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Ahmed Hassan receives E.W.R. Steacie award

Professor in the School of Computing is one of only 10 Queen's faculty members to be honoured with this prestigious fellowship from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.

[Ahmed Hassan with Minister Kirsty Duncan and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau]
Ahmed Hassan (School of Computing), back row centre, stands between Minister of Science and Minister of Sport and Persons with Disabilities Kirsty Duncan and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, along with other recipients of the 2018 E.W.R Steacie Memorial Fellowship, following a meeting on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday. (Photo courtesy the Prime Minister's Office/Adam Scotti)

Canadian leader in software engineering, Queen’s University professor Ahmed Hassan was honored with the 2018 E.W.R Steacie Memorial Fellowship. He is only the 10th Queen’s faculty member to receive this prestigious honour, since the award’s creation in 1965.

The award is presented annually to up to six researchers nationwide by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) to enhance the career development of outstanding faculty members who have earned a strong international reputation for their original research. Fellows receive a research grant of $250,000 over two years and are relieved of teaching and administrative duties during this period.

The Gazette recently interviewed Dr. Hassan, who holds the NSERC/BlackBerry Industrial Research Chair in Software Engineering and the Canada Research Chair in Software Analytics at the School of Computing, about this prestigious research award.

What does the E.W.R. Steacie Memorial Fellowship mean to you and your research?

Before I talk about what it means, let me briefly tell you about what I do. My research uses machine learning and data analytics to dig into the rich, yet rarely explored, stores of information associated with software systems. We analyze not only the computer code of these systems, but every piece of information gathered during their development and operation: design notes, prior code changes, user reviews, debugging histories, online discussions, and logs. By mining through these rich yet rarely-leveraged information sources, we can intelligently guide and support the evolution of these complex systems. For example, we can figure out that a system is not performing as expected even though no one ever documented the expected behaviour, or truly knows it (such is the case for most complex large-scale systems nowadays). We can also foretell future troubles long before they impact users. This line of work is called Mining Software Repositories (MSR), a field of research that I co-founded around 15 years ago.

[Ahmed Hassan]
Ahmed Hassan always tells his students to never underestimate their ability to change the world. (Photo courtesy NSERC)

The Steacie Fellowship is a huge honour and an incredible acknowledgment of not only my team’s work but also of the whole MSR field. Each year NSERC awards six Steacie Fellowships across all science and engineering fields nationwide. In the past 50-plus years, only 13 computing researchers ever received this great honour. Hence, the fellowship is a great recognition of the impact of our work and the importance of the MSR field on software systems and society in general. The award is also a huge vote of confidence for other Canadian researchers in the MSR field, given Canada’s commanding position in this field.

I am very grateful for the wonderful support from everyone at the School of Computing and many others throughout Queen’s. It feels great to have Queen’s at the podium.

As one of the top software engineering researchers in Canada, what is your most important contribution so far and what was its impact?

Research results in any engineering discipline are best judged by their impact on practice, a good amount of my team’s innovations are already adopted in practice and are in use on a daily basis. However, over the years I have come to the realization that people are really what shapes a field more than our greatest ideas. I am very grateful to the continuous support and hard work of my team.  

The work I am most proud of is growing and nurturing a very vibrant and top-notch team of international leaders. Over the years, I strived to ensure the diversity of my team, the Software Analysis and Intelligence Lab (SAIL), with members coming from all over the world – Bangladesh, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, China, Egypt, Ethiopia, Germany, India, Iran, Japan, Mexico, the Netherlands, Pakistan, Thailand, Vietnam, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and the United States, just to name a few. It is truly an amazing experience seeing such diverse backgrounds working together and exceling on the world stage.

Today, many of them are leaders at very successful companies in Canada, including IBM, BlackBerry, and Amazon. Being a professor, myself, I am particularly proud of the ones who became professors. Seventeen of my prior lab members are now tenured or tenure-track professors at research-intensive universities on every continent except South America. To put things in perspective, over the past five years, half of all new software engineering faculty positions in Canada (eight out of 16) and Australia (three out of six) are from SAIL at Queen’s. These researchers continue to have a strong and demonstrable impact on software research and practice worldwide through their own trainees and by serving important leadership roles in some of computing’s top conferences and journals.

What goals are you setting for yourself in regards to research?

My goals remain the same – doing top research with a strong and measurable impact on practice. That said, the Steacie Fellowship gives me the freedom to think of the next big step and to take much higher risks than I would usually take so we can ensure that Canada maintains its leadership in software engineering research and practice worldwide.

What advice do you have for students starting their careers in computer science?

Never underestimate your ability to change the world. Computing is a young and very welcoming field. Your chances of meeting and interacting with the researchers from your textbooks are high, and these people are friendly, supportive, and quite often willing to take great chances and risks on you. I co-founded MSR as a PhD student and I became Canada’s youngest Industrial Research Chair with support from NSERC and BlackBerry, thanks to people who are willing to take big risks on a younger me.

Anyone can produce world-leading research as long as they are committed and are not afraid to tackle the hard problems. Canada is a software engineering powerhouse and a leader in computing. We are shaping and enabling many of today’s innovations (from deep learning to mobile email). There are many amazing opportunities and tons of hard problems waiting for you, so come join us as we shape the future of our world.