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My Life in Tech: A Q&A with Grace A. Lewis of the Software Engineering Institute at Carnegie Mellon University

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Grace A. Lewis discusses the work she's doing as part of the Edge-Enabled Tactical Systems (EETS) research team at the Software Engineering Institute.
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InformIT: What do you do as the technical lead for the Edge-Enabled Tactical Systems (EETS) research team at the Software Engineering Institute?

Grace A. Lewis: The focus of the EETS team is to leverage mobile technologies to enhance the manner in which people operate in tactical environments. As the technical lead I work with the team to create mobile solutions that can make an impact for people in the field and that we can transition to organizations that are willing to incorporate our ideas and prototypes into operational systems.

InformIT: Can you tell us more about what Edge-Enabled Tactical Systems are, and what the SEI is doing with them?

Grace: The term tactical edge is used as a reference to the edge of a connected network, which is where soldiers and first responders operate. We are currently working on mobile solutions so that people at the edge can execute their missions better, by providing ways they can access critical data even in situations of intermittent network connectivity, discover and leverage nearby resources to enhance handheld and sensor device capabilities, use context awareness as a way to reduce cognitive load and conserve resources on the mobile device, perform complex data analyses as a mission progresses, and rapidly deploy all these solutions in the field.

InformIT: Most people don’t think of “cloud computing” and “war zone” in the same sentence, but that’s one of your areas of research – using the cloud to extend battery life and reduce vulnerabilities in hostile environments. Can you tell us more about your work in this area and what applications it might have in non-hostile areas?

Grace: Hostile does not necessarily refer to a war zone; it refers to environments that are not friendly in terms of resources and environmental conditions, such as those experienced by first responders in natural disaster zones or medics providing care in impoverished regions. Our work in this area is based on cloudlets – which are discoverable servers located in single-hop proximity of mobile devices that use them – on which mobile can offload expensive computation such as speech recognition, face recognition, air quality analyses, image analysis, or the analysis of any data that is sensed or captured in the field. This not only saves battery life but also extends the computing power of mobile devices.

InformIT: Which of your initiatives at the SEI are you are most excited about?

Grace: I lead a project titled “Cyber-Foraging in Resource-Constrained Environments.” The goal of the project is to move cloud computing to the edge by leveraging the technologies and concepts behind public and private clouds today, such as virtualization, elasticity and scalability, but being able to do it in the field with the use of cloudlets. The key at the edge is not only being able to offload computation, but also to keep providing these offloaded capabilities in the face of adversity. This requires an architectural approach that focuses on creating solutions that promote qualities such as survivability, resilience, trust, and ease of deployment.

InformIT: What are some of the most interesting challenges facing the field of mobile computing today?

Grace: I believe the real challenges in mobile computing do not come from everyday use; they come from being able to use mobile devices in situations where you do not have total control over the environment, such as at the edge, or where the environment is constrained in terms of resources, such as impoverished regions where mobile devices are the only form of technology and communication with the world. Creating mobile solutions that adapt to all these constraints is full of challenges and research opportunities where you can also make a huge impact.

InformIT: Tell us about your co-authorship of Modernizing Legacy Systems: Software Technologies, Engineering Processes, and Business Practices. How did the book come about, and what was your role in it?

Grace: That was a long time ago! At the time we were doing some very interesting customer work related to modernizing legacy systems, and we all thought that it would be a great idea to write down all that we were learning and implementing. We codified our process as the framework for the book content and divided up the chapters according to our areas of expertise. It was a lot of fun and it was also when I discovered that I loved writing.

InformIT: Your book shows how to implement a successful modernization strategy and describes specifically a risk-managed, incremental approach. How has this process evolved since you published the book in 2003?

Grace: It’s funny because I still find people that tell me that they use the book in their courses or at work. I believe that the key was that we proposed a generic process that could be instantiated with any number of technologies and simply used our experience and selection of technologies as a case study that ran throughout the book to explain the concepts. That’s actually the key in software engineering — to be able to define processes that can then be adapted to the particular culture and technologies of an organization, while maintaining the essence, rigor, and value of the process.

InformIT: Why did you pursue a B.S. in systems engineering at Icesi University in Colombia? Did you have any specific motivation or mentors who encouraged you to enter this field?

Grace: I am a first generation American. My parents came to the United States in the 1960s like many immigrants looking for the American dream. Unfortunately, my parents divorced when I was 17, a junior in high school, and the decision was to move to Colombia to live with my Mom’s family. Systems engineering in Colombia is a very challenging major that combines computer engineering, computer science and information systems. I felt that it was a really good match for me because I really enjoyed computers and programming. My first computer science teacher at high school encouraged me to pursue a career in this field because programming came very naturally to me. It was also a field that at the time was hiring lots of people, which to me was also important given our financial situation after my parents’ divorce. 

InformIT: What have been the biggest challenges you’ve had to face in your career?

Grace: How fast the field evolves is a challenge as well as a motivation. It is exciting to be able to work in a field where you learn something new every day, but being a working woman is difficult in any career because you play many roles in life. Not that men don’t do it, but I feel that for women it is much more important to have a healthy life-work balance and we stress more about it.

InformIT: What has been your greatest professional achievement?

Grace: At my last industry job, which was in a university, I was tasked with implementing the university-wide information system which would have to incorporate data from a very old system and also interface with all the existing and new enterprise information systems. It was a wonderful experience to start with the basics of doing all the strategic planning, requirements analysis, design, architecture and finally implementation, starting from a team of one and ending with a team of 10 people that had a full system up and running in 2 years. The core of the system is still working to this day although the technology has evolved.

InformIT: What is the most important advice you’ve ever received?

Grace: That you and your family always come first. When I was younger I thought that my goal in life was to be the CIO of a large company. That has changed completely! My goal in life is to enjoy what I do at work and to be the best that I can, so I can leave work at work and go home enjoy my family without being stressed about work. It takes a lot of discipline but it’s what makes me happy.  

InformIT: What advice would you give to a young person who is interested in getting into software engineering?

Grace: It is a wonderful field that requires a lot of dedication and especially organization to keep up-to-date on the latest technologies but also keep a healthy life-work balance. However, it is a field that is very rewarding because you get to be creative and in the end many people use the software that you design and build.

InformIT: What do you do for fun?

Grace: I do a lot of things for fun. I spend a lot of time with my family. I have a wonderful husband and we have two wonderful children, a 10-year old boy and an 8-year old girl. We enjoy watching movies, playing board games, playing outside when it’s not cold, and ice skating. My husband and I enjoy going to concerts together. And for my “me time” I enjoy making cards and Zumba.

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