Monday, 18 June 2018

You said *what* about me?

I’ve put off writing about my experiences at work for a long time now.

Basically everyone I have ever worked with has asked, expected or demanded me to write something about lessons I’ve learnt and how my career path is shaping out. I’ve been asked to write about my day-to-day interactions with people, the decision making processes I go through, and the frustrations and challenges that I face as I go.

This is all very well, and would possibly be interesting to others, but it comes with some fairly significant issues.

  1. These people will probably want to read it
  2. It’ll be based largely on my interactions with them
  3. I’d like them to hire me to work with them in future.

So this creates a strong wish to self-censor.

I would like to write about specific conversations where I left thinking “Seriously? What was that all about? Do they even know what I’m doing here? Am I really this misunderstood?”, which rapidly transitions to “It must be me. I didn’t explain the issue correctly, or I’m not understanding the angle they’re coming to the problem at, so I’m taking their comments out of the correct context”. It would start to read like my someones private diary.

The obvious solution to this is to redact details, and describe these interactions in a vague and distant way. That sounds reasonable. Except until recently I’ve normally only worked with one person at a time, and they will definitely recognise themselves if I describe even a minor part of a project we’ve worked on together.

Another route would be to remove all references to any humans I’ve had any form of communication with, and just list the facts. Which would be boring. And it would be my version of the facts, which is unfair and probably misleading.

So, what to do?

I think I’ll have to keep any anecdotes described here to anything I would say in public, with the other person present. In some cases I have actually recited conversations back to a group, as part of an example to prove a point, and I try to ensure the other person would be happy with me saying these things out in the open.

Even so, I can be pretty sure that if anyone I know actually reads this, they’ll find something that they feel misrepresents their viewpoint, and for that I’m very sorry. I’ll try to keep the defamation and libel to a minimum.

But, for the most part, you literally did ask me to do it.

How do we advertise the skills that an RSE group can provide?

This question could also be called “How do we advertise the existence of the RSE group” and/or “How do we show the benefits that an RSE group can provide to a university?”
For all the above questions, the answer that DIRI @ Cardiff came to was lead by the concept of a Seedcorn fund made available for researchers to apply for.
In October of 2016, the DIRI put out a call for small projects to apply for up to £20k of funds, to kick-start as many projects as possible. £100,000 was available, and in the end 11 projects were funded with a variety of different sizes and scopes.
The initial email to advertise the call had the text:
… the Institute is seeking to create new collaborations and themes that support long term discovery through data innovation...

… In order to kick-start such activities the DII is launching a flexible Seedcorn Fund to support the following:•          Networking - a programme of activities to support interactions that will accelerate collaboration in an area that has the potential to provide substantial benefit to DII;•          Collaboration - to support speculative interactions that reaffirm existing, emergent or potential collaborations concerning new forms of data and modelling•          Pilot Projects - short secondments of investigators or research associates to focus on leveraging further research funding for new data centric concepts or approaches

The call is open to all academic disciplines but applicants will need to demonstrate that their proposal will contribute towards the DII’s overall objectives of building capacity, demonstrating excellence and innovation and leveraging further research funding.… 
So this is deliberately very open in it’s scope, with the aim of receiving as many applications as possible, and these were then assessed by the DIRI board to decide which projects had the best chance of gaining the most impact.
The focus was on creating new collaborations, preferably between schools/colleges, creating Proof of Concept work to improve the chances of success of larger bids (EPSRC, AHRC, ESRC, various charity funds etc). To this end, some projects were almost entirely networking in order to advertise existing work, meet new collaborators from across the UK and abroad, or to work with existing partners with some fresh funding to properly kick-start some data analysis.
I was personally funded by this call, with Scott Orford as PI, and Crispin Cooper and Co-I. We were creating models of pedestrian movement across the central Cardiff commercial region, with a focus on the foot traffic before and after the construction of the St Davids 2 shopping centre. This work has been published and a talk given as GISRUK Leicester, 2018.
So, the first Seedcorn went ahead, and many projects were funded, but the idea of an RSE hadn’t really been mentioned yet. The DIRI hadn’t even hired its first RSE - which would turn out to be me, within 6 months of the Seedcorn commencing.
During my work on the DIRI Seedcorn project we had been awarded, the job placement was announced. Long story short, I got the job, and ended up working 0.5 FTE (half time) for the DIRI while my other contracts/ commitments took up the other half.
(Great, get to the damned point already…)
I was tasked with being a Research Software Engineer for as much of Cardiff University as I could gain access to. If I could bring in the funds to pay for myself while I was at it, so much the better.
It turns out, this was not a difficult challenge. Just via word-of-mouth, once people discovered they could get cut-price software development for their research projects the news spread quite quickly.
Within a few months we were having meetings almost once a week with PIs who had some pocket money left over at the end of a project (unspent travel funds, a laptop which wasn’t bought etc) which meant they could drastically increase the IMPACT of their projects with little time or expense required on their part. We were also able to hire a second RSE to the DIRI, Unai Lopez.
And so this became the model for the second Seedcorn. In early 2018, with significantly less funds available to apply for, a call went out with almost exactly the same specifications as the first. The primary difference was that along with the funds available (totalling only £20k this time), they could also apply for RSE time.
This was a significant change in how the RSE group at DIRI was to gain work, and be recognised across the university. For one, more people would hear about the existence of the RSE group, and would have to learn what it was before being allowed any funding. It essentially created a barrier to entry for a lot of projects, but a very easy one to get past.
All they had to do to complete the form asking for RSE time, was speak to an RSE and find out what we would be able to do for them. Some projects didn’t ask for RSE time, but they ended up speaking to us anyway.
It also created an implied value of an RSE. Bids could use project funds to buy RSE time, and so an hourly rate of £XX was decided. This meant that having one or more of the RSEs on a Seedcorn project could be shown as having both value to the project, value to the RSE group, and disseminated the idea that an RSE was a desirable and limited thing.
The concept that RSE time is a limited resource, that required either external funds or having a bid accepted, means the RSE group gets recognition as a valuable entity. That people continue to spend time applying for our time, or bring actual cash on a regular basis, shows there is longevity to the concept. It is also proving to be at least partially self-sustaining.
So much so, we are now about to hire a third RSE to the team to help cope with workload.