An interview with a Research Software Engineer

Posted by j.laird on 13 July 2022 - 10:00am
Alison Clarke
Alison Clarke

Alison Clarke is an SSI Fellow who has worked as a Research Software Engineer (RSE). This post is an interview with Alison about becoming and working as an RSE, originally posted on the Society of Research Software Engineering website.

Can you describe your background? 

After graduating from my MSc in Computer Science I worked as a software engineer in industry for several years, mostly on web development and later on mobile development too. I became an RSE at Advanced Research Computing (ARC) at Durham University in September 2019. The RSE group was very new at that point, so in the beginning my role involved advertising our services to departments across the university. We soon found (lots of) work though, and I worked on a variety of projects, including HEPData, a repository for high-energy Physics data, pose detection software for a project in the Music department, agent-based modelling of a classroom with researchers in the School of Education, and a localised flood alert website with the Geography department.

How did you become an RSE?

In 2019 I took some time to reassess my career as a software engineer, which made me realise that although I really enjoyed the actual software engineering, I wanted to do something that would have a more positive impact than my work in the private sector. When I saw the job advert for RSEs at Durham University that seemed like a good fit. The job ad seemed to be asking for a very wide range of skills, and I was worried that I didn’t have enough of them, but I applied anyway, and got the job.

When did you first hear the term “RSE”?

When I saw the job advert! The whole world of RSE was completely new to me when I started the job.

What is your favourite thing about your work and being an RSE?

I love working on projects that might help people in some way, like the flood alert project, which could have a big impact on people who live in parts of Indonesia that often have extreme floods. I also enjoy working on a variety of projects.

And what is your least favourite?

Working on too many projects simultaneously! I think this is a problem in many RSE groups, but trying to fit in all of the planning for new projects, together with work on multiple projects, plus training and other outreach activities, can be stressful.

Do you see yourself as an academic, researcher, software engineer, technician…?

Software engineer, with a bit of researcher thrown in. I think that’s a result of my skillset: as a web developer most of what I do is about making research outputs available to people. However, there are some projects, like the agent-based modelling of a classroom, where I definitely feel I have made a contribution to the research itself.

What do you see as your most likely future career path from here? And what would be your ideal career path?

I recently started a new role as a software engineer for a charitable trust who who fund research. My ideal career path would be to become more senior in what I’m doing, but to stick with a role that involves both research and software engineering!

In your view, how could RSEs be better supported in their work? 

I think it would be great if there were more financial support at a university level for the non-project work that RSEs do, so that there’s less pressure for all RSEs to be spending all of their time on projects (and so they have time for all the important non-project work). I think this is something that each university handles differently but perhaps it’s something that could be looked at at a national level.

What advice do you have for individuals looking to start a career in Research Software Engineering?

Go for it! Get involved in the RSE Society and other related networks and you’ll find lots of opportunities to learn new skills and to find out about what others are doing. (Just be careful not to overcommit yourself.)

What has the RSE Society done for you?

A lot! I attended the 2019 conference shortly after starting my new job, and it was a brilliant way to see what RSEs are doing, to learn new skills, and to think about RSE as a career. Through the RSE Society I got involved in being on the SORSE committee, and I was also on the committee for SeptembRSE, which were both great chances to get to know RSE people outside of my own institution. Finally, I was part of the trial mentoring scheme this year as a mentee, which I’ve found really helpful, both in terms of the mentoring itself and also the soft skills training that has been offered.


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