DiRAC Driving Test Comes to Edinburgh

Posted 2013-11-28 by Nick Brown in Community, Education.

My colleague Mike Jackson recently posted about the DiRAC driving test. DiRAC is the UK's integrated supercomputing facility for theoretical modelling and HPC-based research in particle physics, astronomy and cosmology and is used by numerous researchers with diverse backgrounds. Whilst much of their work is very different, one commonality is that it often requires in-depth technical and software engineering techniques. The idea of the driving test was therefore to ensure that all users have the required knowledge for effective use of the consortium's machines.

The test aims to illustrate and address any gaps in user knowledge. It follows a self-taught, open book approach and as part of this, Software Carpentry has produced some detailed support material which is given to the candidates in advance. It was always intended to be mandatory for all DiRAC users and as such it was critically important that the team designing the test got it right.

Earlier in the year the test was put through four dry runs at EPCC and at UCL to ensure that it was fit for purpose. Based upon the success of these dry runs, the DiRAC consortium gave it the 'green light' in July with the initial batch of user tests to be completed in the later part of 2013.

Taking the test in Edinburgh

In all, seven institutes run the driving test with the idea being that users will travel to their nearest centre to complete the exam. I was given the task of administering the driving test here in Edinburgh and last week saw our first run, with fifteen users from across Scotland. The test itself, lasting between one and two hours depending on previous experience, covers aspects such as version control, shell scripting, testing strategies and basic coding. We had researchers from all sorts of backgrounds: mathematicians to computer scientists to physicists.

Whilst a number of candidates did not have experience in some of the areas, using the supporting material they were able to answer the questions to a high standard. I am pleased to say that everyone in Edinburgh completed the test in plenty of time and all passed.

The feedback from the Edinburgh users so far has been overwhelmingly positive. The majority have said that it is relevant to their everyday work; all have said that the supporting material was useful and, based upon this, most said that they learnt something from doing the test itself. The Institute has produced detailed comments about each question that I used as the basis for feedback to the candidates and, from my own perspective, it was very interesting to see how people from different backgrounds tackled the questions.

Missed out?

We will be running another Edinburgh-based DiRAC driving test in early 2014. If you wish to sign up to it then you can do so via DiRAC's training website. If you are not a DiRAC user but would still like to understand the material, then you can access the Software Carpentry lessons.

The DiRAC driving test was developed by The Software Sustainability Institute in conjunction with Greg Wilson of Software Carpentry, James Hetherington of UCL, EPCC's Andrew Turner, and Jeremy Yates and Harpreet Dhanoa of the DiRAC consortium.

Originally published on the EPCC blog.

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