By Dr Peter Schmidt, Senior Research Software Developer, University College London.
Saying that we live in strange times is an understatement. Since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic most of us have been confined to working from home. As for myself, I have not seen the inside of an office, conference hall or seminar room since March 2020. Conferences, meetings and workshops have been cancelled or moved entirely online.
How important face to face meetings are in terms of building a strong community is known to anyone who’s been to conferences and workshops before. For instance, the Research Software Engineers (RSE) Conference in Manchester/UK in 2016 was a pivotal moment for RSE communities in several countries and for getting RSE roles recognised in some (e.g. the UK).
What happens to the community when meeting others, movements and travel are so severely restricted? And for such a long time? Thankfully, our community has responded quickly to the challenge with a flurry of online meetings and sessions, e.g. SORSE.
But I also believe that one of the technologies to strengthen our community is podcasting. In fact, I have been toying with the idea of creating a podcast for some time. Podcasting is such a great medium. You get to hear from interesting people and learn about fascinating subjects. And what’s more, the content is open, free and simple to access. You can listen to episodes in your own time, whenever you want to, wherever you are. What a great way to promote the work we do!
Luckily, an RSE podcast already existed at the time: RSE Stories. Vanessa Sochat from Stanford University in the US created the show in autumn 2019. I contacted Vanessa on the RSE Slack channel in June 2020 to find out more about her podcast. We met up shortly afterwards to discuss how we could collaborate on this. Vanessa wants to grow the number of people hosting RSE Stories episodes (if that’s you, get in touch with Vanessa). And as for myself: as a complete podcast novice I wasn’t quite ready to run with my own show. Vanessa was very supportive and we decided to work together. Since then both of us have been publishing interviews with RSEs on a regular basis. We recently had our 50th episode!
Over the course of the following months I discovered that I really, really enjoy podcasting. I also felt there was space for an additional podcast show with regards to research, science and software: a podcast that focuses on specific subjects and technologies. A show that covers workshops and conferences.
After cutting my teeth on RSE Stories I felt a bit braver, and towards the end of the year I decided to launch a new show called Code for Thought. Like RSE Stories, I plan to bring episodes to listeners regularly every two to three weeks. The first two episodes, an intro to the new podcast followed by an interview with Sarah King and Richard Gunn from the EPSRC went live in January this year.
And there’s far more to come: the next episode will be a recording with the team behind AfricarXiV on how they work hard to make research and science from the continent more visible. And in November last year I covered an (online only) ReproHack event at UCL. Plenty more recordings are already waiting to be edited and published over the coming months. So, stay tuned!
Building a strong community
So, how does all of this strengthen the RSE community I hear you ask?
Firstly, let’s not forget that in some places RSEs are still not recognised as roles. In my discussions with RSEs I found that a key strategy towards recognition is to build an active and strong community first. Therefore, knowing who your colleagues are, where they work and what they do is an essential step in this process.
Secondly, the number of RSEs is growing rapidly. Keeping in touch and up to date will be increasingly relevant. The one thing we learned in a year of lockdowns is the importance of staying connected.
Podcasts can help with that! For one, our episodes from Code for Thought and RSE Stories bring you interviews with RSEs or people working in related fields from around the globe - and possibly even near you! Wherever you are, whatever you do - you are not the only one.
But I also hope to inspire and spawn discussions. As an example, one of the recordings in Code for Thought will touch on the role of software architects and how (if) that can translate to future RSE career paths. There will also be recordings from community events such as a panel discussion at the Nordic RSE conference (Dec 2020).
Podcasts from the community, for the community: that’s what Code for Thought and RSE Stories want to be. But for that we need your support. You can help by simply subscribing to the shows e.g. on Apple, Google, Spotify. And if you have ideas, suggestions or comments about the show and episodes we definitely want to hear from you.
So go and have a listen and I hope to meet you all in future episodes!