#Carpentries25 Testimonial Series: Damien Irving

Instructor, Lesson Maintainer, and Regional Coordinator for Australia, Damien Irving, shares his journey with The Carpentries.

In July 2023, The Carpentries turned 25 years! On July 24th we launched the #Carpentries25 anniversary celebrations which will continue for the remainder of the year with a series of monthly events and weekly activities highlighting the global and regional contributions and impact of The Carpentries community.

This #Carpentries25 Testimonial Series is one way we will celebrate this milestone, and if you wish to contribute to this testimonial series please find the instructions in the celebrations announcement and reach out to us. Also, be sure to register to receive communications about upcoming monthly regional events.

In our second testimonial contribution to this series, Damien Irving, an Instructor, Lesson Maintainer and Regional Coordinator for Australia shares the story behind the history of The Carpentries in Australasia, to how The Carpentries has given him “superpowers”!

I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be a gainfully employed climate scientist without The Carpentries. Along the winding academic journey from PhD to postdoc to precarious short-term contracts to finally landing a permanent research position, my involvement with The Carpentries and the skills I’ve gained from being part of the community has been my point of difference. It’s the thing that has helped me stand out from others in a tight job market, and has allowed me to take on ever more challenging data science problems as climate model outputs have grown exponentially.

It all started at the beginning of my PhD back in late 2012, when I was googling around looking for help with learning Python, the trendy new programming language that had just come to climate science. I stumbled upon the Software Carpentry website and found the lesson materials really helpful, so I reached out to enquire about a workshop. Greg Wilson responded saying he’d had a similar request from Joshua Madin at Macquarie University in Sydney (a lecturer in biology who’d recently attended one of Greg’s workshops in the USA), and that if we could get some travel money together he’d fly out to Sydney and Melbourne to run the first ever Software Carpentry workshops outside of Europe and North America.

After the workshop, I remember Greg talking excitedly about me becoming a Carpentries Instructor and sharing his visions of growing The Carpentries across Australia. I nodded politely but if I’m honest, I couldn’t see that happening. I’d never even used version control until the workshop that week – there was no way I was going to be teaching others how to code. Fast forward several months and David Flanders – an innovative IT professional and community builder who had recently been hired by the University of Melbourne – got wind of the fact that I’d organised a Software Carpentry workshop on campus. He offered me a day a week of paid work alongside my PhD research to basically run Software Carpentry workshops for graduate students and staff. By this stage I’d done the online Instructor Training course with Greg and would have run a workshop for free if asked, so the offer of a paid gig was icing on the cake.

David’s philosophy around digital skills training – having peers teach peers by hiring a team of PhD students and coding enthusiasts like myself to build communities around common programming languages – meshed really well with the Software Carpentry approach. Our team’s efforts culminated in the first “Research Bazaar” event in 2015, a multi-day conference that was essentially a series of Software Carpentry workshops with a lively social program in between. We got funding to bring prospective Software Carpentry instructors from around Australia and New Zealand to Melbourne for two days prior to the event. We put them through the Instructor Training program with help from the Mozilla Science Lab and then let them loose teaching all the content during the event. The Research Bazaar is now an annual event in a number of cities across Australia, with this year’s upcoming events in Perth, Sydney, Darwin and Brisbane, plus events in New Zealand and Arizona, and in the past there have been events as far away as Norway, Ecuador and Canada. Better still, many of the Instructors we trained that week went back home and turbo-charged the growth of The Carpentries in their local communities. Maybe Greg’s vision wasn’t so unrealistic after all.

Image of a group of 53 adults standing and kneeling and sitting on a concrete floor surrounded by ornate pillars under a university cloister

Instructor trainees from all over Australia and New Zealand at the inaugural Research Bazaar (University of Melbourne, February 2015). Image credit: Nicole La Mela

The workshop that Greg taught in Melbourne was for the Australian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society (AMOS), who ran the workshop right before their annual conference. It’s a conference that I never miss, so with my new found teaching experience I offered to run a Software Carpentry workshop right before the 2014 AMOS Conference, and the year after that too. These workshops were very well received, but since all the attendees are from the same research discipline, it was obvious that people would get more out of the lessons if they were written specifically for our community. Data Carpentry had just started up, so I set about writing Data Carpentry lessons for atmosphere and ocean science. I tested and refined the new materials by running workshops at subsequent AMOS conferences as well as places like the Australian Bureau of Meteorology and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (where I got to meet up with Tracy Teal). If I was visiting an institution for my research, I figured I might as well offer to run a Data Carpentry workshop while I was there.

It seemed like pure benevolence on my part (and to an extent it was), but the wonderful side-benefit of running Data Carpentry workshops as an early career scientist is that you get to stand up and sound smart for a day or two at a time in front of your peers. One of my postdoc supervisors had attended a workshop of mine less than 12 months before I interviewed with him, which certainly didn’t hurt my chances of getting the job.

After a decade of running Carpentries workshops and writing lesson materials (shameless plug: and a textbook, Research Software Engineering with Python) my scientific programming is still very much a work in progress, but unlike most of my peers I have a whole community I can ask for help, a strong foundation in the basics and extra motivation to keep up with the latest advances. In a research environment where software development skills have gone from an optional extra to an essential skill in just a matter of years, these are the superpowers The Carpentries has given me.

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