Build Your Career: Interviews 


TITLE: Professor, Computer & Information Science and Engineering Department, University of Florida, Gainesville

ACADEMIC DEGREES: Professor, Computer & Information Science & Engineering Department, University of Florida, Gainesville

CAREER HIGHLIGHTS: Before joining the University of Florida, he held academic and industrial research positions at the Microelectronics and Computer Technology Corp., Purdue University, and the University of Texas at Arlington. At Florida, he he directs the Mobile and Pervasive Computing Laboratory and leads the technology development of the Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center on Successful Aging. He is co-founder and director of the Gator Tech Smart House, an experimental home for applied pervasive computing research. Additionally, he is founder of Phoneomena Inc., a mobile application and middleware company, and Pervasa Inc., a University of Florida startup focused on platform and middleware products for sensor networks.

CS ACTIVITES: He is a co-founder and an editorial board member of IEEE Pervasive Computing; editor of the magazine’s column on Standards, Tools and Emerging Technologies; and associate editor of IEEE Transactions on Mobile Computing.


Mobile and Pervasive Computing

An interview with Sumi Helal

Sumi Helal

Back in 1984, when he was a student member of IEEE, Sumi Helal outlined his technological vision of what the world would be like in 2084 for the magazine IEEE Potential. He came across the magazine years later, after he’d helped make some of those technological predictions come true. Now at the University of Florida, Gainesville, Helal spoke to the IEEE Computer Society’s Dick Price about teaching and the two mobile middleware startups he helped found. His advice to students? Stay in school as long as you can.

DP: So tell me where are you in your career right now?

SH: Right now, I’m almost 49 years old. I’m a professor here at the University of Florida, a full professor in the Computer Information Science and Engineering Department. I teach mobile computing, basic computing, operating systems, and systems research. I’m also a founder of two startup companies here in the Gainesville area—startups of the University of Florida. I’m doing a bit of entrepreneurship alongside my academic career.

DP: Tell us a little bit about those startup companies.

SH: One is called Phonenomena, which deals with middleware on mobile phones. The mobile phone or mobile computing basically came on almost 10 years ago. Back then, you would go to airports, you would hardly find anybody with laptops or mobile phone. If you did see somebody, they’d be the nerd. Today, if you see someone in an airport without a laptop, you know, you would envy that guy. How can he travel so light?

DP: Don’t I know it

SH: At that time, I was living the excitement of mobile computing. I was doing research funded by Motorola. I had all kind of ideas. I was so charged to go out and create something I thought would be needed—important. In a small town like Gainesville, it’s difficult to start companies. Nevertheless, I did six years ago.

DP: As a youngster, what drew you into the career path you ultimately chose?

SH: I was well motivated to go through undergraduate education in Alexandria University back home in Egypt. I knew what excited me. I had my agenda of projects I wanted do in the summer as a pen-pocket nerd. Everything was moving with great excitement. Along the way, I started memberships in IEEE and the IEEE Computer Society.
Then, back in 1984, as a student member, I used to receive a bunch of publications from the IEEE. One of them was IEEE Potential, which was a magazine for the student engineer. I just couldn’t wait until I put my hands on it. I would check with the mailman to make sure I got it. And I’d read every bit of it and interact with the editors.
Somebody at the magazine came up with the idea of, okay, let’s go around the world and see what people think the world will be like in 2084. They had a small competition and said they would pick the best 10 or 20 answers and publish them. I had the opportunity to get involved as a student, so I got involved. I sent my views of how the world would be, which were published. And then I forgot all about it.

I came to the United States and I did what I did to become a professor and what I’m doing in research right now. I came across that piece I wrote in Potential by accident. I’m reading it and I’m laughing because what I predicted ultimately became something I helped to create. That’s what I ended up working on for research right now.
In my essay, I went on and on telling about the future. I would like to read here the text out of the magazine. I still have it today.
I said that people would be more punctual partly because I was having difficulty being punctual myself. I imagine that was with this Internet. But I moved on to say that people will have the ability to program their own appliances such as TVs, VCRs, and such things. That indeed is the pervasive computing that we see today.

DP: How clever. So aside from the IEEE and similar organizations, as a
student or a graduate student, was there a particular person or something else
that had a great deal of influence on your career choices?

SH: Yes. Back home, one of the professors in Alexandria University, Dr. Solof Saleem—he definitely affected my view on the whole idea of research and innovation and how to be useful in the research community. He taught me all the basics. Then, moving to the United States, I went to Penn State, where I took a class in microprocessor design with Professor Rangachar Kasturi.

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