Like the astronomically large questions asked of the U. of I.-based Blue Waters supercomputer, Michael Showerman, a systems administrator for the National Center for Supercomputer Applications, is difficult to pin down.
Showerman, originally from Chicago's western suburbs, started working at NCSA in 1995 while he was a computer science student at the U. of I.
He didn't complete his degree, but he liked the challenging nature of the job so much he "just never left," he said.
Showerman's job description is ever-changing and somewhat open-ended, which allows him to dabble with new ideas and creative methods for utilizing computing power.
He said working with Blue Waters makes him more of a "high-end computer systems administrator."
"I do things a little differently," he said, "and this job has provided a lot more opportunities for me than I ever expected."
One of the challenges for researchers using Blue Waters, which can make 13 quadrillion calculations in a single second, is finding relevance from the mass of data it produces. It's something Showerman is helping work on.
"There's just so much data, getting the information you want can be challenging," he said.
When he first started at NCSA, cluster computing was the theoretical rage. He was tasked with finding scientific applications for the new method.
"That's when I really got involved with alternate ways of doing computing," he said. "It was such a new concept that no one was doing it yet."
Showerman's unique approach - he once led a project linking the processors of several PlayStation game consoles - has kept his job description changing over the years.
He also works with a team to identify and connect cross-disciplinary computational opportunities and develops software. During the design and acquisition phase of Blue Waters his title was program manager for supplemental hardware systems, though he remains on the project as a systems administrator.
"I've always been interested in what the future looks like for larger computers," he said. "Once it becomes mainstream, I kind of lose interest. But until someone benefits from the research aspect of a new technology, it's not solved to me. It has to be adapted to the scientific people; it has to meet not just their needs, but their desires."
He has spent a lot of time meeting with researchers, trying to pinpoint that relevant intersection between computer technology and new discovery.
"They don't always know what it is they need or what they're looking for," he said. "My job isn't to cure cancer, but maybe I can enable someone to do that by playing a part in it."
Showerman said he gets his mechanical aptitude from his family - his father is a mechanical engineer, his grandfather was a machinist - and he constantly reads about technology to stay up-to-date on the issues.
"My family is where I got the understanding of how things work," he said. "I started by taking things apart and eventually learned how to put them back together; I became 'that guy.' "
Like his job description, Showerman's personal interests also are all over the place.
He learned to fly airplanes from a friend in high school and caught the aviation bug. His first purchase was an acrobatic biplane, though through the years the planes have gotten larger.
"I really got hooked on flying and it just kept progressing throughout the years," he said.
He also is a motocross enthusiast and co-owns a boxing gym, where he also coaches. He said boxing is a hobby he took up later in life.
"It's something I had always wanted to do," he said. "I've learned more about people than about boxing. Being a coach in the corner and being able to talk someone through their fight or flight impulse - you make this connection that doesn't exist in any other environment."
Showerman, who has two daughters, 8 and 6, and a son, 4, has been married for 10 years. He said the children all enjoy his various passions and that his wife - whom he met on campus and who worked as a chemist at the U. of I. until deciding to stay home to raise the kids -- well, she supports him, too.
"I won the wife lottery," he said. "We go flying, we go biking, we go riding in the dirt."
She must be a rare prize, considering the number of to-be-overhauled engines and other mechanical pieces collecting around the house and property (his plane is parked in the garage and a motorcycle engine graces the bar area inside the house).
"It's a collection of my new toys that need a little work," he said. "I'll sell them and make the money back so I can buy more stuff."