#5QW: Ulrich Schmid
In this edition, Prof. Ulrich Schmid tells us about the challenges in his field of research, and why he felt the need to initiate our Bachelor with Honors program.
Ulrich Schmid is professor for Embedded Computing Systems at TU Wien Informatics and a START prize winner. Starting from a practical point of view in his youth, he now loves to look into the theory behind computing: Distributed algorithms, fault-tolerant and real-time systems are his main interest of research.
How did you get in touch with informatics?
Okay, this question dates back to the last century … It was actually in my time at the HTL, and it was this upcoming trend of microcontrollers and microprocessor programming, all these embedded devices. And I was quite early involved, even during my student time, in industrial work in this area. The term computer science was actually not existing these days. For me, it was just practical stuff that counted. I was more involved in what is known as embedded systems today, ranging from industrial electronics to microcontrollers. And I was not at all interested in the theory behind this. After the HTL, I was hired by a company, earned a lot of money and did a lot of projects … and started to understand that it cannot be the end of the story. I realized that there must be more behind that, and this is where my interest in the theory behind computing came into play. I decided to go to TU Wien in order to study informatics and mathematics.
What makes informatics so fascinating for you?
The freedom of studying abstract computational problems, essentially using mathematics. I am not really interested in computer science as a discipline, but in the mathematical modelling of problems in computer science - this is my main field of interest. And computer science has a lot of fascinating problems for mathematics. One can employ various types of mathematical methods and solve interesting problems, which is absolutely the right thing for me!
Which talents should people bring along for a career in informatics?
Well, it depends on what career path you have in mind. For me, the intellectual challenge was first, so academic research was the way to go. When you are gifted in mathematics and interested in understanding how the world works and trying in building something in a solid way, what you then should focus on is solid mathematics. Many people view it differently, they say mathematics is not so relevant, programming and other practical skills are more important. However, for being a researcher, you need solid foundations in mathematics and logics. For being an engineer, it is fine to be solely interested in programming and other engineering skills.
What makes you happy in your work?
This is very easy to answer: a result coming out of several years of trying to really understand and solve a problem. This is an extremely satisfying experience - when all of a sudden things fall into place, which were not in place before. Here I also earn the benefits of my safe job: You have long durations where nothing works, and then these kind of major breakthroughs occur, and that is so cool! Therefore, I really like what I am doing, despite all the boring stuff I also have to deal with every day - I would not go anywhere else. And it goes without saying that I am also trying to make my students sharing this experience, to get a glance of what makes scientific life really satisfying. In fact, I am very much concerned that industry is increasingly hiring away our most talented students before they do a PhD. So our best talents come never close to real research questions, because they are snatched away before they can even start thinking about these problems. So industry effectively drains scientific research, and it is in fact more and more difficult to get qualified PhD students from Austria. Counteracting this trend is one of the main reasons for my engagement in our Bachelor with Honors-Program, where we try to attract excellent students for research and an academic career at an early stage in their academic life.
What are the challenges in your research area?
My main research area, namely, fault-tolerant distributed real-time systems, is very broad, in the sense that I take problems from very different fields. One example are dependable digital integrated circuits, which touch upon fields like electrical engineering and, because of ionizing radiation, even nuclear science. Another one is epistemic logic for distributed computing, which facilitates a very abstract but mathematically rigorous view of such systems. In fact, understanding the behavior of large distributed systems is just something that nobody really can handle at the moment: There are too many sources of uncertainty and the space of possible behaviors explodes in a way that you cannot possibly explicitly enumerate. So you need powerful mathematical abstractions that allow you to condense these behaviors and to reason about them at a very abstract level. And needless to say: Forget Google, doing all this without undue interference is only possible in academics!
Interview: Claudia Vitt, 2019