Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Don't forget the people - a fractured training landscape

By Simon Hettrick, the Software Sustainability Institute.

In his keynote address at the EGI Community Forum, Peter Coveney described the need to combat the fragmentation of e-Infrastructure. Unlike other talks I have seen on this subject, Peter’s focus went beyond the hardware "it’s not just the tin and iron boxes but the software and - most importantly - the people". It is the human capital, the well informed and correctly trained researchers, that we need to make the most of e-Infrastructure.

In the UK, a “grassroots uprising” (as Peter described it) led to the development of a report called the Strategy for the UK Research Computing Ecosystem. This managed something of rare occurrence in academia: a consensus! It also led to the creation of the e-Infrastructure Leadership Council, was instrumental in securing a £165M spending promise from George Osbourne and led to David Willetts stating that "e-infrastructure, including high performance computing, is absolutely essential to our research base".

Without training people to use it, the latest supercomputer is just a noisy and expensive paperweight, but training for e-Infrastructure poses a number of problems. If we look at the UK, we see a training landscape that is patchy and disconnected. Each organisation that runs a large-scale resource has its own training resources and plan, and each of these - understandably - is focused on their own resource. There's little incentive to share materials, and there is not enough communication between training providers to allow best practice to be shared and prevent duplication of effort.

And let’s be clear, when we talk about training for e-Infrastructure, we’re actually talking about training for people who have a background in "at least one programming language and a good understanding of programming concepts". What about the researcher who just has a problem to solve? It’s a hell of a learning curve to go from the GUI, to developing code on a personal computer and then migrating to more powerful resources. There is some training to help researchers on this journey, but it’s fragmented and there are gaps that can put off all but the most determined people.

If we want to increase e-Infrastructure users, gain a more diverse user base and increase the number of expert users, we need to follow Peter’s advice and bring together our currently fragmented provision of training. And it seems to be a good time to start. A number of developments have occurred of late with a training theme: the UK invested £350M into centres of doctoral training (and a plug: we're supplying Software Carpentry training for the CDTs), the EGI have shown how to bring together training with the successful training marketplace, and next week's e-Infrastructure Academic Users Community Forum will have a focus on training. Maybe the EGI Community Forum is the perfect place to start our own grassroots uprising for e-Infrastructure training?

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