Value Proposition of Compiler Expertise

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In my community, it is not unusual to see someone that boxes an entire career by one compiler infrastructure. Some of us are labelled by the infrastructure or the language we are working on. I used to be an xlc person and would simply focus on solutions that involve xlc. The mantra used to be: “if not an xlc problem, it’s not my problem”, or “if not a compiler problem, it’s not my problem”. Yes, I was boxed in first by a compiler infrastructure, then by the field of compiler.

The reality is that real problems do not often land squarely into ones’ specialty domain. Not only do the ultimate receivers of the compiler field (application developers) change their programming habits and tools’ requirement all the time, but also for many real problems, compilers may not be the best solution (e.g., sometimes a little change of the algorithm or programming can go a long way and with a much more immediate effect).

This is a reflection on how a compiler person can be trapped by the infrastructures he is associated with and miss out a much larger scope to apply his expertise.

Value-Compiler-Expertise

While many of us have started from the “common starting point” box, most of us do not have the luxury of staying in that box for a career (or do you want to if you can?). In this figure, I identified 3 “stretch” roles of a compiler expertise in the system compiler research area that are becoming increasingly important:

  • Enable a better hardware design. Increasingly I see compiler people deeply involved in the concept phase of processor design, translating application level requirements to the hardware, proposing new hardware features/instructions, identify workloads, and evaluate performance benefits.
  • Programming interface design. This is really a process to extract common components, in terms of a middleware, a common runtime, a domain specific language, or some language features, from users applications to improve productivity and to create a common component for deep and platform-specific optimization (e.g., graph runtime in System G).
  • Performance engineering and analysis. This involves workload on-boarding, deep performance analysis (extremely time-consuming and an art in itself), tuning of OS/machine/compiler configurations and code extraction/rewrite.

These 3 roles are a perfect match to a compiler expertise who has the rare understanding of the entire system stack, across application, OS, runtime, compiler/JIT, and hardware. When the importance of optimization in a traditional compiler/JIT is diminishing, we may look more and more to these new areas to expand into.

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