A spell working for an e-commerce company while he was a student was enough to convince Maik Riechert that he wanted to use his computer science skills for something more worthwhile.
Riechert is currently a Research Software Engineer with Microsoft Research in Cambridge. During his time studying for a Master’s in Computer Science from the Leipzig University of Applied Sciences he worked part-time as a software engineer for the e-commerce site, which was a useful experience in learning what he wanted to do.
“It was a lot of fun, but I realised that I wanted to do something more meaningful, something that would advance the world in some way,” he says.
After finishing university, Riechert applied for a traineeship with the European Space Agency and took up a one-year position in the Netherlands. During that year he created an image processing pipeline for photographs of the northern and southern lights taken by astronauts.
“What I found was that my work there was very appreciated, and the researchers found it quite natural to give me public credit. We even managed to publish a paper together with one of the astronauts whose pictures we had processed through my pipeline. So of course, given all this positive feedback and excitement I was really hooked on using my software engineering skills to help researchers with whatever crazy ideas they come up with – the more challenging, the better!” he says.
After the traineeship ended, Riechert went on to work on a contract at the University of Reading, working on an EU funded project called MELODIES.
“Similar to my job at the European Space Agency, I found my work was very valued and my boss encouraged me to present my work in meetings and at academic conferences, so I really felt that I was not just a programmer but really part of the whole community,” he says.
“That led me to Microsoft Research, and the first position where I actually have ‘research’ in my title. Although I would consider my previous roles to have been as an RSE, I didn’t have the title.”
Riechert works in a team of RSEs called the Agile Projects Team, who are deployed on early-stage, potentially high-impact projects.
“Our involvement is generally short, it can be a month, sometimes up to six months. What’s great about it is that I learn new things every day and get to work with people on very different things. We work on AI, compilers, networks, secure computing, infrastructure… we really do a lot,” he says.
Having the RSE title helps to clarify what the role involves, Riechert says.
“It’s quite a specific thing – you’re typically not working in production but kind of on the edge of research and driving towards production. And when I meet someone else who is an RSE I immediately have an idea of what kind of work they are likely to be interested in.
“It requires a certain skillset, too. You need to be able to work alongside researchers, understand the science, and to judge and see what makes sense and what does not. I think that sets us apart a bit, and in the long run it will benefit my career,” he says.
Riechert is new to the RSE community, he says, but keen to go along to the next conference in September to meet other people in similar roles.
“I have always found it natural to call myself an RSE so I really hope the title spreads and the community grows further,” he says.