Thursday, 26 March 2015

Introducing the team: Mick Pont, NAG Principal Technical Consultant

Over the next few months, scattered in between our technical blog posts, we are going to publish interviews with NAG colleagues. Our first interview is with Mick Pont.

Mick, what is your role at NAG? 

I'm a Principal Technical Consultant, and Deputy Manager of the Development Division.

I'm involved in the development and peer review of new NAG Library software and documentation, and in the scheduling of software production in line with company targets.

In "project management" speak, I'm named as "Executive" for the NAG Mark 26 Library (the NAG Library, Mark 25 is due for launch in April 2015) project, which means that I'm supposed to "provide support and advice to the project manager, and ensure that the project outcome is good and provides NAG with increased value".

I also produce the NAG Technical Support rotas (most of the NAG development team are on one or other of these rotas regularly). Handling support calls is a good way to get to know our customers, understand the issues they face and help solve them.

I build and test most of the Windows-based libraries that NAG produces, but I'm an operating system agnostic - I like to use Linux and other systems too.

I often go on customer site visits with my sales colleagues, as technical backup.

I also teach various training courses for NAG software, including the NAG Toolbox for MATLAB® and the NAG Library; these training days usually take place at customer sites.

Can you give examples of the customer problems you help solve when you’re in your support role?

Helping users get their NAG software and licence keys installed correctly; helping them migrate from one version of the NAG Library to another; advising on the best NAG routine to solve a particular problem.

Tell us something special/unusual about life at NAG?

We try to celebrate all of the world's festivals where appropriate. Icelandic cream bun day is a big favourite of mine.

Tell us something special/unusual about yourself?

I'm a solipsist, and I choose not to believe in this question.

What industry events are you going to be attending this year?

Lots of training days at customer sites around the UK, and later in the year I will be attending SC15 in Austin, Texas.

Thursday, 5 March 2015

Optimization, NAG and Me - 5 Years and Counting

Authored by Jan Fiala, NAG Numerical Software Developer

It feels almost like yesterday since I joined NAG so it is hard to believe that it has been 5 years already. Looking back, I see a long path I would like to tell you a bit about, just in case you were curious about one of the people answering your support queries.

I was always a blend of a computer scientist and a mathematician. Computers and programming were my hobby but it did not feel quite right to choose either as the main subject at university so I picked mathematics. Thereafter began my hunt to get as close to computers as possible. Numerical analysis and mathematical programming/optimization were my lucky answer.

I really enjoyed my university years, however an academic career is not for everyone. The necessity to write papers ("publish or perish"), going through a couple of postdocs before getting a tenure, fund raising, teaching and going ever deeper and deeper into a very narrow research field are some of the disadvantages. I love to learn, play and to hack things. To make them work. So, when I got the opportunity, I joined NAG.

NAG is a great place to work if you find scientific computing interesting. There is a very long history, in fact, the first NAG Library was distributed to the users even before I was born! NAG today is not confined to numerical software (NAG Libraries). The organisation has expanded to numerical and HPC services, compilers and more. However my job still consists mainly of work on the Libraries, developing new optimization solvers and maintaining the existing ones.

The best thing is the challenge -- you need get your hands dirty in various fields: from specialized solvers for derivative free optimization, through classical convex optimization to nonlinear semidefinite programming. I went through small pet projects (have you read my AMPL tutorial) through bespoke versions of our solvers tailored to special customers' data to a 50000 lines beast, a new semidefinite programming solver which will be released soon.

In addition, you mustn't forget to help the customers via our friendly support desk, write documentation and examples and keep an eye on the up-to-date algorithmic developments. I can still attend conferences as before, only the focus has changed from an academic to a more pragmatic approach. The relative freedom of the focus is almost limitless, as my ideas contribute to the development roadmap and thence to the future development. I won't lie to you. The time was not all green and great -- writing test programs or bug fixes can be tedious but they have to be done. At least it makes you look forward to the next new challenge which is waiting just around the corner.

If my story sounds familiar, you might be pleased to know that NAG is expanding our optimization team. So ladies and gentlemen, why are you waiting? Apply now and help us make the next big project happen.