Peter Benie

Profile

I am an experienced computer systems administrator and programmer, working in an academic research environment.

I thrive in a challenging environment, working alongside researchers to help push the boundaries of what's possible. Generally speaking, the harder the problem is, the better.

Skills

Automation
Web applications
Programming (Perl, Python, bash, C/C++, Fortran and other languages)
XML (DOM, XPath, XSLT)
Electronics

Employment

Jan 2003 – current University of Cambridge Department of Engineering
Principal IT Engineer (formerly known as IT Manager for Division A)
March 2000 – Jan 2003 Axiom (Cambridge) Ltd Unix & Windows Systems Administrator, C Programmer
November 1998 – March 2000 University of Cambridge High Performance Computing Facility
Unix Systems Administrator
July 1997 – November 1998 University of Cambridge University Computing Service
Unix Support
July 1996 – June 1997 University of Cambridge Department of Engineering (EDC)
Programmer

Education

1993 – 1996 University of Cambridge BA: Mathematics (2 years) and Electrical and Information Sciences (1 year)
1991 – 1993 New College, Telford A Levels: Mathematics, Further Mathematics, Physics, Computing
STEP: Mathematics

Achievements

IT for Research

In the Department of Engineering, I work in one of the research divisions for engineers specialising in fluids and energy research. The work encompasses all areas of IT from basic computer installation to design and implementation of bespoke hardware and software for individual projects.

In the division, I have automated a lot of the core IT tasks and eliminated needless variations between computer systems. The aim of this so that time is available for end-users who wish to do something out of the ordinary, and to support computers where variations from the standard configuration has a value to a project.

At the extreme end of this, I worked on a project where I designed some of the data logging electronics and all of the software for an experimental device to take measurements in a hostile environment. I visited the research sponsor's research facility in Japan for the exeriment, which included making significant software changes based on new knowledge gained during the experiment.

A more common request is to help debug a parallel computing job. If necessary I discuss the physics of the problem being solved because this leads to better understanding of the program structure and ultimately to a quicker solution.

IT for Purchasing

I designed and implemented a better web front-end for the university's purchasing system so that we could extend the ability to purchase equipment to researchers in the Department of Engineering.

The system being replaced was difficult to use, even with training, and it didn't let us implement the expenditure controls we wanted. In common with many departments in the university, we ended up with purchasing being done by people who didn't understand what it was they were purchasing, which is fine for office supplies such as paper and pens, but not technical equipment in a research environment.

The system I designed and built:

The integration of the system with central finance systems required negotiation with central technical staff. Most of the work was in the user interface, which was tested and refined many times before going live.

The system was introduced by running it in parallel with the system it replaced. The new system caused significantly less work for the department purchasing office, so when most users had voluntarily switched, the original system was disabled.

IT for Graduate Admissions

I designed and implemented a web-based graduate admissions system to replace the largely paper based system used in the Department of Engineering.

The web based system has greater transparency and helps the department process applications quicker – essential for meeting funding deadlines.

The project was sucessful because the main beneficiaries – the administrative staff – were involved closely in the development process. When they suggested changes, this led to real, demonstrable changes by the next meeting. When a consulation is shown to be sincere, it leads to positive engagement, which resulted in a product that worked well.

The system was introduced on a flag day, when the graduate office stopped producing paper forms for new applications. The design preserved the original spreadsheet as the mechanism by which the graduate office controls the state of the system. Should the system have failed in practice, the recovery procedure would be to revert to the paper system because that hadn't been dismantled to make way for the electronic system.

IT for Charity

I designed and implemented the IT system for an autism charity. This includes:

There are obvious parallels between my main job and the charity. The effect of this is that the university and the charity are both better off. Each side acts as a proving ground for new ideas that are then used in the other domain.

Professor Stephen Hawking's voice

I was part of a small team that replaced the rather old system that generated Professor Hawking's voice. I made an emulator that replicated the system in software so that it could run the original program on modern equipment. Most of the work was done without access to source code or schematics.

The project took several years to complete, and it wasn't clear that it had an achievable goal until less than a month before the finish. There is no manual for how to do this kind of work, so to start the project at all required faith in myself that I could develop the skills required along the way.

The replacement system was received well by Professor Hawking and went into service on his chair at the start of 2018.

The gist of the work was covered by the BBC and several major newspapers. I've done my own write-up of the work with more technical detail.

Interests

I have taken up the piano. Like many people I was given piano lessons as a child and gave it up before university. Returning to the piano by choice has given me much greater motivation to practice.

References

References are available on demand.


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Peter Benie <peterb@chiark.greenend.org.uk>
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