April 17, 2012: Halfway Home

We're half-way through our current round of work, so it's time to start thinking about what we've accomplished, what we've learned, and what we'd like to do next. Here's what I think we now know:

  1. Our training makes scientists more productive.
  2. We can prove it.
  3. Our methods scale.
  4. We can become self-sustaining in 2-3 years.

In more detail:

1. Our training makes scientists more productive.

Feedback from learners has been overwhelmingly positive: they believe that what we're teaching is relevant and useful, and they're going to incorporate into their work. Where that isn't the case, it's usually because of a mis-match between their level and the level of the material we're teaching. As we scale up, we'll be able to address this by running separate workshops for people with different backgrounds.

2. We can prove it.

By June, we will be able to show that:

give us both qualitative and quantitative insight into the impact we're having, which in turn will allow us to back up our claim of improving productivity with more than just anecdotes.

3. Our methods scale.

By "our methods", I mean:

  1. short on-site bootcamps...
  2. ...followed by a few weeks of hour-long online tutorials...
  3. ...and the assessment methods discussed above.

By "scale", I mean:

In short, I am no longer the bottleneck I was two years ago.

The key seems to be "attend one, help someone teach one, lead one yourself". Moving people around from site to site builds horizontal (peer-to-peer) connections, increases the value of the workshop in the eyes of both learners and hosts (someone from far away must be smarter than someone you know from the neighborhood :-), and is a much better way to transfer knowledge than any number of "how to" guides.

4. We can become self-sustaining in 2-3 years.

The "attend/assist/lead" model is producing people who can and will organize local support groups similar to the Hacker Within. By 2014-15 we expect to have at least a dozen faculty partners who are able to contribute a few thousand dollars a year to instructors' travel costs, help update the web site, lobby to get students official recognition for taking part, and so on. Based on past experience with open source projects, that should be enough for Software Carpentry to take on a life of its own.

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This post originally appeared in the Software Carpentry blog.