Research IT

Internal Changes in our Research Software Engineering Department

Adrian Harwood, Head of Research Software Engineering (RSE), updates on the RSE department’s levelling-up journey as introduced last year. The RSE department has continued to grow in numbers as well as skills and experience and Adrian is excited to share with the community how it has developed so far and his expectations for the next 6 months.

Roughly 6 months have elapsed since my last blog post about the development of the RSE department here in Research IT, so, as promised, here is the second instalment for my first year in post. You’ll notice that we are now the RSE “department” rather than the RSE “team” due to a realignment of the naming conventions used in the Directorate of IT Services earlier this year. This brings parity between ITS and other professional service directorates that have used this structure for many years. So, we are now the department of RSE within the “division” of Research IT.

Levelling Up Programme Highlights

Since kicking off the RSE department Levelling Up Programme (LUP) late last year, the RSE Leadership Team (RSELT), consisting of myself and our 11 senior RSEs, have been working hard to develop and implement the changes promised by the programme. We have had some considerable success, despite some changes in priorities as events have got ahead of us from across the University. I’ve actually split the highlights into two with the second set to be published in next month’s newsletter – there were simply too many things to talk about in one go!

Part 1: Internal Improvements

In this first part, I’ll report on the changes we’ve made internally to the department, affecting our ways of working, our internal processes, and the day-to-day lives of our RSEs.

Workload Model and Role Expectations

Workforce planning is seeing an increased focus across the University in general and it allows us to make smarter use of the people we have. I’ve been working recently on redefining the duties of our RSEs and RSE leaders in such a way that their duties remain within their current job description but align much more closely with what the department needs from people as well as what the people themselves need. There will be more on this to follow in my next blog post but the “shape” of our RSE leaders in particular will see a shift as I work to tackle the enormous workload on those individuals. Increasing the number of posts is only part of the solution, clearly defining the expectations of those roles is a key factor in solving the problem too.

Working Together Charter

The University’s introduction of hybrid working left an amount open to interpretation and it was important for the wellbeing of our staff, as well the successful operation of the department, to confirm our interpretation of the guidelines. We achieved this through the establishment of the RSE Department Working Together Charter. This document was put together collaboratively considering the views of every member of the department. It establishes the working practices and working culture of the department and provides a degree of consistency and certainty of expectations for our staff and customers. It was a lot of work, but a very rewarding experience.

Continuous Improvement Space

If RSEs have feedback or suggestions around our internal policies, processes or offerings, we now have a robust mechanism for capturing those ideas where they can be incorporated into the LUP: we have established an issue-only GitHub repository for the LUP to which all members of Research IT can contribute. Once the LUP completes, this forum will become our departmental continuous improvement space which I will monitor and address on a regular basis, ensuring we never stand still and keep evolving as our industry evolves. If customers want to feedback using this mechanism, please contact your RSE who will be able to record your thoughts on the tracker on your behalf.

Project Bulletin Board

RSEs typically benefit from the variety of different projects the department offers thanks to the healthy demand from our academic customers. However, the visibility of this variety has not always been made clear. A small, but significant change we have made of late has been to display the list of projects we have available, that need resourcing, on a special Teams tab which we’ve dubbed the Project Bulletin Board. Here RSEs can read the original request document to get a feel of the scope and skills required and can indicate their preference to do the project to RSELT. At our weekly planning meeting, we can then see if we can make that assignment happen, balancing the needs of the project, the customer and the RSE as best we can.

Recruitment Process Rigour

Over the last few months, and several recruitment cycles, RSELT and I have been refining the process we use for shortlisting and interviewing to increase rigour, focus and consistency. We have introduced screening questions for applicants, templates for shortlisting and interviewing and some form of task-based assessment. This has given us much more confidence in the applicants we appoint, that they have the skills and knowledge, as well as the potential, to succeed in “our world”. This is of particular value when we appoint from industry where a research environment can be quite a culture shock. The effectiveness of the changes are yet to be assessed but anecdotally, the feeling is quite positive among those of us involved in recruitment.

RSE Competencies and Development Pathway

Finally, in order to aid the development of our RSEs through the grades within the department, we’ve started to work on defining a development pathway for RSEs. At present, it consists of a set of competencies that we expect staff at each grade to be able to demonstrate. RSEs are encouraged to discuss with their line managers mechanisms for evidencing these competencies and use it to identify skills gaps and training needs. This also serves as a useful tool for planning the development of new staff and ensures we remain accessible to applicants from a range of backgrounds. In other words, no matter what your background, the competencies framework will help you develop the right set of baseline skills required by all RSEs. This serves our customers too, ensuring that whichever RSE takes on their project, they are guaranteed to arrive with the same fundamental skills and experience. This competency framework is still in draft, and feedback is being sought from all RSEs with the view of publishing a new version in the next month.

Recruitment and Growth

This year, the size of the department will reach 40 people and consist of research software engineers at all stages of their careers from grades 4 through 7. We maintain a good level of diversity of gender, ethnicity and background with more than half the RSELT female. We pride ourselves on promoting and recruiting objectively and meritocratically and hence I am thrilled that we not only attract excellent female engineers but also give them the support and confidence to seek leadership positions.

We have confirmed renewal of our three Year-in-Industry placements and have new candidates starting in July to replace Annie, Benito and Leo, who return to their studies. We have grown the RSELT by three posts giving us a much belated increase in management capacity in the department. We have also seen the internal promotion of two of our grade 6 RSEs up to grade 7 RSE leadership positions – a delight to see our RSEs develop and progress and they have readily stepped up to the challenge. I’m also working hard on the business case to support the creation of a new set of posts across grades 5, 6 and 7 in order to keep up with the persistently increasing demand for RSE services across the University.

The number and quality of applicants of late has been particularly high, which is good news in what is typically a very competitive and difficult market in which to recruit. One highlight has been how competitive our internal candidates are when compared with external candidates, some of whom apply from other RSE groups across the country. In every case so far this year, our internal candidates have made the shortlist which makes me believe that we are fortunate to have some of the best RSEs in the country right here in Manchester!

Current Priorities

My current priorities are to develop and implement changes to workload and department structure to allow capacity for further growth and space for RSE development. The current situation is not sustainable and inhibits our ability to grow and meet demand. We have little capacity for additional line management, no capacity for additional project management and our RSEs are spread very thin with no room to service our training or community work in their busy set of assignments. We are also missing some key skills for which we have outstanding demand. A combination of workforce planning and further recruitment are due to take place over the summer to address these operational challenges and remain at the forefront of my mind. You will see how I’ve started to work on these issues in next month’s post which will summarise the improvements which directly affect our customers.

Feedback and Contact

If you have any questions or concerns, then please don’t hesitate to contact me via email. Your feedback on any of the changes delivered via the LUP as they are introduced is strongly encouraged.