June 29, 2023

A Conversation with Tapia 2023 Ken Kennedy Distinguished Speaker: Dr. Armando Solar-Lezama


Dr. Armando Solar-Lezama

The CMD-IT/ACM Richard Tapia Celebration of Diversity in Computing Conference brings together over 2,000 individuals from diverse backgrounds in the computing and tech industry. Set to take place in Dallas, TX, from September 13 to 15, 2023, this year’s conference offers a range of enriching experiences. Attendees can look forward to engaging panels, informative workshops, networking opportunities and the  Tapia Career Fair, where industry leaders, government representatives, academia professionals, and nonprofit organizations converge.

Dr. Armando Solar-Lezama will take the stage on Friday, September 15 as the Ken Kennedy Distinguished Lecture at Tapia 2023. Dr. Solar-Lezama is an esteemed Professor, Associate Director, and COO at MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. In his highly anticipated presentation, Dr. Solar-Lezama will share his groundbreaking research on developing tools and techniques that harness massive computing power to tackle complex programming problems. From innovative analysis techniques to new programming models, his work spans a wide range of areas that automate challenging aspects of programming.

Leading up to Tapia, we asked Dr. Solar-Lezama what he hopes Tapia attendees take away from his presentation and to share details on his journey in tech. 

What is the biggest takeaway you hope Tapia attendees gain from your talk at Tapia 2023?

In my talk at Tapia 2023, I hope to leave attendees with information that resonates with their aspirations and ambitions. Drawing from my personal trajectory in the field of program synthesis, I will share my journey starting as a graduate student when there were very few individuals working in this area. I’ll discuss the early work I undertook and how it has evolved into the vibrant and active research community we have today, both in academia and industry.

Research often involves pressure to work on the problems that everyone else is tackling, but I will stress the significance of daring to step outside the crowd. Being a bit of an outsider in the field allowed us to explore new ideas and open up areas that others had not yet realized would be impactful. I will encourage students to embrace this mindset and recognize that sometimes the most groundbreaking results come from those who deviate from the mainstream and take on the challenge of pursuing something truly important.

The biggest takeaway from my talk at Tapia 2023 is the importance of thinking beyond the established norms and not just sticking to the problems that everyone else is working on. By taking a step back and venturing into unexplored territory, students can have a meaningful impact and pave the way for new discoveries and breakthroughs. It is my hope that this message will inspire attendees to embrace their unique perspectives, challenge the status quo, and make a lasting contribution to their respective fields of research.

Can you please share a little bit about what drew you to programming systems and AI?

What drew me to programming systems and AI was a combination of fascination and frustration. As an undergraduate, I was already captivated by the concept of AI and machine learning, envisioning machines capable of tasks that traditionally required extensive human intelligence and expertise. The potential to push the boundaries of what machines could accomplish greatly intrigued me.

However, one aspect of the field that I found challenging was its inherent fuzziness and lack of reliability. It bothered me that it was difficult to obtain consistent and dependable results in AI and machine learning. This drove me to explore programming systems, recognizing that programming itself was often more painful than necessary. I saw an opportunity for machines to do more, to alleviate the struggles and improve the programming experience. My firsthand experience in high-performance computing demonstrated how challenging it could be to achieve desired outcomes, particularly when scaling up implementations.

Program synthesis became the bridge that brought together my interests in AI and machine learning with the desire to enhance programming. It offered the prospect of automating processes while providing stronger guarantees and easier ways to determine when something was working or not. This alignment of interests and the promise of making programming better and more efficient made the field exceptionally appealing to me.

During my academic journey, I explored various paths, particularly as an undergraduate, where I leaned more toward the exploration side. Even when applying to graduate school, I found myself torn between multiple compelling and intriguing directions. However, upon entering graduate school, I felt fortunate and grateful for the opportunity to delve deeper, engage with experts, and work on diverse research projects before committing to a specific focus for my PhD.

Why is diverse representation in computing and tech important to you?

Growing up in Mexico, I was always excited about technology and the possibilities it offered. However, there was often an underlying message, both subtle and explicit, that certain paths in tech were not meant for people like us. This has driven me to ensure that individuals in similar situations feel empowered to participate in technology development, and to be an integral part of the process and the conversation rather than being sidelined or excluded.

The impact of technology on our lives is immense and continually expanding. Therefore, it is crucial to have broad representation among those who are developing this technology. Different communities face specific challenges that may not be adequately addressed by tech built exclusively for and by other groups. By including diverse perspectives, we can create solutions that are more inclusive and sensitive to the needs of different communities.

However, it is also important to strike a balance and avoid burdening minority communities with the sole responsibility of addressing every problem. It is essential for individuals from traditionally underrepresented groups to have the freedom to pursue technology for their own personal fulfillment and passion, without feeling an obligation to tackle all the challenges faced by their community. It is unfair to place the entire responsibility on minority communities alone.

Diverse representation in computing and tech is important to me because it ensures that individuals from all backgrounds have the opportunity to participate, contribute, and shape the technology that impacts our lives. By fostering inclusivity, we can create a more equitable and innovative future where everyone feels valued and empowered to make a difference.

Dr. Solar-Lezama will kick off the final morning of the conference on Friday, September 15 as the Ken Kennedy Distinguished Lecture. His lecture will take place at 9:30 am in the Texas Ballroom. View the full Tapia Conference schedule by clicking here. Register today for the Tapia Conference. Early bird registration ends June 30, 2023.