Background: The Collegeville Workshop Series
What do multi-million dollar HPC projects have in common with a PI and their soon-to-be graduating doctoral student? What are the most pressing concerns of teams on the bleeding edge of scientific discovery? The Collegeville Workshop Series on Scientific Software brings together three communities of scientific software contributors: academia, industry, and laboratories. While there are existing exchanges between these communities, this workshop series is dedicated to improving the awareness of common needs, unique contributions, and career paths. Workshop contributions include short white papers and video interviews. The three-day live event includes panels, small-group discussions, and teatime sessions for themed conversations. This blog is the last of three that summarize the output from the small-group discussions in 2021.
Collegeville 2021 theme: scientific software teams
Research software and scientific discovery are often advanced by collaborative teams rather than individuals. Yet, scientific software teams are often conducting their work with little knowledge of how to best take advantage of their collective experience. A new frontier for scientific software can be met with a better understanding of how software teams function and how teamwork can be improved. As we focus on improving software teams, we see value in augmenting the traditionally-valued expertise of computer scientists, mathematicians, and software engineers with the expertise of social, information, and cognitive scientists
Workshop small group discussions
Each day of the workshop focused on different aspects of software teamwork. The first day of live discussion focused on software team experiences and challenges, the second day on technical strategies for improvement, and the third day on cultural approaches for improvement. Small groups gathered live over video conference to discuss the topic of the day, each group creating a shared notes file. Because the workshop participants come from different work settings and have varying experiences with scientific software, these discussions were a rare opportunity to identify shared concerns and recognize differences among scientific software teams. More than representing their shared knowledge, however, our intention is for these discussions to impact the diverse communities that participated in them.
Day 3: Cultural approaches to improved software teams
After talking about teams and technical approaches to improving them in the first two days, we spent Day 3 talking about cultural approaches to improving teams. Two-thirds of the discussion participants were from research labs, with the others split between universities and industry. 18 participants chose to receive attribution for their contributions.
Key Cultural Approaches
In the remainder of this article, we summarize the key cultural approaches to improving scientific software teams identified during the small group discussions. The detailed notes from these discussions are available on the Collegeville 2021 Workshop website.
Motivating team members: We need to use a combination of multiple approaches to motivate team members, recognizing that each person may have a different set of both intrinsic and extrinsic motivations for their actions and activities. Carrots (e.g., peer recognition, better research results) and sticks (e.g., journal requirements, funding requirements) absolutely influence culture and individual behavior, but a carrot to one person can be a stick to another. Better understanding researchers’ motivations can help effect culture change.
Motivating the team: It’s important to make sure that the team’s work is recognized. We need to develop good ways of judging the overall success of a software project. Citations can be part of the answer, but this is not a complete answer since some users don’t write public papers about their work and some lower-level software is typically not cited in papers. Similarly, asking the users is not a complete answer, since the team typically doesn’t know all of the users. Collecting information from a variety of sources is useful, like emails/private communications or user group meetings. Once these metrics are gathered, it’s important to ensure that people higher up in institutions as well as funding agencies use them.
Affecting cultural change: Organizational culture as set from the top (the lab director, provost, etc.) plays a strong role in the evolution of organizational culture over time, but this alone is not sufficient; affecting change also takes bottom-up effort and a willingness to change in the middle. We need to have buy-in at both ends to hope to achieve lasting cultural change. New ways of thinking and doing have to overcome the inertia of the status quo, but when certain teams demonstrate visible successes, others are likely to follow (e.g., version control becoming the norm among scientific software developers). Change can also come from within a team: new members can introduce new and good culture to a group.
Building a culture of diversity and respect: Different views and backgrounds can provide a benefit, but for this to happen, we need to listen to and respect each other. There are known methods to help us do this, such as team building activities that involve informal discussions, active listening, and empathy development (e.g., small-team design challenges and games that have nothing to do with one’s regular job). These activities help by adjusting people’s perspectives and open their mind to relate to other people’s needs and perspectives.
Recognizing that all jobs are important: This includes team members such as communicators, technical writers, sysadmins, software engineers, and scientists, and who are both full- and part-time. While some work may be seen by some as “boring” (documentation), and other work may be seen as “exciting” (speeding up a function), all of the team’s work is generally needed for a project to be successful. In particular, work that is seen as less exciting is less likely to be done or done well. For example, documentation is still a weak link as it’s often not directly funded, although it is becoming a recommended policy in more research software teams. In order to increase usage of documentation, teams need to first be provided the resources (e.g., weekly protected time for documentation) so that they feel supported in incorporating documentation practices. A general approach that is applicable to other cultural approaches is to lead by example. If the team lead displays the benefits and quick wins that documentation can lead to, others may be more open to incorporate this practice into their daily schedule. Balancing publication and milestones versus documentation continues to be a challenge. Public recognition (e.g., awards, badges) of good documentation could be a potential solution.
Value the team’s time: Make sure that communications happen in multiple ways that best meet the needs and style of the team members. In particular, limit meetings to those that are necessary, and make sure the time is used effectively through meeting best practices, e.g., give sufficient notice before calling or cancelling a meeting, having an agenda in advance that allows participants to add to it, agree on meeting rules, etc.
Recognizing the value of RSEs and their work: This can be done through a combination of top-down and bottom-up activities. Top-down examples include creation of departments and positions (with appropriate titles). Bottom-up examples include acceptance/roles on teams, teams value of reproducibility and sustainability in their code base, advancing processes for recognition (DOIs, awards), etc.
Valuing and enabling learning: Researchers are continually reinforcing and learning the skills and values of their profession. Likewise, improving team performance is a long-term project that builds on current practices. When extrinsic motivations (e.g., employee evaluations) are not aligned with intrinsic motivations (e.g., a desire for better team communication), teams are unlikely to make changes. Despite such obstacles, there are also times when learning would be best facilitated, such as when a new member is joining the team. Applying insights from psychology might help us identify those opportunities where introducing new practices can yield the greatest return. Taking such an approach would mean not only teaching best practices, but doing so under the most favorable circumstances.
Final remarks from Day 3 discussions
Day 3 discussions at the Collegeville 2021 Workshop represent the input of a diverse and experienced group of scientific software developers and leaders, and their colleagues from the social and cognitive sciences. We hope that the challenges summarized in this blog resonate with the reader and help the scientific software community when prioritizing efforts to improve the quality and impact of software in the pursuit of scientific discovery.
The workshop organizers and authors of this article thank all participants for contributions to workshop discussions.