Published 7th March 2022
Can you describe your background and your current role?
I am currently a Senior Scientific Software Engineer (SSE) at the Met Office. I have quite a unique role; I was recently described by a colleague as an “SSE ninja” (I wish I could remember who said this so I could give them credit for the name!). Since the summer of 2020 I have been requested to work with many different teams across the Met Office for short periods to help them deliver work by providing SSE expertise, for example, improving the performance of systems created by scientists, and designing and developing new systems based on user requirements.
My background is in science; I have a PhD in Astronomy.
How did you become an RSE?
When I was younger, my dream job was to be an astronaut. The careers advisor at school recommended astronomy and astrophysics, so that is the path I pursued. After obtaining a Masters in Physics and Astronomy and working for a year at the National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO) in Tucson, Arizona, I completed a PhD in Astronomy from the University of Leicester. Much of my time during my PhD was spent processing observational data from the Gemini telescopes using software developed by Gemini Observatory. I spent a lot of time interacting with this software, including reporting bugs to the development team. One day, I jokingly said it would be great if there were a job that did just this. The next week a job appeared at Gemini Observatory to develop their software. One application, one phone interview and one in-person interview in Chile later, and I was offered the job! I moved to Chile and spent 6 years developing this software and working on the helpdesk, where I helped other astronomers use the software to process their data. I ended up in the acknowledgements for many astronomical papers. After 6 years I was ready to return to the UK and, since astronomy jobs are hard to come by in the UK, I applied for a job as an SSE at the Met Office. Now I help climate scientists process their data rather than astronomers!
When did you first hear the term “RSE”?
I first heard the term “RSE” in 2016, when I discovered some of my SSE colleagues were attending the first RSE conference that year. Unfortunately, I have yet to attend an RSE conference, but I am hopeful I can attend this year!
What is your favourite thing about your work and being an RSE?
There are many things I enjoy about my current role. I am continually working with different teams to solve new problems, and I really feel I am making a difference to these teams through knowledge sharing and delivering work. I have learnt so much about the work performed by other teams across the Met Office. It is really rewarding!
And what is the least favourite?
When I first started in my current role, several requests were submitted with quite short timescales. When I was planning the work, I scheduled a contingency of one week between each request. In practice, it quickly became apparent that this was not sufficient as there were dependencies on other individuals. At one point I was working on four requests at once! Now, I have a “long term” project that I work on in the background, so I can keep busy between the requests I work on. Now, context switching is a challenge!
Another challenge is that I do not often have the time to fully understand the science behind the work the teams are doing. My academic background means I am interested in what teams are doing, but I need to prioritise what to learn so I can complete the task I was asked to perform.
What’s the most unexpected part about being a RSE?
The most unexpected part about my current role is the impact my work has. During the summer of 2021, I worked with a team of climate scientists who had developed Python code to process satellite data. Unfortunately, it was estimated that the code would take around 4 months to process all the data. I was requested to work on this code to improve its performance. After identifying the bottleneck, I made changes to the code that halved the time it took to run, then developed a workflow implementation using Cylc to perform parallelisation, which enabled the processing to be performed in 2 days. This had a significant impact on the team as they no longer needed to start the processing 4 months before the data delivery deadline, meaning more time could be spent making improvements to the code. In addition, they could quickly and easily rerun the processing if external changes were requested at short notice. It also had an impact on the Met Office as a whole, since it freed up almost 4 months of resources on our compute cluster. There is a clear demand for SSE expertise in this form at the Met Office and we are now entering our third year of this scheme.
Did you already have any interactions with the RSE Society and the RSE community? If yes, which?
I have not yet had any interactions with the RSE Society or the RSE community. However, I am part of a small team of SSEs who are starting a new SSE Community of Practice (CoP) at the Met Office to bring SSEs together to share knowledge and improve skills. One of the aims of this CoP is to facilitate building stronger links with the RSE community, so if anyone is interested in meeting SSEs at the Met Office, we would love to hear from you!
Do you see yourself as an academic, researcher, software engineer, technician…? All of it? Something else? A mix of one or two terms?
I see myself as a software engineer, enabling scientists and science. As an SSE I do all the things you would expect a software engineer to do (design, develop, test, document, maintain, support), as well as work with scientists and other SSEs to ensure good software engineering and quality assurance practices are followed so they can produce robust and reproducible science.
What do you see as your most likely future career path from here? And what would be your ideal career path?
I am motivated by solving problems, sharing knowledge, and helping others. I want to be recognised as a leader in what I do, make an impact, and continually improve my knowledge and skills. Therefore, my most likely future career path is the same as my ideal career path; to keep doing what I am doing, just harder, better, faster, stronger!
In your view, how could RSEs be better supported in their work? What do you need? What is missing?
Discussions with various colleagues at the Met Office made it clear that SSEs are lacking support related to induction and professional development, as well as networking opportunities with other SSEs, both internally and with external communities. This is part of the motivation behind the creation of our new SSE CoP. I hope we will establish a safe, supportive environment where we can, among other things, share best practice and lessons learned, both with ourselves and with external communities. I expect the RSE community will see more SSEs in the future!
What advice do you have to individuals looking to start a career in Research Software Engineering?
RSEs / SSEs are a unique breed; rather than focussing solely on either science or software engineering we work on both, in varying proportions, as we tend to have an interest in both topics. Therefore, an obvious piece of advice would be to gain knowledge, skills and experience in science and software engineering. However, one thing I feel is sometimes overlooked is the importance of interpersonal skills. If I asked you to imagine what a software developer looks like, would you imagine a dark room with a single person tapping on a keyboard in the corner, their face lit up from the light of the screen? Or would you imagine a person working as part of a team of diverse people, sharing ideas and discussing problems, coding collaboratively and continuously improving the way they work together? I used to picture the former, but now I picture the latter and I would encourage those interested in starting a career as an RSE / SSE to not forget about developing good interpersonal skills!