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Irene Zhang
Irene Zhang is a Ph. D. student at the University of Washington. (Irene Zhang Photo)

Irene Zhang was born in Beijing, moved to the United States when she was 4, grew up in a small town in Indiana, went to school at MIT in Boston and is now at the University of Washington in Seattle as a fifth year Ph.D. student in Computer Science and Engineering.

And she’s likely to be on the move again after she graduates.

Zhang, who is GeekWire’s latest Geek of the Week, said that Columbus, Ind., is a town of about 45,000 people in the south-central part of the state.

“Although I don’t look like it, I’m really a Midwestern girl at heart,” Zhang said. “I think that Midwestern friendliness has served me well in navigating the tech world, which isn’t always so friendly to women.”

As an undergraduate at MIT, she worked on research in processor architecture and distributed storage, and she said it motivated her to go to graduate school.

“I really think of myself as an operating systems person, except that the applications today don’t run on a single machine anymore, so the lines have gotten kind of blurry,” Zhang said. “In my mind what I think of an operating system as doing is making life easier for application programmers. They manage everything on your computer for you. So I’m essentially trying to do the equivalent for mobile cloud applications, which I just think of as applications that run both on lots of mobile devices and lots of cloud servers.”

Zhang said she is building things that are operating systems-level services like security and storage and memory management and run-time execution.

“I’m building those things for mobile cloud applications, so of course there’s some big differences between the applications that run on your operating system on your computer and these big, large-scale mobile cloud applications,” she said. “The first is that they’re distributed, and so what I’m really building are distributed systems. They have to run on a lot of computers and they have a lot of distributed systems problems. Things could fail, somebody’s cell phone might just turn off — lots of these things that don’t happen to these applications that are just running on your desktop computer.”

Zhang, who laughed when she said she’s “fairly certain” that she’s graduating this year, said she is applying for academic jobs right now and that will keep her busy in the near future. Her hope is to take a tenure-track faculty position somewhere.

Zhang also loves to cook and make her own ice cream and after several minutes of talking about the her research and work at the UW and the future of computing, when we asked her her favorite flavor of ice cream she said, “That’s a really tough question!”

But she finally said that she’s been making lots of bourbon pecan because it’s a popular holiday flavor that she gives out for gifts.

Learn more about this week’s Geek of the Week, Irene Zhang:

What do you do, and why do you do it? “I do research in distributed programming platforms for mobile/cloud applications. Application programmers today are writing code that runs on mobile device and cloud servers, so they are really tackling a lot of hard distributed systems problems. Companies like Facebook, Twitter and Google have figured out how to build these kinds of applications, but those lessons have not really made it into general-purpose systems that help the average application programmer. So, my research is on how to eliminate the need for programmers to tackle these tough distributed systems problems. I want to make it possible to build the next generation Facebook-scale application in a few hours, not a few years.”

What’s the single most important thing people should know about your field? “A lot of what I do is motivated by wanting to help people. I learned early on at MIT that if you can design a flexible, practical system, you can save work for thousands of programmers. So, although I work in low-level operating systems and distributed systems, my high-level goal is still to make life easier for people.

“I think the other thing that might surprise people is that, although I’m a grad student in computer science, I don’t spend all or even most of my time coding. I enjoy coding, but I also spend a lot of my time writing papers, teaching, giving talks and talking to other researchers.

Where do you find your inspiration? “I build applications myself, ask other people to build applications and talk to people that build applications. It’s like a field study. If I don’t understand the problems and pain points that application programmers have, I can’t build systems for them.”

What’s the one piece of technology you couldn’t live without, and why? “My sous vide! It’s a life saver in grad school when I come home late and want something quick to eat that isn’t take out. Without it, I would be eating greasy pizza every day, like I did in undergrad.”

UW workspace
(Irene Zhang Photo)

What’s your workspace like, and why does it work for you? “I work in a lab with a bunch of other graduate students. It’s great because I can always talk to them if I ever need to bounce an idea off of someone. Also, they are working on some exciting research that I get to keep up with because I’m around them every day.”

Your best tip or trick for managing everyday work and life. (Help us out, we need it.) “I’m a pretty big fan of GTD (David Allen’s Getting Things Done). I used org-mode in Emacs for many years but then switched to 2Do once I got an iPhone because it syncs between my devices. I don’t always do a good job of keeping up with my to do list, but it does make the number of things that I have to keep in my head manageable. As a grad, I wear a huge number of different hats (e.g., doing research, teaching, taking class, attending seminars, writing papers), and there is no way I would be able to keep track of everything without some technology.”

Mac, Windows or Linux? “Mac laptop, Linux desktop and Google Compute Engine for research experiments.”

Kirk, Picard, or Janeway? “Picard. I also live on tea — earl grey, hot.”

Transporter, Time Machine or Cloak of Invisibility? “Time machine. I would love to go back in time and just pick people’s brains. I always want to know what different people are thinking and why they are doing things.”

If someone gave me $1 million to launch a startup, I would … “Productize my research! Although I release all of our research code open-source, I just don’t have enough time to make it production-quality, so that someone can pick it up and use it. I’m always torn between working on that and building the next new thing!”

I once waited in line for … “Din Tai Fung. Ever since it opened near the UW, I’ve been getting my dumpling fix, but there is always a line!”

Your role models: “My mom. She’s also a software engineer and pretty amazing. She switched to computer science from mechanical engineering when she came to the U.S. for grad school. But she didn’t speak a huge amount of English, so I found it amazing that she could do things like take Harvard’s OS class, which is taught in C, without knowing English or C!

“I’m also inspired by Barbara Liskov, my undergraduate advisor at MIT. She was the first woman to get a Ph. D. in computer science and now has a Turing award, but she has some amazing stories from being a woman so early in the field. I’ll always remember that she said once that she knew if she didn’t get tenure at MIT, she could always become a housewife!”

Greatest game in history: “The Incredible Machine. I just love building things. I also love the Sims, but I only like building the houses, not playing it.”

Best gadget ever: “Apple TV. I would have never bought one, but Apple handed them out to the NCWIT scholarship winners and now I love it. It makes me feel like I am living in the future when I can order delivery from my TV.”

First computer: “A Dell Dimension desktop circa 2000. I got my first computer pretty late, but I think my dad let me pick out all of the specs, which was pretty cool.”

Current phone: “iPhone 6.”

Favorite app: “Day One. The app is so pretty that it keeps me journaling.”

Favorite cause: “Girls Who Code and other organizations that reach out to girls earlier in life. Lots of girls (including me, surprisingly) just never have anyone suggest that they might be interested in computer science.”

Most important technology of 2016: “Pokémon Go! It has introduced millions of people to augmented reality!”

Most important technology of 2018: “Skype translator. If we can make as much progress on real-time translation as we have on voice recognition, then we would really be able to communicate with people that we could never really talk to before.”

Final words of advice for your fellow geeks: “We’re just scratching the surface of what computer can accomplish, so it’s a pretty great time to be a geek!”

Website: Irene Zhang

LinkedIn: Irene Zhang

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