A change of perspective helps to solve problems

Ants Finke

Ants Finke – Head of the HZB “IT Services” department

The Information Technology department of HZB comprises four divisions with 55 employees who are responsible for maintaining hardware, software and the network, providing IT support to HZB’s research institutes and administration, making strategic advancements in information technology, and so on, and so on.

The head of this department has to keep an eye on the big picture and be aware of all the details at the same time. He must be able to listen to others and to give well-considered directions. Ants Finke has been performing this balancing act since 2014.

Finke is a mathematician. Born in 1964 in Schwerin, he studied in Rostock while it was still in the GDR. “After that, the State Studentenlenkung (student steering committee) assigned me to the Kombinat Datenverarbeitung,” says Finke, “the data processing centre in Schwerin.” He began there as a system programmer, responsible for mainframe computers. Then an abrupt change came with German reunification: “The computers we had worked with so far were taken away and IBM computers took their place.” The employees were given new tasks and different system components to work with. Finke adopted a tactic that proved successful in the long term: “I developed an interest in work areas that others didn’t like so much.” This promoted his flexibility – an important characteristic to have during the changes that were to continue.

The VEB Datenverarbeitungszentrum transformed into a state-run operation, a company of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern that supported and provided services to ministries and authorities in the field of IT. At this point, he swapped sides of the desk: Initially responsible for operating and developing the computing centre, as head of the Applications department, he directly familiarised himself with the wishes and demands of the customers – and had to ensure the developers could make something useful from the specifications. “Such a change in perspective is important and helps to understand and solve problems that seemed incomprehensible before.”

After 26 years in the data processing centre, Finke felt it was time to actively make a change – a radical one. He was looking for not only a new employer, but also a new field and a new place to live, when he applied to HZB in 2014 and became head of the IT department. “I found a team of excellently trained and motivated people here, who are very loyal towards HZB.” A good starting position, as it were, to tackle those matters that required an upheaval.

In 2014, the IT systems had namely still not yet fully coalesced in all areas of the former Hahn-Meitner-Institut and BESSY, and Finke explains why: “IT is something that grows organically and has a history. Everyone has his own views – and what others are doing does not always appeal to them against their own background of experience. But a change in perspective helps here, too.” Finke gave employees responsibility, for example, for the systems employed at each other’s location, and which they had never properly worked with until then. “Many thus learned the advantages of a program they were once sceptical about. That helped us to clear away the hurdles between Adlershof and Wannsee.”

Another area of responsibility was the technical infrastructure. This had also grown organically over the span of decades. “Yet, up-to-date documentation was missing for many parts,” Finke describes the situation. “We have really made up for this in recent years, but we still have a long way ahead of us.” A certain heterogeneity and diversity of systems is entirely normal, and even necessary for creativity in science. “But we have to know exactly how and out of what parts the mosaic is put together.”

This knowledge is also important because HZB, like every research institute, is facing major challenges in the future of information technology. Finke continues: “Big Data and data management are buzzwords you hear everywhere. But, unlike a lot of other hype that comes and goes, these are issues that will remain with us for a long time, and which we have to tackle head on.”

And what do Big Data and data management mean for science, Mr. Finke? “Modern methods produce large volumes of research data by their very nature and, sooner or later, this will be the case everywhere, for example thanks to high-resolution detectors, simulation computations, or the aggregation of data from different research areas. It is from this very combination of data that we expect an immense gain of knowledge. This has already been happening with georeferenced data since 2007. From data on school locations and traffic accidents, we have managed to derive how the flow of traffic should be coordinated near schools. This requires accurate data management. All data have to remain long-term available and be stored together with a lot of other data – the metadata. How are the data gathered? What condition was the measuring system in, exactly? With what programs have the data been processed? All this is important for the reuse of research data.”

Managing volumes of data, preparing them for analysis and permanently storing them are tasks for the Research Data Management department. No IT department can manage the technical prerequisites for this and subsequent Big Data analyses alone; it needs the cooperation of the scientific departments. The current and future importance of these research topics has, for example, spurred the President of the Helmholtz Association to create a strategic body in the form of the “Information & Data Science” incubator, in which Finke represents HZB. This incubator serves to prepare the Helmholtz well for the future issue of “Data Science” in all fields of research.

Ants Finke concludes: “What is important is that we are in constant discussion with the researchers. My wish and personal goal is to intensify this exchange in the near term. That way, the IT department can also make a contribution to the research at HZB for topics such as Big Data and Data Science.”