Research software engineering as a career, #RSE2018, and programming languages as poetry…

Research software engineering as a career path

What is an RSE (Research Software Engineer), you may ask? It’s a role that has existed for decades, but has only been using this name for a few years. As RSEs, we tend to be software engineers who work in academia, or perhaps academics who write production-ready code – or maybe both.

A common theme seems to be universities establishing RSE groups who work in consultancy-style ways – academics who have code, or have a need for code, approach the groups and are helped through their tasks, whether it be refactoring some old/messy/slow code, providing suggestions, or writing code to make their research easier. The RSE group may also provide training in programming languages, version control, best practices and other relevant computational basics that ease the needs of researchers.

Whilst I think most or all of us at InterMine would consider ourselves to be RSEs, we don’t really fit this model – we all write code, we all contribute to papers, but all of our sub-projects and work focus around a single primary project – some of us are working to make InterMine more FAIR, others to make it easy to launch InterMine on the cloud, but it’s still all InterMine. I’m sure we’re not the only group like this, and it makes me wonder if there should be names for the different flavours of RSE groups out there. Central RSE groups vs. dedicated RSE groups? Consultancy / support / advocacy RSEs vs. RSE specialist groups? I’m not sure if any of these are quite right, and I’d be curious to hear what others think.

RSE 2018: a grassroots conference for research software engineers

Moving on from musing about job titles, though – a bit about the recent conference. RSE2018 is the third annual UK conference for Research Software Engineers, but it’s the first time I’ve attended, personally. It made a change to have a conference where everyone around was working in research and software development, but not all of it was open source or bioinformatics related. I relished the chance to meet and discuss career paths with others, and enjoyed perhaps too much when the late-night conference dinner descended into attempts to assign poetry genres to different programming languages. Java is obviously epic poetry, but others get trickier. Terse Clojure might be a haiku, and perhaps Python, with its structured whitespace, is a form of concrete poetry?

The conference keynotes varied – there was an introduction to a digital humanities project, Oracc, which hosts annotated and transcribed cuneiform, we were introduced to the Microsoft Hololens and some of the challenges and history of its creation, a talk about Google Deepmind, and I particularly enjoyed the keynote talking about the sustainability of research software. Given how chaotic dependencies make everything, it’s no wonder that maintaining software takes a significant amount of time and money!

There were some hands-on tutorials and workshops, but I mostly attended RSE-community related sessions. A couple that stood out to me, in no particular order:

  • Diversity in recruiting RSEs. We had speakers from Microsoft talking about their efforts to make their research staffing pool more diverse, which included gruelling-sounding half-days sessions where candidates were interviewed by four different interviewers in an attempt to remove bias. Somewhat entertainingly, the room this was conducted in – the senate chamber – had red throne-like seats and eight large portraits on the walls, every single one depicting an older white male. The irony was not lost upon the session attendees!
  • The RSE community AGM. Rather than being an informal gathering of individuals, the UK RSE group will soon be re-launching as an official society that members can join for a nominal fee. The AGM gave us a chance to hear about some of their plans (you can sign up to hear about the launch date), as well as the opportunity to share your wish list of likes, dislikes, and comments on the activities the group performs. I’m looking forward to interacting with the society and seeing where they head!

It’s a conference I’d definitely like to attend again. If you missed out, you can catch up with many of the relevant points on twitter, under the hashtag #RSE18.