Lessons from my SSI fellowship: first half(ish)

Posted by j.laird on 26 July 2022 - 10:00am
Sunrise over a snowy scene in Rothera
Sunrise in Rothera. Image by James Byrne.

By SSI Fellow James Byrne.

Why a blog post? I haven’t written one yet! I wanted to write a blog post that summarises my SSI/RSE journey for (hopefully) the benefit of others. I keep doing things that I should be blogging about but seldom get time to write, so figure it’s best to write about many things at once! 😉  

Implicit Value: becoming an SSI RSE 

Becoming an RSE (RSE LINK) is new for me and my organisation. The job role didn’t exist and in industry (as well as science) job definitions seldom map to a role so clearly defined. I came to RSE’ing through working on software relating to the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) AI Lab (www.bas.ac.uk/ai), and came to the SSI when I realised they could support software engineering in my organisation. Reaching out to RSEs in organisations like The Alan Turing Institute also helped to see the wider SSI network, and following an unsuccessful SSI fellowship application before I was an RSE, then becoming an RSE, then becoming an SSI fellow, I gathered why these roles within organisations are important to recognise! 

Lesson learned 

JFDI: just (ahem) do it.  

Giving things a go, or trying to push an agenda you believe in just a little, is so important to being happy in what you’re doing, but more importantly makes you learn how to push forward. Pain points such as ruffled feathers and self-doubt should not quell enthusiasm, but address how you apply it. Don’t let fear result in accepting the status quo and or moving to places you don’t want to be. 

The SSI fellowship made me realise that many people are fighting for causes that are really brilliant, such as transparency, advocacy and freedoms. This is a super important benefit, because it ignites my own passion and makes me want to make things better.  

Event: AI UK 2022 

One (of many) project(s), IceNet, has given me a significant use-case upon which to focus and adopt software sustainability principles (thanks for the research @tom-andersson.) This is critical to engaging with the RSE world, as I know from experience people get good at software engineering, by having a reason to be a software engineer on something they care about

The enthusiasm is infectious when you meet SSI peers, and that infectious enthusiasm makes you want to present what you’re working on. Getting carried away meant I agreed to present a run through on the software underpinning IceNet which was developed with The Turing Institute (thanks @james-robinson and @alden-conner), at the Turing AI UK 2022 conference.   

Lesson learned 

The lesson learned was that being emboldened and taken out of your comfort zone is easier to accept when you feel that something good is happening based on software you’re involved with. Sign up to things you feel uncomfortable with if you can see yourself communicating about it the way others do! 

Event: Collaborations Workshop 22 workshop talk 

I realised I should do something for the SSI so I also agreed to present a session on “Foreseeing and Alleviating Technical Debt” at CW22, often I feel overlooked in pursuing sustainable software, a feeling corroborated by Steve Crouch, the lead of the SSI Software Team, in a Slack chat. Being experienced as a software developer helped, but it is a subject I thought could bring benefits to people in understanding a seldom talked about topic. The level of support from the SSI in reassuring me I wasn’t bonkers was amazing, and in the end I really enjoyed taking the plunge into speaking on a subject I cared about.  

Lesson learned 

To be honest this was even more fun than presenting on work I’m involved with, not least because of the positivity of SSI fellows at the CW22 conference. I thought everyone knew about this subject but in preparing the session I realised it’s still very misunderstood, including at times by me! So again: taking the plunge and agreeing to something might seem stressful but it’s a great way of consolidating understanding!  

Event: first podcast recording 

You can probably see a pattern here, but when a shout went out for Code for Thought podcast participants I again thought “why not, that’s a new medium for me!” As it is, the process of recording was fun, I recorded my bit alongside fellow-fellow Tom Russell the presenter Jacalyn Laird and enjoyed the process, then remembered I don’t like hearing my own voice!  

Lesson learned 

It was still worth it. Even if you don’t like the results, perhaps other people find things you do useful, so do it and move on (which is what I did!) I would do another podcast again, but I’ll just do a better job of answering questions (and perhaps not over prepare for it next time!)   

Feeling empowered to champion software sustainability 

So far I’ve talked a lot about events that I probably wouldn’t have done had I not been trying to promote the principles of software sustainability. Underpinning this though is the fact that being an SSI fellow and being involved in the community has empowered me to talk about the importance of software sustainability not only externally, but more importantly internally. Doing all this has revolutionised my understanding of how SSI principles can benefit my organisation, and the events I’ve done have very much instructed me how to go about doing this in the future. 

I can’t say I’m the only one who understands this in my organisation, that’s certainly not true. However, looking outward is benefitting my looking inward and applying modern approaches to interacting with audiences is making me think about what we might benefit from as software engineering revolutionises polar science (which it is capable of doing!) 

Conclusion: is the SSI fellowship for you? 

In summary, if you’re applying software engineering at all, then an SSI fellowship definitely won’t hurt and will help you grow in that capacity. For me personally, becoming an RSE at BAS was brilliant and satisfied my need to continue working in software. However, engaging with the RSE community via the SSI fellowship has taught me that there’s a wealth of benefits to being sociable and collaborative on top of that!


Applications for the Fellowship Programme 2023 will open on 15 August 2022.


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