Mobile and Pervasive Computing
Dick Price
OCT 09, 2012 01:00 AM
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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 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.

Dick Price So tell me where are you in your career right now?

Sumi Helal: 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.

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

Helal: 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?

Price: Don't I know it.

Helal: 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.

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

Helal: 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.

Price: 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?

Helal: 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.

As my professor, he made it so easy for me to learn quickly what it means to be professional and how to be a professional. He made it so obvious that professionalism is extremely rewarding because of the respect he enjoyed from everybody around him. Just being very serious but not losing your sense of humor. Being on top of your duties. He was so focused on the goal, his duties, and what we were supposed to deliver. That was his mission.

I was strongly influenced by him. I am very glad to see that he now heads the Computer Society as president this year. That's the man who most affected me after I moved here to the United States.

Price: I'm sure Kasturi would be thrilled to know that he had that much influence on choices that you've made. That's very nice. So as you move through your career, can you pinpoint one smartest decision you made?

Helal: That was back in 1996. Being an academician, it helped me a lot to leave academia and go to industry. Joining industry for a while in the middle of your career is not a bad idea, if you can afford it. Academicians usually have the luxury of being able to go back to academia.

I would encourage other academicians to make the move, go to industry mid-career. You need the experience that will not be provided in an academic setting. Then go back to academia if that's what you want to do.

I joined MCC in Austin, Texas, and stayed there for almost three years. There I realized that there is something as a researcher that I didn't understand before — the connection to the customer, what people want, the reality of a solution.

You cannot keep researching a problem and solving it without connecting with the beneficiary of the solution — the person who will make use of it. That was a major shift for me. Meeting with more customers, more people, traveling the world — to Japan and Europe, meeting with my peers — it gave me a breadth of experience that I didn't have before.

Price: Can you think of a dumb decision you made or missed opportunity or some fork in the road where you wish you'd taken the other direction?

Helal: Yes. I think entrepreneurship is a great thing for academicians. But too much entrepreneurship is not good idea. So, starting my second company while struggling with the first was a bit of a dumb idea.

I did it because I have passion for creating products. I don't like to just publish papers. I like to — I believe it's easier to publish papers than to actually produce something. That's a challenge, a bar I raise for myself. But given the academic position that I have, I think it is dumb to try too much entrepreneurship. It's a great thing to do entrepreneurship once you're a professor but you need to do just the right amount.

Price: It sounds like you've been involved with the IEEE for 25 or almost 30 years. And you and I worked together on the start of IEEE Pervasive Computing magazine. I was wondering if you had a thought about your most rewarding experience with the IEEE Computer Society?

Helal: I have organized many conferences as a general chair or program chair and I have been an area chair, area editor, and associate editor for several transactions. Of those, there are two activities with IEEE were very rewarding and very special to me.

One is the IEEE Pervasive Computing. When Satya [M. Satayanaraynan, the founding editor] invited me and a number of other people to help in founding this magazine — I had a lot of passion for it. And Satya did a good job by bringing all the board — almost everybody who was on board was very passionate about it.

I still enjoy doing today, especially as an editor of the magazine's Standards and Emerging Developments department. It really was a big opportunity for me and very rewarding. I've enjoyed it very much.

On the conference organization level, I enjoyed one particular conference that I was involved in from the beginning with Carl Chang, Mike Loo, and others. And that is the SAINT conference, which is co-sponsored by the Computer Society and the Information Processing Society of Japan.

I have been involved since 2000. The conference has been popular and focused. It's about what the Internet will be in the future other than just a medium to access email and Web content—the Internet as an engine for other things.

Price: What advice would you give a recent graduate if he wanted to pursue a career something like yours?

Helal: I hope my advice would come to him or her in time, before graduation, because that's where a lot of it is needed. Don't rush graduation. Don't rush to get out in the world — especially in a bear market or a bad economy.

Don't graduate before clearing all the bases. Make sure that you are fully prepared. Make sure you pick your industry. Don't just get a degree in computer science, or any master's degree. That is not adequate today.

When you graduate, you must have a few labels. You must be sellable to the telecommunications industry, for example. You must be sellable to something, some industry. So choose it. Research it while you're studying and taking classes and doing your dissertation or master's thesis. But definitely have more than one aim, plan accordingly, and don't rush graduation. Fill in more voids and gain more experience than you need just to graduate.

Also, try to spend the summer in industry. Taking classes and working on your dissertation in the summer is not the best use of your time. Every summer, try to locate an opportunity or just invite yourself to groups that are doing fantastic research that you can join. That will give you better overall value when you graduate.

Price: In your field, what do you think will be the most startling advance in the next five or 10 years?

Helal: Definitely sensors, pervasive computing, sensor computing. We already started to see that happen in the hospitality industry. Most hotels have moved into a highly sensor-based kind of a space. Look at how you solve the energy crisis. You have to look at alternative fuel, but that's not the only place.

Another solution involves harvesting power; creating buildings and rooms that use less and less power and then harvest as much power as possible — that will be key.

The future will need to focus on the word "smart." It's very loaded word. It means many things. But definitely smart means using less power or no power and also getting things done more efficiently. CW (9-Dec-08)

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