Informational Interview Questions for Forming an RSE Group

Published: Jun 4, 2022

How do you form a Research Software Engineering group at your organization or institution? The answer depends on many things: who you are, what research areas you are familiar with, and where within the organization your group will be located, to name just a few.

Because this career path is so new, especially in the United States, it is hard to write down guidelines that could apply to any group leader. At least, that’s the conclusion we came to, when we got together at the first US-RSE community building workshop at the end of April, as a working group focused on “Forming an RSE Group.” That’s why we chose to instead draft a list of questions you might ask during an informational interview. Members of the working group that drafted these questions were Abbey Roelofs (UM), Cherry Liu (GaTech), Rafael Mudafort (NREL), David Nicholson (EI), Zhiyong Zhang (Stanford), Claire Wyatt (SSI), Simon Hettrick (Southampton), Nasir Eisty (Boise State U), Alys Brett (UK Atomic Energy Authority), Rinku Gupta (ANL), Christina Maimone (Northwestern), and Jai Sachdev (PPPL).

We share a link to the questions below, but first we provide a little more context. Even though we agreed it’s hard to write guidelines for forming an RSE group within an organization, we do not mean to take away from the great resources that already exist. On US-RSE’s RSE resources page for example, we have a link to an existing blog post on the Software Sustainability Institute’s site. And US-RSE also provides an (admittedly incomplete) list of existing RSE groups (that Christina Maimone updated during the workshop, like literally while we were talking). You can learn a lot just looking at sites from those existing groups, such as this partnership guide from the Princeton RSE group that will give you an idea of how your own group might establish relationships with partners like research labs and administration. You can even find published articles about success stories and lessons learned, such as Katz et al. 2019 or Katz et al. 2021.

But still, as a soon-to-be group leader you may find yourself feeling like you don’t even know what questions to ask. What you need is something like a moving checklist, that reminds you what should be doing (“have important documents handy”, like a partnership guide). Or in this case, since you’ll probably be talking with leaders of existing groups as you plan your own, what you really need is a list of questions, that give you an idea of what you should be asking about. Hence we drafted the informational interview questions, as a template you can adapt.

We are sharing this template now as a “living document”, so that we can get feedback from the community. You can find the template here: Our next step will be to share this with the broader US-RSE community (now over 1000 members in our Slack team alone!). We invite you to join us so you can provide feedback in the Slack channel we have set up: #forming-an-rse-group