Deputy Project Director Matt Sieger organizes the massive effort to install Frontier on schedule
The “Pioneering Frontier” series features stories profiling the many talented ORNL employees behind the construction and operation of the OLCF’s incoming exascale supercomputer, Frontier. The HPE Cray system is scheduled for delivery in 2021, with full user operations in 2022.
Matt Sieger has the sort of job that would intimidate ordinary project managers. As deputy project director at the US Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Oak Ridge Leadership Computing Facility (OLCF), he is on the frontlines of the multiyear effort to install the Frontier supercomputer at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL). Fortunately, Sieger truly enjoys the nitty-gritty of keeping big projects organized: taking lots of meetings, producing numerous reports, and adhering to a myriad of federal requirements.
On paper, Sieger assists OLCF Program Director Justin Whitt as his right-hand manager. On the ground, he makes sure the Frontier team stays on track to hit its milestones for siting the nation’s first exascale system—which will exceed a quintillion, or 1018, calculations per second—by the end of 2021. This means Sieger must closely monitor the day-to-day progress of a multimillion-dollar government construction project that will produce one of the world’s most powerful and smartest scientific supercomputers. To do that, he heads the team of project support staff that analyzes data streams from all the departments associated with Frontier’s preparation and finds solutions to problems before they cause delays.
“I see my job as enabling other people to be effective by helping to build good management processes and removing roadblocks from their paths—just keeping our focus on the most important things and not getting too wrapped around the axle for issues that are just distractions,” Sieger said. “We have a lot riding on Frontier, from the National Strategic Computing Initiative to the Exascale Computing Project. So we’re under a tremendous amount of pressure to get this thing in on schedule.”
Despite extensive preplanning for every foreseeable contingency, there will always be unexpected threats to the schedule, from delays in obtaining particular components to workers that must quarantine due to COVID-19. “A lot of project management is setting things up to handle everything that you know about, but there’s going to be 15 things you didn’t expect that are going to come and try to get you,” Sieger said. And it’s those problems that get him thinking.
“When you look at a project or any big enterprise, of course there are going to be problems. I always find myself analyzing them: Where did they come from? Why did we have that problem? How do we change ourselves so that we can prevent that problem from happening in the future?” Sieger said. “I realize a lot of satisfaction from making little improvements to how we do things that prevent future problems or makes something easier. I like organizing things, and I really like it when things run smoothly.”
Sieger joined the Frontier project about 3 years ago. He had spent the previous 7 years at ORNL as a quality manager working in a variety of areas, including the Spallation Neutron Source, Consortium for Advanced Simulation of Light Water Reactors, and the Nuclear Science and Engineering Directorate. Although he gained valuable experience in assembling quality assurance plans and structuring projects and processes, his earlier career as a software architect is what really inspired him to find satisfaction in the art of organization. He sees similarities between designing software to efficiently complete a task and creating an action plan to effectively tackle a big job.
“Running a project is like programming, except that you’re programming people systems instead of computer systems,” Sieger said. “There are processes and procedures for doing things, and if you set them up right, things happen—and they happen in a way that’s really robust and gives you the results that you want. I love that feeling! It’s like, ‘I wrote this program that works and does what it’s supposed to do.’”
But enabling the human effort underlying a $500 million federally funded project demands more than just good organizational skills. It also requires strict adherence to DOE directives for managing projects of this scale, ensuring compliance with applicable laws and regulations, and meeting DOE’s expectations for cost and schedule. Sieger keeps all of those directives in mind with every decision made by the Frontier team.
“Project management within DOE is almost its own subculture. There’s an order from DOE called Order 413.3—it has hundreds of pages and a galaxy of guidance documents associated with it that gives us our marching orders. We have to manage this project to this set of standards.”
Whether the Frontier team has been doing a good job of meeting those standards is put to the test each year when the DOE’s Office of Project Assessment conducts an independent project review (IPR) of the entire Frontier effort. Over the course of 3 days, experts from other DOE facilities and offices receive presentations from Frontier’s project managers about their progress—and then the inspectors essentially interrogate them on every aspect of the project’s status. IPRs often result in a list of recommendations to help improve the project. With its last two IPRs, the Frontier team received no recommendations at all—an achievement that Sieger credits to the project staff and their overall approach to the project.
“We’ve got outstanding people here, and one of the key things about how we manage this project is taking the philosophy of constantly being ‘review ready.’ We’re always working to keep metrics, documents, costs, and schedules up to date,” Sieger said. “It’s discipline, like brushing your teeth, but it really helps us in reviews. Having done our homework and having always tried to do the right thing, we have more confidence that things are going to go smoothly.”
For someone responsible for making sure the nation’s first exascale supercomputer successfully launches on schedule, Sieger is a surprisingly easygoing fellow whose wry humor makes his 25 or so virtual meetings per week go smoothly. “I have to say I actually like virtual meetings because it’s easier to get ahold of people,” he insists.
Perhaps the key to his Zen demeanor lies in his primary hobby: playing music. But not with a musical instrument, per se.
“I’m a house and techno DJ. I’ve done music mixing since the ’80s—a long time ago!” Sieger confesses. “In my basement at home, I’ve got a nightclub with lights and sound and mixing decks. I just enjoy doing that. So I spend a lot of time offline just listening to new music, collecting new music, playing music.”
UT-Battelle LLC manages Oak Ridge National Laboratory for DOE’s Office of Science, the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States. DOE’s Office of Science is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, visit https://energy.gov/science.