An increasingly large number of folks doing research in ecology and other biological disciplines spend a substantial portion of their time writing computer programs to analyze data and simulate the outcomes of biological models. However, most ecologists have little formal training in software development¹. A recent survey suggests that we are not only; with 96% of scientists reporting that they are mostly self-taught when it comes to writing code. This makes sense because there are only so many hours in the day, and scientists are typically more interested in answering important questions in their field than in sitting through a bachelors degree worth of computer science classes. But, it also means that we spend longer than necessary writing our software, it contains more bugs, and it is less useful to other scientists than it could be².
Software Carpentry to the Rescue
Fortunately you don’t need to go back college and get another degree to substantially improve your knowledge and abilities when it comes to scientific programming, because with a few weeks of hard work Software Carpentry will whip you into shape. Software Carpentry was started back in 1997 to teach scientists “the concepts, skills, and tools they need to use and build software more productively” and it does a great job. The newest version of the course is composed of a combination of video lectures and exercises, and provides quick and to the point information on such critical things as:
along with lots of treatment of best practices for writing code that is clear and easy to read both for other people and for yourself a year from now when you sit down and try to figure out exactly what you did³.
The great thing about Software Carpentry is that it skips over all of the theory and detail that you’d get when taking the relevant courses in computer science and gets straight to crux – how to use the available tools most effectively to conduct scientific research. This means that in about 40 hours of lecture and 100-200 hours of practice you can be a much, much, better programmer who rights code more quickly, with fewer bugs, that be easily reused. I think of it as boot camp for scientific software development. You won’t be an expert marksman or a black belt in Jiu-Jitsu when you’re finished, but you will know how to fire a gun and throw a punch.
I can say without hesitation that taking this course is one of the most important things I’ve done in terms of tool development in my entire scientific career. If you are going to write more than 100 lines of code per year for your research then you need to either take this course or find someone to offer something equivalent at your university. Watch the lectures, do the exercises, and it will save you time and energy on programming; giving you more of both to dedicate to asking and answering important scientific questions.
¹I took 3 computer science courses in college and I get the impression that that is about 2-3 more courses than most ecologists have taken.
²I don’t know of any data on this, but my impression is that over 90% of code written by ecologists is written by a single individual and never read or used by anyone else. This is in part because we have no culture of writing code in such a way that other people can understand what we’ve done and therefore modify it for their own use.
³I know that I’ve decided that it was easier to “just start from scratch” rather than reusing my own code on more than one occasion. That won’t be happening to me again thanks to Software Carpentry