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Backtalk – Snehal Valame of Persistent Systems on astronomy projects

The Square Kilometer Array (SKA) is one of the largest scientific endeavours ever undertaken. It is an international effort to build the world’s largest radio telescope, bringing together a wealth of the world’s finest scientists, engineers and policy makers to lead the project to fruition.

Snehal Valame, Engineering Lead at Persistent Systems, is a member of the SKA’s Telescope Manager consortium. Here, she offers a closer look at the Persistent Systems’ contribution to the project, and at the company’s background in Astronomy projects. Snehal also tells us a bit about her personal experience in this domain, and about what someone aspiring to follow a similar path can look forward to.

Digit: The SKA is expected to generate huge volumes of data. What kind of hardware and software resources are being deployed to handle that?
Valame: Here’s a fact to give you a sense of just how much data the SKA is expected to collect: a single day’s worth of collected data would take around 2 million years to play back on an iPod. We’re gearing up to take on that huge volume of data by willing to extend our expertise in the area like Big Data and Machine Learning.

SKA currently is in its bridging phase, moving from pre-construction to the construction phase Activities like laying out an efficient design, software architecture, minimizing the risks for construction period via prototyping for all the SKA consortia are in progress. Persistent Systems is involved in two consortia under SKA: Telescope Manager, and Signal and Data Transport. Telescope Manager deals with the Telescope Controls and Observation Management for SKA, and Signal and Data Transport deals with designing a resilient and robust monitoring network system as is required for the heterogeneous network of SKA. We will be drawing from the prototyping we did for The Giant Meterwave Radio Telescope (GMRT), which has been officially granted the ‘SKA Pathfinder’ status.
(SKA pathfinders are telescopes and systems dotted around the globe (that are engaged in SKA related technology and science studies, bringing valuable feedback to the teams designing the SKA)

What we’ve been doing for GMRT is developing a web-based proposal management system and online data archive system. To explain this, let me use the analogy of a visa application process. To be granted entry into another country, you need to provide some key information – your personal details, the purpose of your visit, the details of anyone accompanying you, and so on. Typically, a visa evaluation committee will review this and grant you a visa based on the strength of your application. A proposal submission system follows a similar process. Astronomers apply with details such as the intentions for their observation, which part of the sky they plan to observe, the technical configurations they will do that with, who their co-investigators will be, and what data and how much data will ultimately be produced from their observation. Then, the in-depth review process commences, and it takes a chairperson, a time allocation committee, and finally a scheduler to firm up actual observation slots. While our application doesn’t deal with controlling and monitoring, it is an entry point. It pushes science proposals into the system, from where they can be grabbed by the telescope for the actual observation. We developed this for GMRT and extended it to ASTROSAT, which is being appreciated and used widely by astronomers across the globe.

Digit: What would you tell a student who wants to get into the field of developing software for astronomical instruments? What skills are valued? What’s the work environment like? Any stresses to anticipate?
Valame: The first thing to understand is that you’ll be entering an environment that’s very different from the IT environment most developers expect or are used to. Innovation is high on the agenda, and you’ll be surrounded by highly talented astronomers and researchers. It is incredible to witness a human-centred approach being used by researchers who are expanding the map view of the Universe. As human beings, we’re all on the lookout for answers to the bigger questions – how the Universe came to be, what our place in it is, what other objects exist within it. Working in this domain will give you a chance to see up close how Astronomy and Astrophysics enrich our lives. Everyone here is looking to break new ground and learn new things. As opposed to fulfilling a fixed set of requirements, there is more focus on pure research and science goals. To work successfully in this domain, good communication and soft skills will serve you well. There is a lot of back and forth with astronomers, where you will need to procure and understand science requirements, convert them into tech requirements and then develop the software accordingly. Strong analytics skills and the ability to adopt a human-centred approach to design thinking, where empathy, ingenuity and rationality are all at play, are essential. Always keep in mind that we are developing software for people, so empathy is essential. It helps us solve problems effectively.
Young students should definitely explore opportunities in this field which will allow them to work in a blend of science and technology

No major stresses to report after 10+ years in this domain! An interesting challenge has been working with a diverse consortium of teams from across 5 continents. You’re dealing with differences in language, culture, time zone, and in how problems are approached. But SKA’s platform smoothens the communication process, and facilitates knowledge sharing and cohesiveness among members of this very diverse team.

Unlike IT customers, researchers usually give developers a freehand, with only major deadlines or milestones to prepare for, for example working towards the telescope proposal cycle start date. They see Persistent Systems as a technical consultant that can give them the best possible solutions. This translates to a responsibility to deliver tech stacks that factor in all pros and cons.

Digit: Do you have a story to share with us from your work experience? Perhaps a challenge that had to be addressed, and how it was overcome?
Valame: The extensive design documentation was something I had to get used to. With my software development background, I was used to coding. The SKA project entailed 5 years of developing design documentation in terms of the preliminary design documentation, critical design documentation, extensive reviews and much more. Typically, in an IT project, such long durations of design and software architecture don’t happen. However, the SKA had the best practices in place for software architecture, design development and stakeholder collaboration. Through this long-term global project, I saw the power of good team work and the value of software architecture, which I now see as the conceptual glue that holds every phase of the project together for its many stakeholders.

Digit: What drew you to this domain? Could you tell us a bit about your personal journey to this point, and what’s next for you?
Valame: I joined Persistent Systems fresh out of college. As a new recruit, I got involved in an interesting project called Virtual Observatory India, associated with the Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics (IUCCA). The creative and innovative work of developing software and graphical user interfaces for astronomy data was the starting point of my involvement in this space. It led me to work as project scientist at the Côte d’Azur Observatory in France, where I helped astronomers get their data into a standard format. Interest and experience lined up, and that’s what ultimately brought me to my work on the SKA and GMRT projects.
Going forward, I’ll continue to work in the areas that interest me – user interfaces, data, creative thinking, software development and tech trends.

Aditya Madanapalle

Aditya Madanapalle

An avid reader of the magazine, who ended up working at Digit after studying journalism, game design and ancient runes. When not egging on arguments in the Digit forum, can be found playing with LEGO sets meant for 9 to 14-year-olds.