with him to learn more about his work on the “Earth System Grid Federation” project at Lawrence Livermore National Labs, an impactful project both personally, and globally. Read the full conversation below!

The Compiler


/dev/color member William “MJ” Hill.

/d/c: Tell me about your work in climate research.

MJ: At Livermore National Laboratories, the team I worked on there was the Climate Science Research team. I worked with and wrote tools for subject matter experts in climate science. The project was basically just a peer-to-peer network where climate scientists around the world could share research and collaborate, and I was responsible for the installation component of that — basically taking some legacy code, refactoring it, making sure that the actual tool was available to climate scientists all across the world.

The project itself [the “Earth System Grid Federation,” or ESGF] ended up being pretty successful. It ended up winning an R&D 100 Award, [for] allowing different scientists to come together, share their research on these novel things and do different models of simulation as far as looking at weather phenomena.

/d/c: That’s amazing! Sounds really successful, and cool to be such a big part of a global project. How did you get involved in this? Were you interested in climate research before, or was this just kinda an engineering gig that happened to be around the environment?

MJ: The guy who was leading the project was a mentor of mine. It was Dean Williams — super, super, super dope brother. He was the most experienced computer scientist at the lab at that time; he had been there for over 30 years. And he was running this project. Doing all these proposals, bringing in all his own money, all his own funding to run this project, and he was doing an incredible job doing it. So he had been my mentor for about a year before he was like “Hey, I have an opening on my team and I’d like you to apply for it.”

/d/c: So it was his passion?

MJ: Absolutely. Yeah, he worked this insane schedule. He would come in at like 4 in the morning… And part of it was just we were working with people from all across the world, so you’re dealing with different time zones and stuff like that. Dean was just incredible. He ended up having to step away from the project, and eventually retire, and you could tell when he left it just left a huge void within the project. It was basically taking three people to do the work that he was doing after he left.

When I moved over to that team, I came in to fill a need where they essentially couldn’t release software. They had, to put it nicely, a “antiquated” process as far as how they were handling the release of software. There was no continuous integration or anything like that. If you’ve ever worked with any bash code, it was like eight thousand lines of bash. It was just… the worst code I’ve ever worked with in my life [laughs]. So we basically tore it down and started rewriting from scratch.

/d/c: Wow, how long did that take?

MJ: *Phew*, almost two years.

The whole project was already ongoing and up and running by the time I got there, and as far as I can tell it’s still ongoing. That was an important part of the project because, I mean, the user software — you gotta be able to install it. We were able to make that process a lot easier for different people to install the software and get on-boarded so they can then become part of that peer-to-peer network of knowledge sharing.

/d/c: Did you ever get to see any of the research that was shared between scientists?

MJ presenting at one of the ESGF annual conferences.

MJ: Yeah, we would have our own annual conference where all those collaborators across the world would come together and meet. It was primarily in D.C., and then the last year I was on the team it was actually in San Francisco. So we get to meet all those people that we were only on Webex calls, phone calls, or email chains with. All those scientists from Germany, from Australia, from Korea, Italy… from various research facilities would then come together and do various presentations and everyone would get to share their work that was going on throughout the past year.

/d/c: Did you learn a lot from those conferences?

MJ: I did, a lot of it was over my head, ’cause I am not a climate scientist, I’m a software engineer, so…! I was able to pick up things here and there, but that was not my field. And I’m sure it would have been the same on both sides, once the developers would start talking our technical jargon, they may have gotten lost, and then once they started talking their technical jargon about climate research, I definitely was lost! But I was able to pick up a few things here and there.

/d/c: So are you interested in climate justice in general, outside of software engineering, from this project?

MJ: Yeah, because I saw the severity of it. I probably wouldn’t be the person who could take a climate change denier and then change their mind, I don’t have that amount of knowledge about it, but just being around them and seeing the passion for their research, and even some of the results, I was like “Yeah, this is definitely an issue.”

/d/c: And the conference was to share their own knowledge between themselves… Was there any external part of it where they shared it with the community?

MJ: Absolutely. The entire project was open source. It was meant to be shared. None of that was meant to be siloed to just a certain amount of people. It was meant to be shared to the general public, so that anyone could access that data.

/d/c: Do you feel like this helped you in your career as an engineer?

MJ: Definitely. It was a lot of hard lessons learned throughout that project. I definitely got the experience of working with large legacy projects and trying to modernize them. And I definitely learned the importance of writing good, clean code because someone’s gonna eventually have to maintain that code, and you can really leave a disaster behind. So it made me a better engineer.

MJ and his colleague with their awards in Technical Leadership on the ESGF project.

MJ: I’ve been at /dev/color basically since the first cohort. So, I’m an old head at this point. [laughs] Ever since they started accepting members at large, I’ve been a part of it.

/d/c: So what keeps you coming back?

MJ: When I first moved out to the Bay, I really didn’t know anyone. So /dev/color gave me a tribe. It gave me people who had common interests, who had common challenges. If I was going through a crappy time at work they probably had experienced the same thing. It gave me a support system.

And I just got to meet some incredible people. I’ll even just shout out by name, like one of the people who’s become a good friend of mine that’s been in my squad the whole time is Lauren Frazier. Lauren Frazier went from being at Google, killin’ it there, to going to Unity and killin’ it there, now she’s running her own company!

You know, it’s awesome to be around people with that type of ambition and that type of talent, and you hope it rubs off on you.

/dev/color is home for Black software engineers, technologists, and leaders, providing a place to start and stay in the tech industry. We center Blackness, the Black experience, and Black excellence as a necessary workforce equity strategy. As we provide the framework and mechanisms for our members to hold one another accountable to ambitious goals, we’re committed to being an accountability partner in the greater industry. We encourage employers to walk the walk with us in deconstructing inequitable racialized systems and behaviors, in order to #ChangeTechForGood.

Learn more about /dev/color at https://www.devcolor.org/



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