The Informatics Department has just gained an important ally with Marian Petre, professor of computing at The Open University in the U.K., thanks to UCI’s Distinguished Visiting Professor Initiative. Petre is the perfect candidate for the initiative, which aims to “attract a cohort of high-impact scholars who are also inspirational leaders and educators to the campus for one in-residence quarter per year for up to five years.”
Petre, a well-known authority on the role of cognition in software development, has been recognized as an ACM Distinguished Scientist and has received the prestigious Royal Society Wolfson Research Merit Award. She runs the Ph.D. program at The Open University and has authored numerous publications on expert design behavior, human factors, interaction/UX design, the “psychology of programming,” computer science education and research development. Furthermore, she has worked with software teams in different parts of the world and has influenced organizations such as Microsoft and Mozilla.
Soon, her influence will be felt throughout the Department of Informatics, with Department Chair André van der Hoek welcoming her to campus for several multiweek visits throughout the year. “I’m excited about the expertise Dr. Petre brings in shaping large-scale research projects and grants, mentoring junior faculty in articulating visions and proposals, and advising graduate students on their work.”
From Poetry to Software Design
“The reason I’m a computer scientist,” explains Petre, “is that all of the attitudes toward computing I encountered early on, were problematic.” Recalling her first programming class back in high school, she says the teacher wanted to drop her from the class after she wrote a program that generated poetry. “He felt this was an abuse of the computer; he thought I should be using it to solve quadradic equations.”
Later, when she got a summer job working in a company with an IBM office machine that was used for stock management, she found herself constantly submitting bug lists for the software. “I got the feeling that these machines would dominate us if we didn’t take mastery of them,” says Petre. “So that’s why I became a computer scientist— because I didn’t actually like computers.”
Now, Petre’s an expert on software expertise, understanding how experts use computers to augment human reasoning and solve problems. “For close to 30 years, I have been working with professional software developers, trying to understand what distinguishes the experts from everybody else, what distinguishes expert software design,” she says.
Petre has learned that you have to focus on the entire process. “Design isn’t something you do at the beginning and then you throw that over a wall,” she says. “Software development is not just coding. It’s thinking about design, users and testing.” She stresses that there is a powerful social dimension to software development, with design running all the way through the software lifetime, from inception through maintenance. She notes the importance of communication, creativity, innovation and the need to manage and mitigate cognitive bias.
“Fundamentally, I pick the brains of experts,” she says. She then articulates the strategies she learns to teach them to other people, “so it’s not a black art, but we have some system to it.” In fact, she wrote a book with van der Hoek, Software Design Decoded: 66 Ways Experts Think (MIT Press, 2016), and now the two are collaborating on a new book that aims to provide guidance on how to become an effective software designer.
In addition to using what they’ve learned in their teaching of software design, Petre and van der Hoek have also been working with companies. “We’re trying to interpret our findings in terms of things that they care about — how they constitute their teams, communicate with each other, recruit the best possible teams and develop profitable products,” explains Petre.
So while the formal collaboration with the Department of Informatics is new, the partnership with its chair is not. “Andre and I have been collaborating for 10 years. I love coming to UCI. It is a wonderful environment, and the notion that this is formalized as a visiting professor is very exciting,” she says. “It gives me a vehicle to meet more people and to give back.”
Navigating through Growth and Change
Petre’s role at The Open University is very much focused on mentoring people and building a research trajectory. She is now extremely grateful to have the opportunity to share her knowledge and experience with the Department of Informatics.
“When I went to university, the model of Ph.D. study was that you arrive, they open the door to your office and push you in, and in three years, they open the door and say, ‘Are you done?’” This propelled Petre to contemplate not only what it means to become an independent researcher but also what it means to help others become independent researchers. Now, she supervises and shapes the Ph.D. program at The Open University. “I went from the ‘push them in and shut the door’ model to something now that is incredibly supportive and has just enough structure to roll students out as strong, independent researchers within their funding period,” she says.
While Petre recognizes that there’s nothing to “fix” in the Department of Informatics, she does hope to help it navigate through this period of tremendous growth. “We’ve almost doubled in size in a very short time,” explains van der Hoek. “She can bring in new ideas about how to organize the department and help us undergo the change of so many new hires, and she can especially help with the grad students.”
During her initial two-week stay this summer, Petre started meeting with some of the faculty and organizing conversations with Ph.D. students and research groups, encouraging integrative collaboration. She will return in November for her next two-week visit, at which point she will help junior faculty consider potential grant proposals while continuing to encourage the department to identify, articulate and initiate large-scale, intra- and inter-department research efforts.
“This department is going through all sorts of interesting change,” she notes. “Just having someone with a different perspective can be powerful in helping move things along.” Imagine the power of a perspective backed by expertise in motivating faculty and students to push the boundaries of their research and share the results for widespread consumption. As van der Hoek says, “I have witnessed first-hand the kinds of deep insights Dr. Petre has, her ability to communicate those insights, and her perseverance in making sure the ‘right’ research commences. She will be a true asset to the department, school and campus.”
— Shani Murray