How can software engineers help the world?
It turns out that people ask the Internet this question a lot. And it’s a question that was at the forefront of one of our own software engineer’s minds, as they contemplated how to use their computer science skills for good in their career.
As more and more people make the switch to green jobs, Climate Policy Radar’s Peter Hooper tells us about work and life as a software engineer in climate change, and the opportunities for open source to propel technology development.
What led you to software engineering?
I’m not trained as a computer scientist like many developers - my background is in maths and physics. But coding was a hobby of mine while I was growing up. I used to have a ZX Spectrum that I experimented with. One of the first things I did was writing assembler to record sound from an earphone, and then play it back on a speaker. It could record a whopping three seconds before it filled up the memory - computing was a different era back then!
I started my career in academia and was a part-time lecturer while completing my PhD, before moving into industry. My first role was developing the algorithms for a machine to optimally cut shapes out of sheet metal. I then worked for a few different startups before settling into a role with Cambridge Consultants where I got to play around with lots of new technologies, like for satellite company Iridium.
How did you end up in climate change?
I decided I wanted to do coding for good. My first move to that realm was into the health sector, where I developed software for cognitive behavioural therapy and then worked for the open source journal eLife Sciences. I built a team of open source developers, sharing code and ideas - my baptism of fire into open source work!
And then last summer I joined Climate Policy Radar, which sits in my sweet spot of code for good, and being open and transparent with the work you’re doing.
You mentioned the importance of being open and transparent, what does that mean?
From a technical perspective, being open and transparent is fundamental for building open source communities. Open source means that your code is accessible for anyone to use and adapt - which is what we’re striving to achieve at Climate Policy Radar - but there’s also the community side that goes one step further. Here, openness is about firstly providing the lowest level of entry for people to find out how to use and develop your code, and join the community.
Second, and most important, it’s about providing and maintaining key points for active engagement and communication through the community it’s building. We’re now thinking about how fostering open source communities can support our long-term vision at Climate Policy Radar, and we’re actively seeking collaborations from people and organisations who share our mission.
Why is open source good for tech?
Open source goes far beyond whacking a licence on your code. First and foremost, it’s a shared resource. A software engineer’s time is a big expense, especially for startups. So if software already exists that you can apply to your own programme of work, you can reap the benefits of the technical input, costs and time saved.
But it’s not just about getting free code; you get back what you put into it. A huge part of open source - and in my opinion, the most fun part - is the community-building aspect. This serves as a platform to encourage diversity of thinking and skills, which has obvious benefits for companies. And being part of an open source community helps reduce technical risks. Like if there’s a vulnerability in a key component of the software, your company doesn’t have that high risk of needing to fully maintain and fix it.
And the climate?
Undoubtedly climate change is moving further and further up the agenda - not just the political agenda but for the public and businesses too. Many open source developers contribute to projects they deem worthwhile in their own time. That means there’s a pool of useful skills to tap into and help move things forward.
What makes a good open source project?
It’s about the degree of engagement you can have with the community it’s building. It needs to be active, releasing software frequently, and make you feel you can become part of it, without any unnecessary barriers.
It’s also about treating your software as a shared approach to a problem, rather than a just key part of one underlying vision. Here at Climate Policy Radar, I’m looking forward to helping create software components in an open way that’s useful for other people with a similar mission, so together we can draw more people into sharing as a community, and avoid reinvention.
What’s the most interesting thing about your role?
I’d say it’s the diverse skills that are needed. As it’s not simply about implementing a solution, but questioning, challenging assumptions, and then experimenting to find the right result.
Sticky notes and strategy at our team planning day.
And what’s challenged you?
Climate Policy Radar is one of the earliest-stage startups I’ve worked in. To see such rapid growth and change has been challenging but really interesting. But I really like the streamlined approach we have to technology. A lot of companies use tech for the sake of it, but at CPR we’re careful about what we choose, making sure it aligns with our vision and direction - that’s a big positive.
Speaking of streamlined, I hear you’re an amateur archer
It’s been a while since I’ve practised archery as other hobbies have taken over, like ceramics. But archery satisfies lots of my interests, like my enjoyment of shooting projectiles accurately… I jest, but more seriously, the material science aspect of making bows and arrows. Archery was probably why I became interested in how people build communities and maintain them, as many years ago some friends and I set up an archery club.
To end on a serious note, tell us about your dog
Bubbles! She’s a rescue Border Collie. When we adopted her, we had 40 kilos - double her recommended weight - of a very untrained, undisciplined dog to contend with. I’ve spent the last three years training, slimming and calming her down. She’s very soft now - if she wants a cuddle, she puts her paws on my shoulders. It’s been hard work, but so rewarding. Exactly like working on climate change.
Bubbles the dog, and Peter foraging with colleagues on a work teambuilding day.
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