I don't fix printers or do IT support - I'm a Research Software Engineer

Posted by s.hettrick on 25 July 2014 - 10:00am

By Gillian Law, Tech Literate.

Ashley Towers, Research Software Engineer at the University of Sheffield, explains why and how he won the job title he wanted. Job titles matter. Towers almost didn’t apply for his current job at the University of Sheffield – a job that he loves - because the title was all wrong.

"They advertised for a Computing Officer, and I probably wouldn't have paid any attention if I saw it on a job page, because it sounds like a IT Support, fixing-the-printers role. But I was fortunate in that my sister works for the University, and she sent me the advert."

The University was, in fact, looking for someone to buy or develop software for students in the School of Clinical Dentistry. Four years later, Towers has made the job his own, creating software that is vital to the dentistry students and brings great research possibilities – and has persuaded the School to change his job title to reflect it.

Towers is now a Research Software Engineer – a job title that the Software Sustainability Institute has been promoting since 2012.

"I’d never been a big fan of my job title, and it came up during my annual review. I had heard about the RSE community, and had a feeling it was a much better description of what I do. So I suggested it to my line manager, and he asked me to send him more information. I put together an email with links to various Institute resources – including a list of questions that asked "Are you a Research Software Engineer?" He quickly agreed that is was a good choice, but it had to be approved by both the School and the University’s HR department, so the Institute resources were a big help in making the case," Towers said.

So what is Towers' role, and how does it fit into the RSE model?

When it advertised the role, the University wanted someone to digitise its existing paper-based student clinical record books – tracking the dental procedures tackled by students, their grades, and any feedback and reflections that they have.

"When the job was created, there were two ways it could have gone, depending on who got the job. Someone might have just bought in some software and managed that" said Towers. "But when I started, after looking round at the options, we decided to write our own. And once we got the software up and running, it quickly became evident that when you've got 70 to 80 students per year across a five-year programme recording everything that they’ve done, that quickly adds up to a lot of data. I think at the last count we had over 120,000 treatments recorded in there. And that’s a really good resource for doing research. An area of particular interest to the Dental Education Group, of which I’m a member, is in reflective practice – we can look at how the students reflect on what they’re doing, and how that helps them improve. We can also look at treatments over time on patients, and demographics – there's a lot of possibilities."

Data from the Dentistry Portfolio has been presented at the Association for Dental Education in Europe conference and Towers has presented at the University's annual Teaching and Learning conference. He hopes to go on to use the data as the basis of a PhD, starting next year.

Towers is also involved in FutureLearn, a UK-based response MOOC platform. He is helping to develop Discover Dentistry, a program aimed at people who want to train as dentists, and at anyone with an interest in the area.

Clearly, this is not the work of a Computing officer, and Towers is very glad to have a title that better reflects what he does. When he found out that the University had approved the change, he tweeted: "Yay my new job title is now official - Research Software Engineer - big thanks to @SoftwareSaved for starting the movement :-D"

Which is how Simon Hettrick, Deputy Director of the Institute, found out – and got in touch, keen to hear Towers' story. The Institute has been promoting the title of Research Software Engineer over the last two years with the help of some prominent RSEs, which has created a growing RSE community.

"It really was an excellent surprise. At first, I checked whether Ashley had a connection to the Institute. But no – he’s never been to any of our events, and had simply read about the campaign on our website, felt a connection and lobbied for his title to be changed," Hettrick said.

"It’s been incredibly gratifying to see use of the title begin to spread as people come to hear of it".  The title was invented in 2012, and awareness has slowly grown. The Institute runs regular workshops for the RSE community – with the next one planned for 15-16 September, in London – and Hettrick is keen to establish a fully self-governing community of RSEs that will grow quickly as people recognise the relevance and importance of having such an appropriate title. Software is vital to research – and it’s equally vital to recognise the contribution of the people who create it.

Fellow Research Software Engineer, Derek Groen, agrees with Towers "classical IT support can be inefficient at accelerating software-driven research because much of the progress is made by developing customised research software, like Towers does. To develop such software requires a much more scientifically oriented skill set than a classical IT support positions, so I fully agree that the work he does is much more fitting for a Research Software Engineer than a Computing Officer."

"The title of Research Software Engineer is certainly much more descriptive of what I do," said Towers. "Because obviously I’m a software engineer – and I’m working as part of a team that's producing research. I see the software as a starting point – it's what you can do with the information that's in there that's the most interesting thing. I think that as a software developer you're not viewed as a full academic, but you're not support staff either – I think there's a need to have more recognition of what we do."

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