People of ACM - Bushra Anjum
October 16, 2018
How did you become interested in performance evaluation and queueing theory?
I came across the basics of queueing theory as a first-year graduate student while I was working on a course project, using sample statistics to define quality of service metrics for streaming services. An average is an easy-to-compute metric and is additive in nature; however, when it comes to determining bounds, average is a poor choice. This led me to work with percentiles; a percentile, along with its underlying distribution, is mathematically involved but a clear winner when it comes to providing guarantees. However, while working with percentiles, I quickly realized that as we receive percentile bounds from various processes, there is no easy way to combine them into a single statistic that can represent the various connected processes. Then I was introduced to queueing theory and how it can help us achieve a closed-form solution to such problems. The research and results of this work resulted in my first publication. After that, there was no turning back.
Simply put, if there is a problem that involves lines (queues), providing service to those waiting in lines, and maintaining a level of performance, queueing theory will not only have recommendations, but many times an exact solution. Moreover, the active research in this area is quickly expanding the scenarios that can be accurately modeled and predicted using queueing analysis. I am excited to be a part of this field and look forward to tackling many problems in the transportation, communication and service industries.
What do you hope to accomplish with your forthcoming Ubiquity series Innovation Leaders?
It’s a new section of Ubiquity run in collaboration with the ACM Future of Computing Academy (FCA), a group of young professionals who are monitoring trends and emerging issues in computing and advising ACM on how to deal with them. The Innovation Leaders section consists of interviews with young professionals, who comment on their concerns about the future of computing and their ambitions to shape the future through their leadership. We prompt the interviewee to share their history, what has shaped them into the professional of today, and what inspires their dreams of the future. We further inquire about their experiences and the ambitious projects they are working on that have the potential to impact the future of computing.
We plan to feature many of the ACM FCA members and their novel initiatives aimed at non-trivially improving computing, the computing community, and computing’s role in society. We will also be presenting several other moving and compelling stories from diverse backgrounds and computing disciplines. Through this section, we aim to emphasize both the inspirational and the challenging possibilities of the future of computing and the people who are at the forefront of creating and fixing them.
You have said you especially enjoyed teaching computer science and you remain active as a mentor. If you could emphasize one area that students aspiring to join the tech workforce should be trained in, what would it be?
We are at the brink of the fourth industrial revolution, powered by a fusion of technologies that is quickly blurring the lines between real and virtual, physical and digital. We need to guide and inspire a tech workforce that is ready for this unprecedented, disruptive future where quick obsolescence may be the biggest threat, and remaining relevant, the biggest struggle. The most important training in this regard is to help the students grow a generalist mindset. Rather than being tied to, or specialized in, a particular language, framework, or solution, generalists have a basic working knowledge of multiple domains, principles and technologies. This helps them remain relevant in a variety of engineering jobs and projects. Moreover, they know “how to learn,” and thus can quickly come up to speed and morph as per given technical preferences and constraints. As a visiting professor and an active mentor, I am heavily invested in training and advising students to become part of such a “future-proof” workforce.
You have stated that you consider yourself an engineering generalist. How would you define this concept and the future possibilities for generalists?
I do consider myself an engineering generalist or, more informally, a “plug-and-play” engineer. It may sound counterintuitive, but it was actually my PhD that helped me become a generalist. I learned how to learn! My PhD training enables me to be personable, to learn and adapt quickly, to bring in interdisciplinary insights, to contribute, and to move on to the next challenge. It is my humble opinion that we live in an age of engineering where such engineering generalists are in high demand and will rarely be out of a job.
Specialization has its place and is quite an effective marketing technique. When you apply for a job, you should certainly present yourself as a specialist for what is needed by emphasizing the right experience and skills from your portfolio. However, when it comes to actual on-the-job performance, complex problem solving, critical thinking, cognitive flexibility and active learning will move you forward. These are in fact the top skills for 2020 for the Information and Communication Technology industry as reported by The Future of Jobs report, published by the World Economic Forum.
It is nevertheless important to acknowledge that we have been trained to think that something is inherently wrong with being a generalist; our idioms like “jack of all trades, master of none” keep the mockery alive. It is time to break that taboo, as in my view our industry is increasingly getting partial towards generalists. A successful engineer of the future is a generalist who masters an interdisciplinary and cross-functional mindset and whose training is augmented by key human values: creativity, empathy and a flexible outlook.
Bushra Anjum is a Technical Lead and Software Development Engineer at Amazon. Her team has been responsible for delivering high-impact projects like Amazon Prime global expansion, specifically Prime launches in India, China and Mexico. Anjum’s research background is in performance evaluation and queueing theory, primarily focused on mathematical modeling and simulation analysis of systems. She is also a trained data scientist, having worked extensively with predictive analytics.
Anjum, a Fulbright Scholar, has held academic positions in the US and Pakistan and has published papers on performance evaluation, data science and big data analytics, among other topics. Anjum is a keen enthusiast of promoting diversity in the STEM fields and is a mentor at ReigningIt, Rewriting the Code, GlobalTechWomen, Empowering Leadership Alliance, LeanIn.org, Computing beyond the Double Blind’s Mentoring Network, and others. She received her PhD in Computer Science at North Carolina State University for her doctoral thesis on Bandwidth Allocation under End-to-End Percentile Delay Bounds.
Anjum is a member of the inaugural class of the ACM Future of Computing Academy. She is a senior editor for ACM’s web-based magazine Ubiquity. In November, she will launch a new Ubiquity initiative, Innovation Leaders.