#5QW: Henderik Proper
Want to know what plumbing and models have in common? Henderik has the answers. The teaching enthusiast is our newest professor of business informatics.
How would you describe your work in 90 seconds?
Whenever humans are dealing with complex matters, like building a bridge, designing a city, or developing software – we make models. These models might range from a sketch on the back of a napkin to very detailed and precise models. Increasingly, models also need to be executable by computers. In this context, I´m interested in organizations’ so-called “modeling capability” and how we can improve it through IT solutions. We tend to forget that we use models because often they do their work silently in the background. A concrete example are spreadsheets: we all work with them; but fundamentally, they are models. If you look at a large organization, hundreds of spreadsheets may “float” around, capturing knowledge about the company and how processes fit together. But how do we integrate and link these spreadsheets, to create a comprehensive understanding of an organization’s business processes, for example? That’s where IT comes in.
How did you get in touch with informatics?
I was watching TV like any other teenager and saw a course on programming in Pascal. Intrigued, I started reading books on programming. I wrote my first program without a computer, so I wasn’t even sure if my code would run. But then, I was able to test it on my nephew’s ZX81 computer – when I typed in my algorithm, it worked! You can’t imagine how excited I was. My father then bought me my first computer; a Commodore VIC20. I wasn’t sure what to study at first but eventually decided on informatics. Initially because of programming, but then I delved deeper. I thought I would be a consultant working in the industry. But in my third year, I got exposed to research by a lecturer that made us read scientific papers and started to build prototypes of the papers’ theories. I loved it. Since then, I´ve been going back and forth to combine the best of both worlds – working in science and industry.
Where do you see the connection between your research and everyday life?
Modeling is a bit like critical infrastructures such as electricity, water, plumbing, etc. As long as it works, everything is fine. But when it doesn’t work, you’ll be in an absolute mess. An example would be an insurance policy contract. One might think there is no modelling involved. But. the insurance company uses a list of concepts and rules defined in a policy, which are essentially an abstract model. It defines what will happen if you need insurance coverage, how both parties will interact, what risks are covered, and much more. A lack of precision in this model can affect the company and the customer severely, from legal disputes to financial losses. A lot of the more critical modeling is, of course, not visible in everyday life. Models are working behind the scenes but define crucial processes and interactions on a daily basis.
What makes you happy in your work?
First, new insights. Getting my finger behind open questions I’ve been pondering for a long time, and telling people about it. And second, teaching. The best combination for any course is if you have people working in the industry, because they ask questions about the real world, and full-time students with their more theory-driven interest. Teaching truly gives me energy. I have a long history of teaching at TU Wien Informatics, as I´ve been a guest professor for several years. In 2012, I started teaching Enterprise Architecture, but am now teaching several courses, also on a bachelor level.
Why do you think there are still so few women in computer science?
I would actually argue that this is partly still an open research question. But let me start with something obvious: We need more role models of female computer scientists. Part of the lack of females goes back to the wrong impression of computer science, which I find quite surprising. I’ve also been teaching students in Uganda and Russia, where the majority of students in computer science was female. This proves that social circumstances, and how society sees and values the field are crucial. This notion that informatics is nerdy is also a very wrong impression. Computer science is cool! So many diverse people study and work in IT, and we don’t all have to be Steve Jobs.
Henderik Proper is Professor of Enterprise and Process Engineering at TU Wien Informatics at the Business Informatics Research Unit. Find out more about his latest research. If you are interested in modelling, make sure to check out his latest keynote On Views, Diagrams, Programs, Animations, and Other Models at the 11th International Conference on Model-Based Software and Systems Engineering
Discover the whole #5QW series.