Beyond code monkeys: recognising technologists’ intellectual contributions

Two upcoming events suggest that academia is starting to recognise that specialist technologists – AKA ‘research software engineers’ or ‘digital humanities software developers’ – make intellectual contributions to research software, and further, that it is starting to realise the cost of not recognising them. In the UK, there’s a ‘workshop for research software engineers‘ on September 11; in the US there’s Speaking in Code in November (which offers travel bursaries and is with ace people, so do consider applying).

But first, who are these specialist technologists, and why does it matter? The UK Software Sustainability Institute’s ‘workshop for research software engineers’ says ‘research software engineers … not only develop the software, they also understand the research that it makes possible’. In an earlier post, The Craftsperson and the Scholar, UCL’s James Hetherington says a ‘good scientific coder combines two characters: the scholar and the craftsperson’. Research software needs people who are both scholar – ‘the archetypical researcher who is driven by a desire to understand things to their fullest capability’ and craftsperson who ‘desires to create and leave behind an artefact which reifies their efforts in a field’: ‘if you get your kicks from understanding the complex and then making a robust, clear and efficient tool, you should consider becoming a research software engineer’. A supporting piece in the Times Higher Education, ‘Save your work – give software engineers a career track‘ points out that good developers can leave for more rewarding industries, and raises one of the key issues for engineers: not everyone wants to publish academic papers on their development work, but if they don’t publish, academia doesn’t know how to judge the quality of their work.

Over in the US, and with a focus on the humanities rather than science, the Scholar’s Lab is running the ‘Speaking in Code‘ symposium to highlight ‘what is almost always tacitly expressed in our work: expert knowledge about the intellectual and interpretive dimensions of DH code-craft, and unspoken understandings about the relation of that work to ethics, scholarly method, and humanities theory’. In a related article, Devising New Roles for Scholars Who Can Code, Bethany Nowviskie of the Scholar’s Lab discussed some of the difficulties in helping developers have their work recognised as scholarship rather than ‘service work’ or just ‘building the plumbing’:

“I have spent so much of my career working with software developers who are attached to humanities projects,” she says. “Most have higher degrees in their disciplines.” Unlike their professorial peers, though, they aren’t trained to “unpack” their thinking in seminars and scholarly papers. “I’ve spent enough time working with them to understand that a lot of the intellectual codework goes unspoken,” she says.

Women at work on C-47 Douglas cargo transport.
LOC image via Serendip-o-matic

Digital humanists spend a lot of time thinking about the role of ‘making things’ in the digital humanities but, to cross over to my other domain of interest, I think the international Museums and the Web conference‘s requirement for full written papers for all presentations has helped more museum technologists translate some of their tacit knowledge into written form. Everyone who wants to present their work has to find a way to write up their work, even if it’s painful at the time – but once it’s done, they’re published as open access papers well before the conference. Museum technologists also tend to blog and discuss their work on mailing lists, which provides more opportunities to tease out tacit knowledge while creating a visible community of practice.

I wasn’t at Museums and the Web 2013 but one of the sessions I was most interested in was Rich Cherry and Rob Stein’s ‘What’s a Museum Technologist today?‘ as they were going to report on the results of a survey they ran earlier this year to come up with ‘a more current and useful description of our profession’. (If you’re interested in the topic, my earlier posts on museum technologists include On ‘cultural heritage technologists’Confluence on digital channels; technologists and organisational change?Museum technologists redux: it’s not about usSurvey results: issues facing museum technologists.) Rob’s posted their slides at What is a Museum Technologist Anyway? and I’d definitely recommend you go check them out.  Looking through the responses, the term ‘museum technologist’ seems to have broadened as more museum jobs involve creating content for or publishing on digital channels (whether web sites, mobile apps, ebooks or social media), but to me, a museum technologist isn’t just someone who uses technology or social media – rather, there’s a level of expertise or ‘domain knowledge’ across both museums and technology – and the articles above have reinforced my view that there’s something unique in working so deeply across two or more disciplines. (Just to be clear: this isn’t a diss for people who use social media rather than build things – there’s also a world of expertise in creating content for the web and social media). Or to paraphrase James Hetherington, ”if you get your kicks from understanding the complex and then making a robust, clear and efficient tool, you should consider becoming a museum technologist’.

To further complicate things, not everyone needs their work to reflect all their interests – some programmers and tech staff are happy to leave their other interests outside the office door, and leave engineering behind at the end of the day – and my recent experiences at One Week | One Tool reminded me that promiscuous interdisciplinarity can be tricky. Even when you revel in it, it’s hard to remember that people wear multiple hats and can swap from production-mode to critically reflecting on the product through their other disciplinary lenses, so I have some sympathy for academics who wonder why their engineer expects their views on the relevant research topic to be heard. That said, hopefully events like these will help the research community work out appropriate ways of recognising and rewarding the contributions of researcher developers.

[Update, September 2013: I’ve posted brief notes and links to session reports from the research software engineers event at Lighting signals: research software engineers event and related topics.]

So we made a thing. Announcing Serendip-o-matic at One Week, One Tool

So we made a thing. And (we think) it’s kinda cool! Announcing Serendip-o-matic http://t.co/mQsHLqf4oX #OWOT
— Mia (@mia_out) August 2, 2013

Source code at GitHub Serendipomatic – go add your API so people can find your stuff! Check out the site at serendipomatic.org.

Update: and already we’ve had feedback that people love the experience and have found it useful – it’s so amazing to hear this, thank you all! We know it’s far from perfect, but since the aim was to make something people would use, it’s great to know we’ve managed that:

Congratulations @mia_out and the team of #OWOT for http://t.co/cNbCbEKlUf Already try it & got new sources about a Portuguese King. GREAT!!!
— Daniel Alves (@DanielAlvesFCSH) August 2, 2013

Update from Saturday morning – so this happened overnight:

Cool, Serendipmatic cloned and local dev version up and running in about 15 mins. Now to see about adding Trove to the mix. #owot
— Tim Sherratt (@wragge) August 3, 2013

And then this:

Just pushed out an update to http://t.co/uM13iWLISU — now includes Trove content! #owot
— RebeccaSuttonKoeser (@suttonkoeser) August 3, 2013

From the press release: One Week | One Tool Team Launches Serendip-o-matic

serendip-o-maticAfter five days and nights of intense collaboration, the One Week | One Tool digital humanities team has unveiled its web application: Serendip-o-matic <http://serendipomatic.org>. Unlike conventional search tools, this “serendipity engine” takes in any text, such as an article, song lyrics, or a bibliography. It then extracts key terms, delivering similar results from the vast online collections of the Digital Public Library of America, Europeana, and Flickr Commons. Because Serendip-o-matic asks sources to speak for themselves, users can step back and discover connections they never knew existed. The team worked to re-create that moment when a friend recommends an amazing book, or a librarian suggests a new source. It’s not search, it’s serendipity.

Serendip-o-matic works for many different users. Students looking for inspiration can use one source as a springboard to a variety of others. Scholars can pump in their bibliographies to help enliven their current research or to get ideas for a new project. Bloggers can find open access images to illustrate their posts. Librarians and museum professionals can discover a wide range of items from other institutions and build bridges that make their collections more accessible. In addition, millions of users of RRCHNM’s Zotero can easily run their personal libraries through Serendip-o-matic.
Serendip-o-matic is easy to use and freely available to the public. Software developers may expand and improve the open-source code, available on GitHub. The One Week | One Tool team has also prepared ways for additional archives, libraries, and museums to make their collections available to Serendip-o-matic. 

Highs and lows, day four of OWOT

If you’d asked me at 6pm, I would have said I’d have been way too tired to blog later, but it also felt like a shame to break my streak at this point. Today was hard work and really tiring – lots to do, lots of finicky tech issues to deal with, some tricky moments to work through – but particularly after regrouping back at the hotel, the dev/design team powered through some of the issues we’d butted heads against earlier and got some great work done.  Tomorrow will undoubtedly be stressful and I’ll probably triage tasks like mad but I think we’ll have something good to show you.

As I left the hotel this morning I realised an intense process like this isn’t just about rapid prototyping – it’s also about rapid trust. When there’s too much to do and barely any time for communication, let alone  checking someone else’s work, you just have to rely on others to get the bits they’re doing right and rely on goodwill to guide the conversation if you need to tweak things a bit.  It can be tricky when you’re working out where everyone’s sense of boundaries between different areas are as you go, but being able to trust people in that way is a brilliant feeling. At the end of a long day, I’ve realised it’s also very much about deciding which issues you’re willing to spend time finessing and when you’re happy to hand over to others or aim for a first draft that’s good enough to go out with the intention to tweak if it you ever get time. I’d asked in the past whether a museum’s obsession with polish hinders innovation so I can really appreciate how freeing it can be to work in an environment where to get a product that works, let alone something really good, out in the time available is a major achievement.

Anyway, enough talking. Amrys has posted about today already, and I expect that Jack or Brian probably will too, so I’m going to hand over to some tweets and images to give you a sense of my day. (I’ve barely had any time to talk to or get to know the Outreach team so ironically reading their posts has been a lovely way to check in with how they’re doing.)

Our GitHub repository punch card report tells the whole story of this week – from nothing to huge levels of activity on the app code

I keep looking at the #OWOT commits and clapping my hands excitedly. I am a great. big. dork.
— Mia (@mia_out) August 1, 2013

OH at #owot ‘I just had to get the hippo out of my system’ (More seriously, so exciting to see the design work that’s coming out!)
— Mia (@mia_out) August 1, 2013

OH at #OWOT ‘I’m not sure JK Rowling approves of me’. Also, an earlier unrelated small round of applause. Progress is being made.
— Mia (@mia_out) August 1, 2013

#OWOT #owotleaks it turns out our mysterious thing works quite well with song lyrics.
— Mia (@mia_out) August 1, 2013

Halfway through. Day three of OWOT.

Crikey. Day three. Where do I start?

We’ve made great progress on our mysterious tool. And it has a name! Some cool design motifs are flowing from that, which in turn means we can really push the user experience design issues over the next day and a half (though we’ve already been making lots of design decisions on the hoof so we can keep dev moving). The Outreach team have also been doing some great communications work, including a Press Release and have lots more in the pipeline. The Dev/Design team did a demo of our work for the Outreach team before dinner – there are lots of little things but the general framework of the tool works as it should – it’s amazing how far we’ve come since lunchtime yesterday.  We still need to do a full deployment (server issues, blah blah), and I’ll feel a lot better when we’ve got that process working and then running smoothly, so that we can keep deploying as we finish major features up to a few hours before launch rather than doing it at the end in a mad panic. I don’t know how people managed code before source control – not only does Github manage versions for it, it makes pulling in code from different people so much easier.

There’s lots to tackle on many different fronts, and it may still end up in a mad rush at the end, but right now, the Dev/Design team is humming along. I’ve been so impressed with the way people have coped with some pretty intense requirements for working with unfamiliar languages or frameworks, and with high levels of uncertainty in a chaotic environment.  I’m trying to keep track of things in Github (with Meghan and Brian as brilliant ‘got my back’ PMs) and keep the key current tasks on a whiteboard so that people know exactly what they need to be getting done at any time. Now that the Outreach team have worked through the key descriptive texts, name and tagline we’ll need to coordinate content production – particularly documentation, microcopy to guide people through the process – really closely, which will probably get tricky as time is short and our tasks are many, but given the people gathered together for OWOT, I have faith that we’ll make it work.


Things I have learnt today: despite two years working on a PhD in digital humanities/digital history, I still have a brain full of technical stuff – it’s a relief to realise it hasn’t atrophied through lack of use. I’ve also realised how much the work I’ve done designing workshops and teaching since starting my PhD have fed into how I work with teams, though it’s hard right now to quantify exactly *how*. Finally, it’s re-affirmed just how much I like making things – but also that it’s important to make those things in the company of people who are scholarly (or at least thoughtful) about subjects beyond tech and inter-disciplinary, and ideally to make things that engage the public as well as researchers. As the end of my PhD approaches, it’s been really useful to step back into this world for a week, and I’ll definitely draw on it when figuring out what to do after the PhD. If someone could just start a CHNM in the UK, I’d be very happy.

I still can’t tell you what we’re making, but I *can* tell you that one of these photos in this post contains a clue (and they all definitely have nothing to do with mild lightheadedness at the end of a long day).