2021 projects, #10: GSoC

Screenshot of https://summerofcode.withgoogle.com

This is not a new project, by any means, rather one of my long-running favorite projects – the Google Summer of Code. INCF has partcipated each year since 2011, and I have been the main org admin on ONCF’s behalf for all but the two first years.

I described GSoC in some detail in Swedish back in 2014 when I guest-blogged at Tidningen Curie (“En snart passerad sommar av kod”). Many of the things I named as positive then are still true today;  it is in many ways a fantastically fun project to work with. The students are smart, motivated and enthusiastic over having the possibility to contribute to projects and tools that are needed and useful. The mentors get a lot of development done for the price of regular mentoring, and the projects get new contributors – many continue to involve their students one way or another after the paid period, and some of them come back as mentors for the same project they started on. One former student, from 2018, is even my co-org-admin! (Hi, Arnab!) As mentoring organization, we get the joyous task of helping our community members help each other; many of the participating software tool projects are developed an maintained on small or no funds by the researchers themselves. We know how many small gaps there are that need to be bridged to make community tools better, faster, and smarter. And all the developed and inproved resources are openly accessible for everyone to pick up and continue working on or extend.

January, now, is the run up period – we have a call out for project suggestions and mentors, and responses have just started trickling in. Usually the mentors/project owners come to us with specific, well-thought-out and well described ideas, and sitting at the other end reading them all is a great experience – it is a veritable fountain of scientific and technical creativity, and one of the high points of my year. Projects that are well scoped and described – nearly all the submissions – end up on our official Project Ideas List and form the most important part of our application (I think, nobody knows exactly what Google looks for). As soon as that list goes public, around the end of January/start of February, mentors start interacting with potential students, working out the students’ project proposals. But slowly. The real explosion in activity comes when Google announces the year’s accepted organizations, this year that announcement goes out on March 9 (usually pretty late in the day, since it is on US-compatible time). It is always a very nervous day.

This year, Google has reshaped the program a bit, shortening the time spent coding and lowering the (high) threshold for participation. Which means we will get more students who are not hard core coders (yet) and need some support – which we as mentoring organization will be partly responsible for providing – and also the mentors and their community – all student projects start with an official community bonding period (genius idea). I distinctly remember being new to coding as a student, and hope that experience will help me be helpful.

2021 projects (9 and counting)

nature sky sunset the mountains
The sun setting on 2020. Pexels.com

It seems I have a lot going on this coming year, I was a bit surprised myself when I started counting out my projects and landed at 9 long before I was done. Here is a status update:

2021 projects, #1: social media critique
I have the book, digital now and paper on the way, but have not started yet.

2021 projects, #2: Veganuary
Going well so far; veganizing breakfast was easy, quick work-from-home lunches depend mostly on what we ate the days before so they will veganize themselves in time. Dinner requires more adjustment, since I have two kids – relativley open to eating new things, but one of them is probably a supertaster. Most of my #veganuary updates will be posted on Instagram.

2021 projects, #3: test-knit a cardigan
Also going well, I have the yoke almost done. The only annoyance is my cable keeps unscrewing from the right hand needle, regardless of how hard I screw it stuck. Again and again.

2021 projects, #4: learn something new
This project hit an unanticipated rock in the road – the Swedish AI course I joined, “Elements of AI” in Swedish translation, which looked good at the start, turned out to be a disappointment. Weirdly formulated problem statements – I supposed they aimed to be inclusive give simple questions, but missed the mark – and finnicky automated-response-checkers. Translation was great, though. The only term not well translated was Data Scientist.

2021 projects, #5: community managers & resilience
Community managers at large have been a positive force for good, this year. In late January, there will be a Community Manager Appreciation Day, themed “resilience”. Expect some posts on that.

2021 projects, #6: scouting & leadership
We joined in late November, so the only scout meetings we have had so far took place on Zoom. But there are plans to be outside and DO things, which I look much forward to. And I am psyched to be a parent-leader; I have so many ideas for keeping the kids busy and entertained.

2021 projects, #7: books
This will be the most work, likely. All books in the apartment need to get sorted, a fair amount will be packed in boxes, and the equal amount of books will come up from the cellar storage. All books to be scanned and registered. And I need to go through, sort and tag all my 700 e-books.

2021 projects, #8: podcasts
This project, I think, will be a main contributor to keeping me sane. I plan to take long walks and listen to interesting things. I have already found a few new favourites to add to my listening rota (which so far is mainly EscapePod): the ORIONScience podcast, and the Svenskan i Samhället (Swedish in Society) podcast.

2021 projects, #9: RRIDs on everything
This is by far not my only upcoming work project. There will be Google Summer of Code, there will be INCF Working Groups, and literature search for the INCF Infrastructure Committee. And meeting new people, helping some people connect and collaborate… I will likely not have a boring moment.

2021 projects, #5: community managers & resilience

The CMX holiday letter states: “ I just reviewed the data with the research team and one thing is crystal clear: community has become an irreplaceable part of business. In a year where a lot of businesses struggled, and there were many layoffs, community teams actually grew. And companies of all sizes, in all industries, are going to be investing in community in a big way next year.”

I have a standing alert for community-related position ads on LinkedIn, and see clearly a parallell increase in community positions offered in science & academia. Where ads earlier have been implicit about the community aspects, hiding it under terms such as ‘field knowledge’, nearly everyone knows and admits to some degree that in academia, it is impossible to succeed without community support. It is built into the system that your peers will (hopefully) acknowledge you and lift your work up – this mechanism is seen in such academic pillars as peer review, recommendation letters, and hiring committees, to name some examples.

Since I did my AAAS Community Fellowship in 2017, a training program that ran twice and which has now transformed into an independent organisation called CSCCE, Center for Scientific Collaboration and Community Engagement , I have been an active member in the community that surrounds CSCCE. We have a lot of interesting activites and projects around community management – interest groups (I’m in the Open Science SIG and lurking in the Diversity, Equity, Inclusion SIG), projects (I’m in one we started in 2017, aiming to describe and pin down community manager skillsets), and Working Groups (I’m in the Community Champions WG).

The theme for the 2021 Community Manager Advancement Day, which takes place on January 25, is resilience. A very fitting theme, after this Covid year. Resilience of self, when the world stops around you; resilience of communities to chaos and changes; resilience of organizations and society – where community has a huge part.

How do I become a “community-whatsit”?

This post was written when I was in the then AAAS CEFP training program, now CSCCE. It first appeared on the CSCCE blog on August 3, 2017. I am grateful to Lou Woodley (CSCCE) for edits and comments. The post was written in relation to my role as Community Engagement Officer at INCF (International Neuroinformatics Coordinating Facility).

“Don’t worry about understanding everything at once, NOBODY has the right background for this” said my MSc thesis supervisor, a dozen or so years ago. Then, the advice applied to mathematical modeling of the biochemical networks involved in learning and memory, an area that came with heaps of dense academic papers peppered with acronyms and incomprehensibly condensed descriptions of experimental protocols. Now, that advice applies equally well to community management, an area of expertise I did not even know existed in science until a few years ago.

With the ongoing funding crunch and uncertain academic job market, interest seems to be growing in alternative careers. As a person who went from a regular PhD to an atypical job at a science non-profit, I’m increasingly often asked for career advice that boils down to ‘What should I do to get to where you are now?’.

Recently I participated as mentor in a career workshop for postdocs and other students, and I was getting the same type of questions. Since I had no idea one could become a community manager, I ended up in my position mostly by a series of chance choices and events. But there are some things I am in retrospect glad I happened to do or learn, because they turned out to be very useful.

Should I get a PhD?

It depends. My PhD has been immensely useful, since I am still in a related community. If your intended community does research, or is close to science in some other way, having similar experience will help you understand them better, and will make it easier to talk their language. Joining a field shows you how it is to come into a community as a new member, and is a useful experience to have later when you are helping others become part of the community you manage.

Learning confidence in dealing with hard, perhaps unsolvable problems — like your own research project — is the very definition of a useful transferable skill. With that said, a PhD is also several years of niche work that will be hard to bear if you don’t love it (at least part of the time). And there is an inordinate amount of time spent formatting reference lists.

Should I learn something else?

Besides the content of your PhD? Definitely. I began my random walk towards community management with communication, and that is probably a good starting point if you have a background in research. If you are coming directly from academia, chances are you’ve become an expert at communicating clearly with your scholarly peers but are getting increasingly blank stares from anyone else. Or you might be a communication genius, but unless you have some way to prove that, many people will assume the incomprehensible scholar stereotype applies to you, too.

Science just published a great article on whether you should add another degree after your PhD and as they say, adding verified experience can help. But it doesn’t have to be formal courses. Writing a blog or running a podcast/YouTube channel/improv theater troupe will not only give you experience in communicating with a varied range of audiences. It will also serve as a handy track record of communicative ability. A general familiarity with social media will also be useful; if you are not working with it yourself, you will likely collaborate with those who do. And any task involved in generating or framing content — such as editing, layout, print, photography, user experience design and website management — is a valuable potential community manager skill.

Is it less stressful?

This question tends to come from people having done at least one post-doc and looking with bleak disillusionment at a future that seems to mostly consist of writing rejected grant applications. The answer is: Nope. At best it is differently stressful. Instead of organizing your life around one big risky project with a well-thought-out plan, you’ll be juggling an untidy heap of lesser but more severely conflicting projects — the inaugural CEFP fellows motto of “We multi-task while multi-tasking” is only partly a joke — and will most likely see your plans evaporate into thin air on a weekly basis. And instead of not knowing what you are doing after your three years of funding run out, you’ll be subject to the vagaries of yearly or even quarterly budgets.

But I can’t find a job like that out there.

To which I say: Grow your job into the role you want! A lot of jobs border on potential community management roles. Mine was a traditional one-way communications job at the start. I did not plan to spend the rest of my life writing newsletters and layouting print materials, and I also felt that we as an organization could probably serve our community better if we were a bit more communicative.

So I asked my boss to let me start a few social media efforts in our organization’s name, beginning with Twitter. I went to conferences and talked, talked, talked to everyone who was introduced to me as a community member, trying to find out what they wanted and needed. I got involved with a few community initiatives, some that worked and some that didn’t, and spent hours trying to pinpoint what made some take off while the others simply puttered along. I organized boring workshops and interesting workshops, and tried to do the latter more and more often. Gradually, I began thinking more like a community manager, and less like a regular communications person.

All the major deciding points in putting me where I am today looked like random events at the time. There happened to be funding for a PhD position. On a whim, I started a blog. I was lucky to find a job where I could stretch my old role into a new one. Ask most other community managers, and I suspect they will look back at an equally random career trajectory.

So don’t worry. Nobody has the right background for this at the start 🙂

You can learn more about scientific community manager roles (including Malin’s!) in the CSCCE Meet a Scientific Community Manager series. Find all of the CEFP Fellows’ posts here.

This post was originally posted on the CSCCE blog on August 3, 2017.