This interview with the University of Sheffield’s Paul Richmond is part of my series of interviews on the new cohort of EPSRC Research Software Engineering Fellows.
Could you tell us a little about yourself and how you became a Research Software Engineer?
I have been working as a Research Associate (early career research) since I completed my PhD in 2010. During this time I have been working on the fringe of both novel computer science research and the application of emerging parallel computing architectures to various areas of science and engineering. Whilst carving a reasonably successful career as an early career researcher it became clear that in order to progress within the academic environment it would require me to become more specialised in novel research than to participate in applying my skills of parallel computing to broader research domains. The role of the research software engineer is one that means different things to different people. For me it is the role of applying my specialist skills of parallel computing to a wide range of domains. It is a position which encourages the development of my novel research software (FLAME GPU) giving me the flexibility to embed it as broadly as possible.
What do you think is the role of a Research Software Engineer? Is it different from a ‘normal’ researcher?
To me the role of RSE is one which is about facilitating research. This can be through hands on help or the provision of software, skills or a community which provides a specific researching computing need. Having worked both as a researcher and in my new role as a self recognised RSE my view is that it is important that people are able to transcend the boundary between the two. Many RSEs come from support backgrounds rather than research however there are countless researchers who work on providing research software or multi-disciplinary research computing skills. I feel that researchers should be encouraged to move into the roles of RSEs where appropriate but also that this shouldn’t be seen as a career limiting move. RSEs should be free to transition back into academia as a when the research requests it. I hope to demonstrate throughout my position as a RSE Fellow that it is possible to exist alongside this boundary delivering typical academic outputs whilst working collaboratively in a facilitation role.
You’ve recently won an EPSRC RSE Fellowship – congratulations! Can you give a brief overview of your project?
My RSE Fellowship is all about changing the way people think about coding and the way in which they use workstation and HPC computing. In the future computers will be highly parallel with hugh numbers of cores, we are already seeing this pattern emerge today through accelerated computing in the form of GPUs. The traditional “serial” was of thinking needs to change and parallelism needs to be incorporated into computational research from the ground up to enable researchers to target future computing systems. To ensure that this happens my fellowship proposed 1) a combination of software and tools targeting many core architectures, 2) upskilling of researchers on a national scale and embedding of parallel programming techniques within the undergraduate, and postgraduate curriculums and 3) a local and national community in which researchers can receive software consultancy and work collaboratively to embed accelerated computing into their research. As a result of this fellowship researchers will gain access to unprecedented levels of compute performance enabling them utilise scalable computational approaches to solve scientific chand challenges.
How long did it take you to write your Fellowship application (Any other thoughts/advice on the application process?)
The turnaround for the fellowship application was actually very quick. From consultation with colleagues it is normally expected that an EPSRC fellowship application should take about 6 months to complete, undergoing many rounds of internal review before submission. Following notification to continue to full submission (after expressions of interest) there was only just over a month and I had a weeks holiday booked the week before the final deadline… Trying to pick-up internet on holiday in Ireland, actually on Craggy Island (where Father Ted was filmed) was somewhat of a challenge. Fortunately every other applicant was in the same boat and I already had a good amount of material prepared on my ambitions for accelerated computing. Once through to the interview stage having a number of mock interviews helped tremendously in calming my nerves and polishing my pitch.
Who are your project partners?
NVIDIA, ARCHER, EPCC, OCR, ACRC, Oxford e-Science, WRG and N8, TRansport Systems Catapult, DNV.GL.
Bradford University, EPCC (Edinbugh), UCL, Oxford University
Tell me about your RSE group.
Sheffield has two EPSRC RSE fellows and we’ve teamed up to form the Sheffield Research Software Engineering group. We’ve only existed for a month! At the moment its just us but we have funds to recruit a few more people so watch this space.
Which programming languages and technologies do you regularly use?
It’s probably easier to list those that I don’t regularly use! My GOTO: languages are (get it? but seriously I don’t program with GOTO’s);
- C++ (note not the same as above and should not be referred to as C/C++ #endrant)
- Assembly (ARM and PTX)
- C++ extensions: e.g. Qt (for UI dev), Boost and C++11.
Other languages I use slightly less regularly are;
- Java (if I have to, which I do especially for Eclipse plugins)
Are there any languages/technologies that you used to use a lot but have now moved away from? Why?
I use java less and less now. It was taught on my undergraduate curriculum very heavily and at one point was the future for OpenGL on the web. There is just no need for java applets any more….
Is there anything on your ‘to-learn’ list?
Ohh yes. Vulkan is at the top of my list. As the successor to OpenGL for graphics with multi core support I look forward to integrating it with accelerated simulation models.
Do you have any advice for anyone who wants to become a Research Software Engineer?
Software underpins everything and is embedded within almost every research domain. Don’t let anyone tell you that there is no career progression for RSEs in academia. They (the research community) need us just as much as we need them and it’s up to you (and the collective us) to show the world how vital RSEs are in the academic environment.