Meet the Faculty: Patrick Lam

Our “Meet the Faculty” interviews provide a window into the work lives of faculty across the University of Waterloo. Faculty members talk about the day-to-day joys and struggles, and share tips for getting the work done and staying mentally and physically healthy in academia.

Patrick Lam is the soon-to-be-ex-director of UWaterloo’s Software Engineering program and an associate professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. He’s also an at-large representative on the FAUW Board of Directors.

What do you teach and research, and what drew you to that work?

I am trained as a computer scientist and my subfield is programming languages and their applications to software engineering. When I came to Waterloo, I learned that Electrical and Computer Engineering departments tend to be quite scientifically diverse and include faculty from a wide range of disciplines, from physics to mechanical engineering, and fortunately passing through computer science as well.

Specifically, I develop techniques and tools which automatically understand what software developers are saying (and what they meant to say) when writing computer software. A common misconception that developing software is a solitary task where it’s just you telling the computer what to do. That’s totally not the case, especially today, and developers absolutely must communicate with their teammates (and others). My research aims to dig out some of the implicit communication developers are performing and make it explicit.

I believe that many of us just happen to fall into doing what we’re doing by coincidence, and I think there are a lot of interesting things to study in the world. But often there are mentors that help us find our own area. In my case it was my professors for undergrad, Prakash Panangaden and the late Laurie Hendren. I hope that I can similarly inspire my own students.

What kind of work is involved with being the director of a program?

Being a program director is a rewarding but high-volume service task. The two main parts are managing operational challenges and providing academic leadership to students and committees. Operational challenges include supporting instructors and balancing the concerns of the parent units; for software engineering this is especially challenging because it is jointly offered across Faculties by the School of Computer Science and the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, and these units are quite different. Academic leadership includes thinking about what the students should learn (and what they don’t need to learn) and guiding curriculum committee discussions. I strive to be a well-rounded intellectual role model for students.

For Software Engineering, we have an associate director who is the primary academic advisor. However, I do serve as a secondary advisor and work with students when they feel more comfortable with me. That is one of the most rewarding parts of the role, even if it’s somewhat peripheral.

At this career stage I feel like one can get stuck in what I call “associate professor purgatory.”

You joined the FAUW Board of Directors in July. Why did you join, and what’s it like so far?

Since coming to Waterloo in 2008 I’ve felt that FAUW has served as an important voice representing the faculty perspective at the University. Institutions are important and I’d like to contribute to this one. I’ve continued to learn about University policy, as well as how things work from the Association’s perspective.

What do you do when you’re not at work?

Work/life balance hasn’t been a problem for me. I try to make sure that life takes as much time as it takes and aim to not think about admin in particular when not doing it. Life includes staying physically active with judo and rock climbing these days, and also riding one of my many bicycles around town to commute. I also like to climb rocks and mountains in various exotic locales, Kalymnos in Greece being my favourite. gallery.patricklam.ca has pictures as I get around to editing them.

What parts of your job are you most passionate about?

Thanks for this question! At this career stage I feel like one can get stuck in what I call “associate professor purgatory.” I did enjoy chairing the Software Engineering curriculum committee and implementing some changes to the program which I sincerely believe will improve it; that was a worthwhile use of my time. At the same time, now that I’m almost done as program director, I’m very much looking forward to having more time to focus on my own research (with my graduate students) and my own interests rather than having to think more broadly.

What does an ideal day at work look like?

This week has included some of the highlights of the job. Yesterday I met with one of my graduate students and we worked together to carefully state what he was looking for, rather than just having a vague idea. I felt that was really productive. Another highlight of this week was having an undergrad come to my office feeling very much overwhelmed by his situation (and things legitimately beyond his control) and working with him to develop a viable success plan. Helping out at the FAUW panel on unplugging and talking to colleagues was pleasant too!

What surprises you at work?

There are a lot of parts of this job that one doesn’t expect to be doing while in graduate school. (Who knew there were this many committees?) I’m often pleasantly surprised by what our best students can get done; for instance, a few years ago, some first year Software Engineering students built a (physical) automatic checkers-playing machine that recognized the pieces on the board, computed a move, and physically moved the piece to its destination.

I try to do what I tell our students to do: get enough sleep, exercise, and cook my own food.

What’s your biggest struggle at work?

As I mentioned, I make room for life, but there’s always more research that one could do, since it’s open-ended. It’s a struggle that some of our undergraduate students have, and we don’t necessarily outgrow it. We make choices about where we spend our energy, even though sometimes we wish we could do all the things.

How do you stay healthy and balanced?

I feel like this past term has been a struggle with the ankle I sprained while climbing, but usually I try to do what I tell our students to do: get enough sleep, exercise, and cook my own food. Sometimes I unplug but not really that often; I think it’s a matter of dispatching things as efficiently as possible and avoiding unnecessary work.

What do you wish you’d known when you started your academic career?

There’s a whole university out there, and it’s worthwhile to know people from across campus!

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