February Community Call Summary

Published: Feb 19, 2021

The February US-RSE Community Call focused on the topic of RSE education and training. It was well attended with about 25 participants. After some updates from the steering committee we started out with a few warm up Mentimeter questions. Turns out Star Wars created a lot of favorite fictional characters (surprise ;) ). It got interesting with the question if there should be some kind of formal RSE training. While 12 people thought there should be, 11 people answered that it depends, while one person didn’t think there should be formal training. This might warrant a follow-up discussion on the question of under what circumstances a formal RSE training would be useful or even desired.

Do you think there should be some kind of formal training for RSEs?

We next asked all participants what the last RSE skill that they learned was. Interestingly, many people listed DevOps skills such as Docker, Kubernetes, CI/CD, or GitHub Actions, which might be an indicator that many RSE jobs not just require programming skills but also expertise in infrastructure-related topics. We ended the Mentimeter questions by asking what skill or technology was highest on the participants’ list to learn. While several participants responded with programming related skills such as learning Rust, Python, or Machine Learning, there were also topics such as CI/CD, career management, and project management.

After the Mentimeter sessions, Jeffrey Carver talked about the Intersect Project that he and Ian Cosden run. The Intersect Project will create training materials, host workshops, and bootcamps for RSEs. More information can be found here. Jeffrey’s presentation was followed by Nick Murphy, who talked about his work with the plasma science community on best programming practices and open source (his slides can be found here).

These two very interesting presentations were followed by breakout sessions in which the participants discussed the following questions.

  • How did you obtain your software engineering skills?
  • Have you ever trained other RSEs?
  • How do you believe the type of training an RSE receives influences their work?
  • Are there areas of technical or non-technical knowledge where training is not easily available to you at the moment?

Generally, there seemed to be a mix of people having some kind of formal computer science training and people who learnt their RSE skills on the job. While several participants had some experience with training, a lot of that experience was through mentoring or teaching classes for undergraduate students, graduate students, or postdocs. Software Carpentry was mentioned as a good resource for training.

Regarding the question of how the type of training of an RSE influences their work, a couple of interesting points were made. One participant suggested that the recognition of the work of an RSE can depend on how close they are to the subject area of a project. Someone else pointed out that the choices an RSE makes are limited by the knowledge and experiences of that RSE, since you can’t choose something that you don’t know of. Therefore, it’s important to keep learning about new technologies and to stay up-to-date with current developments in the field.

The last question asked for gaps in training materials for RSE and how easy they are to find. While the general opinion seemed to be that there are a lot of materials out there and one can easily find what one is looking for, there does exist the problem of knowing where to start. Similarly, it can be difficult to gauge what skills are needed as an RSE and on what one should focus. Another point that was made was that there is currently a lack in regards to training material for reproducibility in science and guides to navigate an RSE career path.

In summary, the February community call was a very interesting one with a lively discussion. Several good points were made and interesting questions were raised that might be a great starting point for a working group on this topic. There is still a lot to learn about RSEs, their skills, and job profiles.

The next Community Call will be held on March 11, topic TBD but it’ll be interesting. Mark your calendars and join us! A “living list” of candidate topics is now on GitHub! Also, look out for messages on the US-RSE Slack #communitycalls channel seeking other topics and for conversation about what topic would be good for March 11!