Tuesday, July 31, 2012

How we organize research in the Cloud Computing Center

I have explained how to find a topic for a research project or dissertation in the last blog. Today, I want to comment on some of the best execution rules, which should help you in achieving the best project results in our Cloud Computing Center (3C). 

Our ambition is to find and research new ideas and use the new results for creating useful applications on Internet and for mobile devices. Check the first batch of projects completed in May this year or the new projects we are starting now.

First things first. I believe that every member of our team needs to understand what is the target of his research, what needs to be researched? The problem formulation needs to be crystal clear. The best way to accomplish this is to ask all new members to write a simple essay. I always conduct an initial interview with candidates applying for a project and I try to introduce possible interesting ideas, but leave space for creativity and innovation. The discussions may take quite some time but the result is an essay describing briefly, without any technical details what is the research good for, why we should pursue it. The essay needs to answer the following questions: what would be the impact of the research, where it can be applied, is it going to improve people’s life, why we need the solution?

Once we understand the problem we start the papers search - how to solve the problem. We again are answering a set of questions: what are the known approaches, what are the possible solutions or directions of new research, which of the described or published approaches may lead to best results, how are we going to improve the current solutions and what are our chances for succes? By the way sometimes it is very difficult objectively measure what is success. Finding the right direction takes a lot of work. The systematic paper search, learning and understanding and collecting them to a document or blog takes quite some time. The blog with notes not only helps in learning the basics but will come very handy later as a list of references. While reading the articles we will soon discover who are the competing researchers or companies and what is the state of art in the field. Very helpful is to network with researchers or groups working on similar problems and I encourage everybody to socialize as much as possible.

There are also some formal requirements in the 3C. Every member of our team has to prepare a short CV and place it on our pages along with the essay describing the problem. I ask all members to point their private Facebook and Linkedin, Google and other profiles to 3C pages, this attracts visitors. We want more traffic to our pages, because we want to advertise our work, we want to attract people with the same interest. Certainly, every person in the team has also a link to a personal blog tracking the project progress on 3C pages. For the everyday progress tracking each member needs to share with me also a document with a list of tasks and their completion. Recently we are also in some more intensive projects using Asana a simple work flow management system.

Our team is growing and we need to have common vision and strategy. The team members need to communicate and help each other to select projects from the same or similar fields to effectively cooperate. The best place for exchanging ideas are the weekly meetings. We summarize the recent work and plan the next steps. I am also envisioning to organize reviews of interesting articles. This will help us to stay on the technological edge.

To make sure we grow, I ask all the PhD students to supervise one or two BSc or MSc students. These students are helping to test or implement some of the research ideas and this way contributing to the work of the whole center. I also expect the undergraduates to help us with writing applications demoing the research results. Demos are the best way to promote the results of our work.

I also pay close attention to promote the research results to the industry. Technology transfer is one of important roles we need to play. Every member of the center is asked to constantly think how to use the research results in the industry. All members should think about creating startups or spin offs. The number of students creating startups is still very low at our university and in our country in general. On the other hand startups are the best form of organization for converting the latest technological results to successful products.

Research institutes and schools are frequently supported by governmental grants. Part of the work therefore must aim at effective grant submissions and search of partners for cooperation.

This is the list of rules and common practices we apply in 3C. If you have different rules or suggestions for improvement, let me know. If you want to join us let me also know. We also look for research and industry partners ...

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

How to chose the dissertation topic

All PhD or MSc students are asking the same questions at the beginning of their career: how to select the best thesis project? Indeed, there are many ingredients required to cook a good dissertation. Let me share some of my thought.

How to find the research topic? Where to start the search? The synonym for search is Google today. Yes, Internet is the source of great knowledge but there are also other sources. Our university diploma works are available on line and all dissertations are available in our department library. I would suggest to start here. Go through them and read especially conclusions they include lot of suggestions for further development. Starting with the works from our department has one advantage: they are focusing on what our faculties are interested in. Understanding the research in our department will result in better, more efficient follow-up search on the Internet.

Work systematically. Record all what you have read and try to identify what was each work solving. What was the contribution and conclusion? What are the open problems. I strongly suggest to write a blog.

While selecting a topic consider the added value. Once you solve the dissertation problem what is the benefit. I also will suggest checking the business value of the topic or research. Do you think someone will buy the solution? Is the created intellectual property good for creating a startup?

What other considerations can help you in selecting the topic? During the school years you were good in some of the courses, you liked solving certain problems. These are the areas to search for a good problem. It is very important finding something you are passionate about. Passion is an essential ingredient of a success in any project. Do not forget there is a long way to solve even a simple problem and you need to stay focused and motivated. Motivation drives great performance and leads to the best results.

As soon as you get closer to the problem formulation write an essay. It should not be too long, one up to two pages are enough. Try in simple words explain to someone who is not an expert in the field what you want to do, why are you passionate about the problem and what will be the benefits. Even if you are going to focus on a fundamental theoretical problem you better know what is your contribution and who is interested in the results. The larger is the group of people who will benefit from your solution the better.  Do not do anything just for the sake of research ask and answer real practical questions.

Once the project is at least vaguely formulated go to the Google scholar or other research databases and identify the major journal focusing on your topic. Collect relevant articles and sort them out. Cluster the topics in major groups. This will help you to find out the state of the art in the area of interest. You will also learn who are the major leaders in the field, where they publish and what is popular. Do the same for the major conferences. Do not forget you need to publish to prove your competencies in the field. The journals and conferences are the targets for publishing your results.

What is also important? Your chosen topic needs to align with the interests of your advisor. Choosing the right advisor and aligning your topic with his interest is essential. You are in fact looking not only for the advisor you better search for a group of people researching similar topics. The reason is very simple, you need to regularly discuss with your peers and the advisor too. The discussion is the best way to improve your views, to get further motivation, to have someone who will argue with you, who will ask you to get deeper to the problem. Group of people working on the same topic will also help you to stay focused not to loose the direction. Your peers are the best listeners and advisers to your research interests.

Last but not least. Research work is not very well paid and you need some funding. Therefore I recommend looking for all the grants, funding or granted projects in the area at the very beginning while deciding about your project. Identify the possible sources and constantly search for funding. Proposing a new research or asking for funding for your research is also not simple, you need to learn it. Think about it also as soon as possible. Think about the best way to present your project, research and its results. Find the most persuasive ways how to demonstrate your research results. Understand who can be your customers, who needs the results of the research, these people are the possible candidates for funding.

Good dissertation is a result of a hard, long time effort and requires lot of ingredients. This year we have been very lucky and we got three new doctoral students who decided to take this path. I hope, we will do great job and come with exciting and new ideas. Follow us on the Cloud Computing Center pages and check how successful we are in completing all the above steps.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Music festival Pohoda and startups

My interest in startups and mentoring has unexpectedly prepared me a very interesting week. First, I visited my friends at the University of Tomas Bata in Uherske Hradiste and then I jumped over the Czech and Slovak border to Mini Unicamp at the musical festival Pohoda in Trencin. Great and very interesting week.

A small part of the Tomas Bata University, the Institute of Visual Art is located in Uherske Hradiste Moravia, Czech Republic. Bob, one of the professors at the institute, is leading a group of students interested in media design.  Bob is teaching web design and this brought us together. He is teaching students producing nice designs but they rarely turn their designs to real applications. Here we are stepping in. We have many students highly interested in programming web apps and typically their biggest weakness is graphical design. Yes, it is obvious we need to combine the skills and create new apps. Wait, I will soon let you know where to access the designs and enjoy them throughout the summer.

I arrived to the UTB on Tuesday afternoon and Bob took me for a nice walk to admire the local architecture and the nearby vineyards. We have passed several nice cellars and climbed a small hill to enjoy a scenic view.  Going down the hill we started to inspect the cellars from inside, delicious vine. Later we got to the centre of Uherske Hradiste to discover a stylish retro bar with an name attracting all hackers “Portal”. It is furnished with a large collection of last century design chairs. Other UTB friends joined us and we continued tasting the local vines. They serve not only vine, I had an Earl Grey cup of tea for the breakfast the next morning. Running on "portal" was an opportunity to discuss further plans for our cooperation, but at 10PM we have experienced the Portal DoS ( Denial of Service) and we had to move to an other cellar to continue the “discussion”. It was very long and productive. Give us some more time we have cocked some very interesting projects.

The next day I have visited a very nice exhibition of the UTB designers in a local movie theater. In the evening I got back to watch a movie. We had to wait to collect at least 10 viewers, the minimum to start the show. We were lucky we close at 12 people.  Movie theater is a remarkable building from sixties. From outside it has the proportions and style of the famous Ludwig Mies van der Rohe buildings. The main hall is covered with  a dome like roof. On top of the dome is a little garden. The entrance to the main hall has very thick and large doors. Why all that? It was originally build as an atomic attack shelter for the local communist establishment.  Remarkably the building is really great.

I have moved to Trencin on Thursday to join the musical festival Pohoda, a great event attracting a crowd of 30k viewers.  This was my first music festival ever. My expectations were very different. I have not met any drunken people, no drugs, and no orgy. What more there were about sixty people interested in startup discussions. The Mini Unicamp has been sponsored by British Council. The organizers put together architects, designers, university teachers and others to discuss the creation and innovation process. All approached the discussion from their point of view. It was interesting for me and I hope, for the viewer too, to see and the different views and different problems in various professions. I was representing the Internet segment. The main idea I have tried to convey was the democratization, the easiness of accessing programming resources, movie making, music, entrepreneurship and other disciplines. Anyway, you still need to have a good idea to take advantage of all the free tools and create something new. Most of all, I have tried to motivate people and make them understand, it is easy to turn their dreams true. There are so many opportunities, …

This was very unconventional week, but I have learned a lot. I have met many new and interesting people and I am sure, I will meet with them soon again working on new disrupting projects.