A broadening user base, away from the scientists and engineers who traditionally use computing services, has given John Owen a strong argument for the research software engineering group that he is setting up at the University of Birmingham.
“We’re a long term high performance computing group, and we’ve always said we’ll load your application and do the test, as far as ‘you can get the first prompt out of the application’. After that, you’re on your own,” Owen says. “Which worked for a lot of years. But we began to see a gap as we started to get people with less programming experience wanting to use the systems.”
Some extra funding last year allowed Owen to expand his team, and as part of that he hired his first research software engineer (RSE). Two others started at the beginning of January 2018, and a further RSE shared 50:50 with the University of Aston is being funded as part of an EPSRC alliance of six local universities. Owen has two other RSE posts out for recruitment, and is now looking for university backing to expand the team further.
Working alongside a professor of bioinformatics and a professor of theology, he has set up a special interest group on the campus to foster peer group support and show a wider need for the service. “If I have one message it would be that you have to have an academic champion. My experience in IT is that we can ask all we like, but you need academic backing to really make the case,” Owen says.
The group only began to advertise its services recently, and Owen plans to limit engagements to two weeks initially, helping researchers to develop their own skills. “In the longer term, though, there is definitely the opportunity to charge for longer input. That way we can start to bring in more money and fund more posts,” Owen says.