Build Your Career: Interviews 


BIO: Natalia Juristo

TITLE: Professor of software engineering, Technical University of Madrid (UPM); coordinator of a European software engineering master’s program

ACADEMIC DEGREE: PhD in computing, UPM

CAREER HIGHLIGHTS: European Center of Nuclear Research, European Space Agency

CS ACTIVITIES: Regular contributor to IEEE Software magazine and longtime member of its editorial board; guest edited special issues for IEEE Software, Journal of Software and Systems, Data and Knowledge Engineering, and the International Journal of Software Engineering and Knowledge Engineering

Longtime Computer Society volunteer Natalia Juristo is helping develop a master’s program in software engineering with participation from the universities of Bolzano (Italy), Kaiserslautern (Germany), and Blekinge (Sweden). She has served on organizing committees for the SEKE97, SEKE01, and ESEM07 conferences, and for the ICSE03 workshop, Bridging the Gap Between HCI and SE. She spoke with Computer Society Sales & Marketing Director Dick Price about her career and volunteer activities.

Mastering Experimental Software

An Interview with Natalia Juristo

Natalia Juristo

DP: Where are you in your career right now?

NJ: I have been full professor for 12 years. I would say I’m a senior in my career, and I’m enjoying it very much. I finished my training–I don’t know–20 years ago or more.

DP: When you were a youngster, what drew you into the field of software engineering and into the academic side?

NJ: I studied what is called computing in Europe. It’s not exactly computer science; it has an engineering aspect. But I also studied other things—not only software but also hardware, compilers, other things about computers. When I finished university, I started to work for Digital Corp., at that time a very important computer company. I stayed there for six months before I got an offer from the European Center of Nuclear Research in Geneva.

I moved to Geneva and I started work as asoftware developer. I stayed there for a year and a half and then moved again, this time to Rome. Once you enter the European organizations, you know how to move around the other interesting organizations because they are very international. That’s very exciting and interesting, especially if you are very young.

I worked for the European Space Agency in Rome also for a year and a half, doing developing. After a while, I decided to return to Madrid. The software business was there. I prefer software to any other computing aspect and also, at least in Spain, it’s the main computing market. We don’t build computers or even other applications, software like operating systems. The main market in Spain is the development market.

But after working for so many interesting organizations, I was a little bit afraid of coming back and working for a regular company. On the other hand, I was a very good student, and I missed this aspect of learning and keeping in contact with a university, so I started my doctorate. Then naturally, I entered the academic aspect of the profession.

DP: Early on, was there a particular individual who was especially influential in your career?

NJ: Well, I’m not so sure. I knew a lot of different people, and there were people supporting me, but I would say that being a woman, most of the people that I was working with were men, so it wasn’t as easy having them as reference as if you were a man.

Also, the people at the European Center of Nuclear Research were physicists, even Nobel Prize winners, but I was a computer scientist.

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DP: As you moved through your career, was there one particularly smart move that you made that you could recommend to others who are following in your footsteps?

NJ: For one, I think it was moving to software engineering. When I came back to the university, I did my PhD in artificial intelligence, which seemed more appealing. When I finished the PhD, I visited the Software Engineering Institute at Carnegie Mellon University. That was a smart move. From then on, I was part of the software engineering community. I started to work on software engineering.

I’m very happy working in this field. It’s very–I need to find the word in English–“challenging” in the sense of research. On the other hand, it’s very applicable. I mean, everybody is developing software. Artificial intelligence is very scientific. It has that appeal of “Big Science,” but it is less applicable than when you talk to the companies, you’re farther way from what they’re doing.

Working on software engineering is a very rewarding aspect because it has these double facets. You can be doing very interesting research, but it’s also very practical--anything you work on can be applicable to regular life.

So, the visit to the Software Engineering Institute was a very important step in my career, yeah.

DP: Were there any dumb decisions that you would warn people away from?

NJ: Yes, I don’t know if you can avoid them. Some of them are related to being very young and then also very smart in the sense that you consider yourself very smart. And then sometimes you – I don’t know if the word in English is “offend.” Some people don’t like you just because the way you behave or things like that.

Now, after a lot of years, I’m not young anymore, I understand now the other person’s side. So I would say that the dumb actions have to do with bothering other colleagues.

DP: I know you through your involvement as a longtime volunteer with IEEE Software, as an editorial board member and an author, and then we worked together on the SE Portal project. I also know you’re very involved in various conferences. What was your most rewarding experience as a Computer Society volunteer?

NJ: They were rewarding in different ways. I think that the Software Engineering Portal was very rewarding because we were starting out. So you don’t know where you are heading, but you have the feeling of doing something very new.

The editorial boards are also very rewarding. You learn how they work. Before becoming a member, you are just a reader or an author of materials for a journal. You don’t really know how it works. When you’re on the editorial board, you see that there is a lot of effort by a lot of people behind the scenes.

Participating in different projects gives you a different view. You learn a lot and you can use that learning in your career. As an author, you’re in a passive role, I would say; going for a more active role has always been very rewarding.

DP: What kind of projects are you working on now with your students or colleagues?

NJ: I’m very active in the field in software engineering called experimental software engineering. It’s a very interesting topic. We have recently started a master’s in software engineering program that the European Commission is trying to move forward, drawing on universities from different countries. They join with common master’s programs and we are receiving students from all over the world because the European Commission pays grants for people from Asia or Africa or South America.

Knowing students from all over the world has been interesting. Before we were more focused either on Spanish students or other Europeans. It’s been very interesting learning about the similarities between all of us.

DP: So with your own graduate students and others entering the field, is there a particular piece of advice you can give them so they can better advance their careers?

NJ: Volunteering in the Computer Society is an interesting task. It’s a good way to network. It keeps you in contact with a lot of people; new things happen just because of those relationship. Any task that gets you out of your office computer but relates to people is very rewarding, not only at the personal level but also in your profession.

DP: In the next five or 10 years, what is going to be the most startling change or advance in your particular domain?

NJ: This idea of making software development a real engineering discipline. Though we have that name, we still are very immature in developing software from an engineering or scientific point of view.
The type of knowledge that we base our decisions in software development on are still mostly subjective ;there is nothing very scientific. It has not been tracked from a scientific point of view, so we are still very far away from the engineering perspective.

Trying to make software development a real engineering discipline would be a very important step forward. Hopefully more knowledge in that sense will appear about software development.

DP: At one time, you also traveled extensively in Latin America professionally. Could you comment on the development of the software engineering profession in Latin America?

NJ: They are becoming very active. Every day I find more Latin American people in conferences, courses, and so forth. In general, they are doing very well, in the sense of being more present at the international level. They are very enthusiastic, so they have a lot to contribute to the field.

These days, a lot of companies are global. They have factories, let’s say, software factories in different locations in the world. Some important companies are putting their development efforts into Latin America. They have seen that they are very well-prepared people for this type of task there. It’s something similar—though perhaps not the same level—that happened with India.

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