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Ask Steve! - As a developer, why should you care about the research field you work in?

Posted by s.crouch on 27 July 2011 - 4:23pm

“Programming is 10% science, 20% ingenuity, and 70% getting the ingenuity to work with the science.” – Anon

Software developers working on an academic research project will, unsurprisingly, do just that: develop software. But to what extent should a developer care about the research field in which they work? This and other related questions have popped up a few times recently, and this theme also permeated a few sessions at our Collaborations Workshop back in March.

The first thing to realise is that researchers and software developers both use long words, but they are generally different long words. Each group comprises experts (in their own discipline), but each group has its own language. For example (with elementary translations in [ ]) …

Researcher: Can you imagine what we could do with a more timely lattice energy landscape minimisation for these carbolyxate salts!? [If only we could do our calculations faster!]

Developer: Nope – does it have something to do with matrices?

Developer: Did you see that amazing multi-threaded C++ app for distributed problem solving for Android appear on the appstore last night? [Just imagine how many calculations you could do in a shorter space of time - on a smartphone!]

Researcher: Sorry, I don’t watch Star Trek

Ok, so this is a little oversimplified. But such a disparity in communication means that real opportunities are missed. How do developers make sure that they understand the importance of what researchers are saying, and vice versa?

Developers and researchers are waking up to what can be achieved if they work together, and find ways to communicate effectively. As developers, we shouldn’t expect researchers to automatically believe in our religious arguments about proper software design. But if we understand the science a little bit better, then we increase our chance of identifying ways to improve the science through what we know of software – and there lies the true benefit for researchers. You only have to look at the successes of TavernaOGSA-DAI, GridSAM and the ENGAGE projects to see what is possible when researchers and software developers come together in the right way. In the CPOSS ENGAGE project, the improved coupling of a number of software technologies enabled them to perform science that wasn’t even possible before.

Of course, taking the time to learn more about the science takes effort. But if you go that extra mile every once in a while, digging a little deeper into the science behind the software you’re writing, who knows? Software and software infrastructures have a lot to offer research, and you may just be the one to help the scientists make that important discovery.

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