Deborah Heller Retires After 21 Years of Service to National Labs

Deborah Heller retires this month.

June 23, 2022

by Rae Pendergrass

After 14 years of service as a senior systems engineer at ESnet, Deborah Heller retires at the end of June. Prior to her time at Berkeley Lab, she spent seven years as a systems and network engineer at Lawrence Livermore National Lab.

“Since I came here from Livermore in 2008, ESnet has seen a lot of change. Then, we had just under 50 staff, each and every single one was an expert in their field. As we moved from ESnet4 to ESnet5, and now to ESnet6, we have over 100 extremely gifted engineers and support staff," said Heller. “The Infrastructure team has grown from three engineers to ten of the most remarkable minds I've had the pleasure to work with, always on the leading edge, and who are always willing to implement the best solution for the ESnet computing infrastructure that spans the nation."

Change has been one of the constant forces in Heller's career. She began working with computers nearly 50 years ago, starting with her role as a data systems technician for the U.S. Navy in 1973. During the span of her career, she's seen massive shifts in technology, from the days when the early ARPANET's speeds were measured in tens of Kbps to the present where ESnet can handle 400+ Gbps.

“That's one of the things that kept me in this field for so long. There's always something cool coming down the road, always something new happening,” said Heller. “You wonder where the limits will be.”

At times, Heller's passion for technology and excitement for the future came with its own set of problem-solving challenges – some of them more social than technological. In the late 80s, while working as the software configuration manager at Teradyne, she met resistance from colleagues when she was one of the first to advocate for the vast and then-untapped potential of the Internet.

“I had people coming into my office saying, ‘You really think this is going to be significant? I don't see how we could use this,'” said Heller. “I told them, ‘You might just want to hang on and watch what happens because I really think this is going to be big. I think this is going to turn your life around.'”

And she was right. While at Teradyne, before the internet was widely available and institutions still relied on the ARPANET, she got her teams set up with their first email service. Soon after, what had been a hypothetical oddity to the nonbelievers became a crucial part of their infrastructure under Heller's watch.

Deborah Heller looks forward to painting more watercolors like these in retirement. (Credit: Deborah Heller)

Recognizing the changing winds of technology has been one of the greatest strengths throughout her career. She understands that implementing new tech means identifying the tangible problems that teams and organizations need solved.

“You need to be intelligent with how you determine what you're going to put forward to support the overall theme of what your organization needs for the future,” said Heller. “I think that's a key notion of what ESnet is doing. They're always looking ahead, they're always looking for collaboration.”

This mindset made Heller a natural fit for an organization like ESnet that is constantly on the cutting edge of technology. Since joining the team, Heller's unique ability to combine a keen awareness of the future with the daily needs of her teammates in the present has helped create an environment that's seen the organization double in size to over 100 employees. She not only contributed to the rollout of ESnet5, but also the current ESnet6.

“Deb has been here since the early days of ESnet,” said Susan Lucas, deputy of business operations at ESnet. “While she will be missed, the legacy of all her hard work will continue to serve the organization for years to come.”

After a half century of keeping up with the most cutting-edge technology, Heller is ready to take a step back and explore new adventures in other areas of life. She is looking forward to living an unplugged life, traveling, spending time with her family, and watercolor painting.

“Deb was one of the first people in this organization to take me under her wing, and I'll never forget that kindness.” said Anne White, group lead of ESnet's Infrastructure team. “It's a testament to who she is as a person: not just a seasoned engineer, but a thoughtful collaborator and friend who goes out of her way to offer meaningful mentorship. We're really going to miss her, but are so excited for her to embark on this adventure.”

“It's been an honor, and I will surely miss being a part of the ESnet Team,” said Heller.