To Compete, Your Team Needs a Specialty

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Written by   on September 11, 2021

And ‘HPC’ or ‘Research Software Development’ isn’t a specialty

(Note: This post is adapted from #90 of the Research Computing Teams Newsletter)

Quick: what’s your team’s specialty?

Your team’s specialty is its reputation for what it’s good at. Not what you think your team is good at; what matters is what specific thing your stakeholders (funders, clients, institutional decision makers) think your specialty is. What they recommend you for to peers, what they recommend funding you for to decision makers.

In the post-pandemic world, researchers are used to getting their support remotely from anywhere. To compete, your team will need well-defined specialties; and “HPC” or “research software development” isn’t a specialty.

Standout from the crowd by choosing a specific path.
Stand out from the crowd by having your team choose a specific path and owning it.

The pandemic isn’t over, but the end of this phase has begun, and with September (“academic new years”) here, it’s a good time to think about the future. Last October I wrote about what post-pandemic research computing is going to look like, and it’s holding up pretty well. With researchers now very comfortable getting research computing and data support virtually and with budgets under pressure, there is going to be a lot more competition for research computing and data teams. Research collaborations are going to be looking elsewhere more and more often - academic teams at other institutions, or with commercial companies (either commercial cloud vendors for compute, or emerging collaborations between well-known names, like NAG and Azure, for services).

This is an opportunity for well run, focussed teams to grow and prosper. But it’s going to take more planning and forethought than decades past, where one could count on having a near monopsony, of being the only available seller of services to local researchers. It’s going to take developing and maintaining a strong reputation for a small set of specialties.

“HPC” may sound and feel like a specialty within the community, but to researchers and decision makers it’s incredibly generic and so meaningless. It’s not a technical term, but a term of advocacy and marketing which has been come to mean resources for anything from high throughput batch services to huge tightly coupled simulations to single-node multi-GPU code runs. Even advocates for the term define it as “anything bigger than what a researcher could provide on their own” which is incredibly generic, and so necessarily meaningless. How can your team’s specialty be “anything”? A team is expecting researchers to recommend them for “anything?” There’s a reason why VPRs would be just as happy contracting it out (e.g. see table 2 here).

“Services and expertise for quickly analyzing public-health bioinformatics data”, “a platform for firing off and monitoring aerospace CFD calculations”, “a centre of excellence for digital humanities data curation and archiving”: these are examples of specialities - products, services - that researchers and institutional decision makers can see the value of and be willing to put money into, services and products and teams that researchers can recommend to each other. They are areas where a team could build a strong reputation - they could be the group that researchers recommend to collaborators when they chat about research needs.

“Research Software Development” at least, to its credit, doesn’t pretend to be a narrow specialty - it’s a broad area which can encompass any area of software development in support of research work. As a result, a team can’t have a specialty in “Research Software Development”; it can have a specialty in “web applications and mobile apps for data collection”, or “GIS analysis tools” or “agent-based simulations for social sciences modelling”. But almost certainly not all three at the same time.

Even so, research software development is too specific in one unhelpful sense. It could be that researchers are just looking for your team to write some software for them, hand it over, and be done. But increasingly, researchers are looking not just to be delivered some software, but for a team to host the software, run it, operate it - and/or collect and curate data to be used with the tool, for tests or otherwise. Focusing solely on research software development, as a separate activity from systems operation or data analysis and management, can be overly limiting.

Ok, so what does all of this have to do with competition?

One of my venial weaknesses is spending too much time on twitter. I’m seeing increasing concern there from research computing teams that cloud vendors or teams using cloud vendors are coming into their institutions and winning or trying to win contracts for projects that “should” have gone to the in-house teams. I’m hearing complaints that the external bids are for amounts of money 2x or more what the in-house team says they could do it for. Incredibly (and almost certainly incorrectly) I’ve even heard 10x.

Reader, as hard as it is to believe, those complaining see this as an affront, and a threat, rather than the enormous opportunity it is. (And affront was taken. There were lots of dark murmurings about slick sales teams trying to fool gullible senior administrators. And, you know, I’m sure it’s comforting for the teams that might lose out on these contracts to think that the vendor mesmerized the simpleton decision makers with their entrancing slide decks, and so hoodwinked them into considering an overpriced contract. But (a) have they never seen a vendor pitch? Being sold at for 50 minutes is just as excruciating for senior decision makers as it is for us, and (b) it’s self-serving twaddle to imagine that just because someone higher up made a decision to work with someone else they must clearly be dumb. If they assume the only reason someone wouldn’t work with their team is that the decision maker is dumb, they’re going to end up making a lot of poor and uninformed decisions.)

If a contract at your institution is won - or even in serious contention - that is 2x what you estimate you could have provided the services for, that’s not evidence that the external contractor is overcharging. It’s evidence that your team is undercharging, that you could have proposed doing more to support that project and the researchers, and that you’re leaving money on the table. It’s also evidence that you haven’t fully convinced the relevant decision makers that you can provide that service; they don’t see it as being part of your specialty.

Clearly your institution found it worthwhile to spend or consider spending that 2x, because they understood that it was worth at least that much to them to have those services. A bid for half that amount having failed or being questioned means that they really didn’t believe the in-house team could do it as well. That’s revealed-preferences data that you can use. (And if I truly believed someone at my institution was seriously considering spending 10x (1000%!) to work with an outside company rather than work with my team, well, that would occasion some serious soul searching.)

Cloud providers and other external contractors do have advantages. They have a library of reference architectures they can deploy, so they can pitch (say) CFD solutions to the mech eng department, and bioinformatics pipeline solutions to the biology department. They can pull from a library of testimonials to demonstrate that they can do the work.

But so can you. You have access to all the literature to search for how others have deployed such solutions. You have (or should have) testimonials from the people that matter - research at that very institution. And you have a network of deep relationships in the institution, relationships based on collaboration on research problems. Those relationships and collaborations and shared expertise is something the external contractors have no chance of matching.

If you’re in danger of losing out on these sorts of competitions, it’s because you’re not communicating your specialities in a way that matters, in a way that’s convincing, to the people who could pay for your services. They can’t see how your “HPC batch services” connects with “a digital twinning platform for building simulation”. They don’t see “GIS exploration for private social sciences data” as being an obvious of your “Research Software Development” effort - where’s the data part? If there’s a miscommunication there about what your team can provide, that’s on you and your team, not on the researchers or other decision makers.

You have specialities - if you don’t know what they are, ask the researchers who keep coming back. How do they describe what you do? What would they say your speciality is, how do they talk about you to their colleagues? What would you have to demonstrate to them to have them recommend their colleagues to you?

Similarly, you already have a million things you don’t do. You won’t fix a researcher’s printer, you don’t help them do graphic design for their posters, my guess is you don’t help them set up spreadsheets in OneDrive or set up lab webpages. So it’s not like declaring that there’s computing stuff you do and don’t help researchers with is some completely new thing, previously utterly unknown to your organization.

Once you make explicit your specialties, you can start playing to your strengths, and communicating them endlessly. You can make a point of reaching out, having your team talk at conferences in the specialties, and at departmental colloquia. You can be well-regarded enough in your institution for those specialties that external contractors pitching work within your speciality never get in the door. You can start more easily hiring people that are interested in that specialty. A specialty builds on itself, snowballs. You can start steering future work towards that specialty to build on it, and start directing work well outside the specialty to somewhere else - where it does fit inside their specialty.

Yeah, that last part is scary. Sticking to this path isn’t easy. It means turning down opportunities that aren’t in or adjacent to your specialities. Especially for new teams, eager to please, this can be scary.

But as anywhere in research, your team’s reputation is all that matters. Your team has a reputation, has stuff it does and doesn’t do. Did you choose it, did you shape it, or are you content to just let it happen?

Your team can be extremely strong in, specialize in, develop a reputation in, any of a number of things. But not all of the things. Being a manager or leader means choosing.

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