Why I've updated my about page

Published on: 2022-01-11

As usual, all opinions are my own

A prelude

So this post is about why I've updated my about page, which probably seems pointless but actually is quite an achievement for me as I'm not predisposed to public writing unless it leaves out all semblance of personal information (which hasn't, if I'm honest, done me any favours in the long run!) There have been a few things that have tipped the balance for me recently though, including being fortunate enough to be able to work as an RSE for the polar science community in the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) AI Lab, probably because my incomprehensible sense of idealism when it comes to technology fits the values associated with the role.

Now I don't like job titles, but the fact is academia has long needed people working as software engineers to be recognised for the role they play in research, because otherwise it'll forever be an ad-hoc endeavour, which in turn could put people off (be they scientists or no) taking up the role. I do find it interesting how there seems to be a prevailing assumption that scientific researchers become software engineers, rather than vice-versa, but it's a small bugbear. I think this speaks more to an issue with there being enough software engineers moving towards research rather than industry. Therefore, I'm very happy to be called a Research Software Engineer, because I've had some completely deranged job titles before now, in the IT industry as well as others...

I'm very privileged to work in my role and to have had the honour of spending several years supporting Antarctic research projects (retrospective Antarctic blog started here if you're interested) in addition to my previous experience as well as my current opportunity...

The actual article

...which leads me onto why I've finally decided to write a better about page that explains who I am.

One of the biggest differences I notice in the academic world is that people actually put their name to their work. Now that I'm working with people I want to do the same, because I believe that the work we're all involved with at BAS is something worth communicating. This is the first time I've really thought "hey, this could be worth communicating about..."

Trust No One X-Files

Almost certainly © 20th Century Fox

This might sound slightly bonkers, especially if you're younger and grew up with the internet, but I'm in my late 30's and I started programming very young. When the internet came along I didn't want to be an entrepreneur, nor did I harbour any illusions of making millions. By the time I got a "proper IT job" I was just trying to make an honest living and live a life without adopting these new mass data collectors into my life ubiquitously (I will suggest a few reading materials on this subject at some point, but this book is a great read to consider the implications.) I was inherently distrustful of crawlers and social media from the outset (probably not a bad thing), but now I figure they're less the problem than those who seek to abuse the technology. I put some of this luddite-like approach down to spending a lot of time rural areas when I grew up and having a Fox Mulder "trust no one" poster on my wall, though I suspect I'm over-simplifying the true reasons. That's probably for another article...

Also in the "noughties" and beyond I worked for my fair share of companies who didn't want their technical staff to speak about what they were doing (and sometimes with good reason...) It meant I didn't get swept up in the melee of it all, but it and some significant life events left me wondering along (in a reasonably capable technical career, I won't lie) trying to fathom whether there was actually a route to using my skills for a more beneficial purpose.

Eventually, following some misguided attempts at charity and socially responsible computing (from whence came the moniker Circadian) alongside my permanent roles, I ended up at BAS. I say ended up, I sought it out and waited for the opportunity, for a long time. When I did it, it wasn't exactly like I thought it would be (that would've been very spooky had it been), but the scope for making something out of it was much greater than I could imagine...

It's been an interesting journey and I see often questions on places like Hacker News and occasionally talk to, or get passed questions from, people asking me about how they can work for the benefit of science and research or look at a more morally satisfying switch out of interest. There is no answer or trick, it's just about going, persuading people you're who they want and then working for an organisation who you agree with. You'll have to prove that you can do it though. Why? Because in research there is f**k all money and often scarce expectation that people will leave industry which means you have to exemplify your credentials for roles that might be looking for academic qualifications. The side effect for academia is that valuable and far less numerous researchers are forced to split their attention because there isn't a massive pool of people leaving industry (I can't find a link, but usually it flows the other way.) Having researchers do this is no bad thing, but it needs to be balanced, so that experience can flow out of industry to nourish the academic and research domains.

And this is why I have update my about page, because if you're willing to leave industry there are dozens, hundreds, hell, possibly thousands of research organisations who would gladly pay for experienced IT professionals to come and work for them. You might not get a silicon valley or London City lifestyle, but if you want to contribute to the very broad field of academic research at a time when it's most needed, the role of RSE not exclusively offers a path to do so. From my own experience every day is a heck of a lot more fun and interesting than I ever had in industry, which is why I still do it even though I don't go to Antarctica any more...

When I mention that RSE offers a non-exclusive path into the research domain, I really mean it. Consider that before being a RSE I've been a "Data Manager", "UNIX Engineer", "Principal Engineer", "Senior Engineer", "Senior Software Developer", "Technical Manager"... the list goes on. For me, RSE is the first job title that actually says what I do properly, with a definition to go with it...! Ignore the job title, find the organisation, then find a way to build the role into what is well defined as a RSE, it'll be rewarding if you do!

I hope my writing this and about myself more honestly helps me to blog better, because trying to blog whilst being a "Fox Mulder" and not giving anything away wasn't working. I've been pretty honest here about how I feel the switch from industry to a publicly funded research organisation (BAS is funded by the Natural Environment Research Council in the UK, if you wondered) has gone. Hopefully this one day crosses the path of someone wondering what to do next, as I was a decade ago when I decided to try and get a job in Antarctica, and persuades them to give it a go...


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