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 post is the first 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 (see below), 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 1: Software team experiences and challenges
To provide a framework for discussing software team improvement, we spent Day 1 of Collegeville 2021 learning about each other, our backgrounds, and what we see as the greatest challenges to improving software teams.
Summary of participant software team experiences
About half of the discussion participants were from research labs; the remaining half were evenly split between universities and industry. Twenty-two participants (listed as authors above) chose to receive attribution for their contributions to these discussions. Discussion participants from labs and universities represented a number of well-known open-source scientific software projects. Others came from industry, representing the oil & gas sector and technical computing software providers. Finally, several participants were from the social, information, or cognitive science communities, where their domain of study includes scientific software teams and developers.
In aggregate, the discussion participants have approximately 300 years of collective software development and software project leadership experience, ranging from individual contributors to leaders of large, multi-team efforts. Together, these participants provide software to thousands of users throughout the world. Participant experiences further represent approximately four decades of focused study of scientific software teams via methodologies from the social, information, and cognitive sciences.
When describing themselves, participants identified the projects they worked on and some provided further details on their team experiences, reflecting on the perspectives that their teammates brought to the collaborations and their means of communication. For instance, one participant described their small, four person team comprised of three mathematicians and one computer scientist, noting that they have excellent communication but few formal methodologies. In another example, a participant described their weekly teleconferences, active Gitter discussions, and (pre-pandemic) evening coding events with students.
In the remainder of this article, we summarize the key challenges identified during the small group discussions. The detailed notes from these discussions are available on the Collegeville 2021 Workshop website.
Staffing diverse software teams: Finding people with the right skills to contribute to a scientific software project is difficult—the talent pool is small, the work is specialized, and there is competition among institutions and industry to attract qualified candidates. In this context, having better strategies for acquiring and retaining the right talent is a growing problem. Some software teams (such as open-source, peer-produced projects) have temporary contributors whose work can be valuable, but discussion participants were generally interested in building lasting teams made of experienced contributors. This is a substantial challenge. Some discussions noted that training efforts might prove fruitless because they are often directed at students who can spend the entirety of an internship becoming accustomed to the software work. That same student might not perceive a rewarding career path and never return to the project. Skilled contributors might be found in-house, but funding structures often mean that their attention is split such that they have only short amounts of time to dedicate to many projects. We are beginning to address the needs of research software engineers (RSEs), and some teams have funding to hire dedicated RSEs, thus avoiding split attentions. However, in general, we need to improve the recognition, value, and career paths for all members of scientific software teams. Without being recognized and funded, non-PIs find it difficult to continue contributing to a software project and establish their career, forcing them to decide between jeopardizing one or the other. We need to distribute credit across the team so that the diverse actors feel valued. We need to address the question one participant posed, “Why can’t I be a phenomenal contributor?”
Aligning incentives and rewards: Highly related to the challenge of staffing a scientific software team is the issue of aligning incentives and rewards for code development with those for research and publishing. Scientific software teams are often comprised of software developers and, distinctly, domain experts; these different career paths thusly depend on the outcomes of a common product. Some necessary work like triaging bug reports and managing infrastructure goes unrecognized in the traditional academic reward system. One discussion group noted, “This is not a side job, but it is often treated as one.” In addition, there is a disconnect between what is highlighted in funding proposals as the primary contribution and what is actually needed to make a software product successful. Testing, integration, deployment, and user support skills are all crucial to sustainable and reliable scientific software, but these skills are seldom listed as explicitly funded activities. This disconnect influences what skills are considered during hiring and makes it more difficult to establish a stable career as an RSE.
Curating and maintaining knowledge: Teams observing best practices may have many conversations and tools that support maintenance of the software product, such as regression testing or continuous integration. However, our discussion groups agreed that less attention is paid to ensuring that knowledge about the product is curated and maintained. As teams grow in size or diversity, knowledge maintenance becomes more complex. Growth is likely to occur across disciplines and institutions, meaning that vocabularies and infrastructure must be aligned. Knowledge curation and maintenance will also differ depending on a team’s purpose. For instance, software development teams will need different approaches from software deployment and support teams. Preparing for staff departure, creating paths for long-term membership, and otherwise committing to the long-term viability of a scientific software project represent opportunities for reducing tacit knowledge and improving knowledge transfer among team members. However, some attempted solutions to these challenges that our discussants have tried, such as teach-ins, are hard to justify when deadlines loom.
Evolving team practices and structure in sync with the software: The initial practices, tools, and infrastructure adopted by a team will need to evolve to take advantage of emerging approaches and tools and to improve effectiveness and efficiency as the team grows. Evolution includes enabling bottom up change, and giving individual contributors autonomy to explore new approaches and receive recognition for their contributions. Additionally, as the teams grow in size and diversity, their communication efforts become more difficult; one discussion group described domain scientists and computer scientists as working with people speaking different languages. While modern tools can facilitate communication across even non-collocated teams, they cannot reconcile differences in vocabulary, priorities, or conceptions of software quality.
Collaborating across software teams: For a healthy software ecosystem, software development teams must communicate and collaborate with one another, but they may approach their work from different viewpoints. Application teams, for instance, develop software that is targeted for a specific computational problem. In contrast, teams that develop libraries and other reusable components focus on a broader set of uses that are based on characteristic examples derived from interaction with their user community. Our discussants noted that application teams have design concerns on one end (dependencies), library teams have concerns on both (dependencies and dependents), but both team types have a joint responsibility to work through application program interfaces (APIs). Collaborations between application and library teams require determining how to design and develop capabilities in the spaces between software providers and clients. Challenges include how to integrate the library team with the application user community, how to foster software ecosystem perspectives (especially around collaborative development of APIs), and designating concrete staffing roles for shepherding API development and adoption.
Characterizing and measuring software quality: During our discussions of software teams, it was clear that participants understood software quality to hold several different meanings. For collaboration purposes and to report meaningful outcomes to funders, we need to establish a shared understanding of quality measures and when a measure is appropriate. This requires recognizing a balance between payoff and effort. We also need to address how much we value innovation vs stability and portability vs cost of special-purpose coding. Teams of different sizes, with different stakeholders, different purposes, and different budgets might answer these questions differently, but they should be answered thoughtfully. We need to develop ways to understand if software is fulfilling its purpose, and we need our sponsors to value and invest in code quality.'
Improving business models for research software sustainment: All scientific software teams have a business model, even if it is implicit. Making the business model explicit and actively managing toward sustainability is much less common. Having a good business model is important for all kinds of software, and critical where there is a distributed and evolving community involved in its development. Each of the above challenges is affected by funding, and our discussion groups recognized this. Seeing the need for more money is easy. However, seeing how funding can affect your teamwork in one, five, or ten years is far more difficult, but crucial to establishing sustainable scientific software.
Final remarks from Day 1 discussions
Day 1 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, information, and cognitive sciences. We hope that the challenges summarized in this blog post resonate with you and help the scientific software community when prioritizing efforts to improve the quality and impact of software in the pursuit of scientific discovery. We look forward to addressing these challenges with creativity and community-developed insight.
The workshop organizers and authors of this article thank all participants for contributions to workshop discussions.