A research trip around the Antarctic gave a Software Engineer Carles Pina i Estany a new perspective on how the very product he helped build was being used by scientists. Aboard a research vessel thousands of miles from shore and the nearest reliable internet connection, these modern explorers routinely relied on Mendeley to do their work, even in subzero temperatures.
The opportunity to take part in this unique expedition came when Carles’ partner, Jen Thomas, was invited to become Data Manager on a a research trip led by the newly created Swiss Polar Institute, which has a mission to connect researchers active in polar or extreme environments, promotes public awareness of these environments, and facilitates access to research facilities in those extreme environments. As they were short of an IT person and Carles was already on a sabbatical from his work at Elsevier – during which he had already planned to travel around the world – he seized the opportunity to fulfill a longstanding ambition to take part in a polar expedition.
Carles joined the Mendeley team as a developer in June 2009, back when the start-up consisted of about a dozen people working in a small office near Farringdon, a historic section of London. Four years later, the company he helped build was acquired by Elsevier. Carles, along with the founders and the now much larger team, stayed on through the transition. Now he’s a Senior Software engineer.
I first met Carles when I was also part of the Mendeley team back in 2013-15 and saw how resourceful and creative he and his colleagues were with technology (specially during the monthly hack days he helped organise). I also knew he had a penchant for adventure, as many a fascinating tale was told by the espresso machine at our old White Bear Yard office when he returned from trips to places like China and Africa.
So I wasn’t exactly surprised when I learned that he had taken this rather adventurous sabbatical as IT Systems Engineer aboard the Akademik Tryoshnikov research vessel on an ambitious Antarctic circumnavigation via Cape Town, South Africa, Hobart, Tasmania and Punta Arenas, Chile.
When he returned to London and his work at Mendeley — now in the Alphabeta building in London’s Tech City — I caught up with him to find out more about the trip. As it turns out, the experience had been an eye-opener about how important the work he had done for all those years has helped to advance science. Seeing the sometimes unexpected ways researchers in this Antarctic expedition used tools like Mendeley left him with a sense of renewed appreciation for how his own work has played a part in enabling scientific research.
Here, Carles talks about those experiences and shares the photos he and Jen took during the voyage. (He explained that they were not allowed to go on deck or outside when the weather was rough, so all of the pictures are in calm weather.)
What was this expedition about, and what role did you actually have in it?
I was the software engineer on board the ACE expedition, which had 22 cross-disciplinary teams of scientists, about 150 researchers in all, who changed around at various stages of the expedition, each of which lasted about a month. Some were PhD students, some veterans of many expeditions with many years of experience, so it was a real mix.
On the ship, each team set their own equipment up for their labs. Quite often these pieces of equipment are either connected to a computer or have a computer built into them already, to collect data and operate a machine, for example. I’d help them with things such as backing up data and any other issues that came up with those computers. I learnt a lot about oceanography and had to think on my feet because of the limited resources. Think of programming almost off-line for four months! No Google, Stack Overflow or any documentation besides the off-line versions.
Were many of those scientists using Mendeley, and how did you find them?
I knew that many of them would be Mendeley users. I do like talking to users and finding out how they use Mendeley (specially Mendeley Desktop, since that is the part of it I've been most involved in for many years). As they explain to me their favourite features and tell me what they would add, I can often point out useful features in the product that they are missing out on. Sometimes the features they ask for are already there, so I love helping them discover these.
Personally though, I like meeting users because what I do every day is for them, and it reminds me that there are humans using the software and that they have feelings. So if the software works well they love it, but they can also hate it if it ends up causing them stress, makes them lose work, miss a deadline for writing a paper or a thesis… At the end of the day, it’s very emotional and personal work, and it helps to keep that into perspective, even when you’re deep in the code. I like it when I can put faces to our users – I think in terms of “this user does this” rather than “just 23 percent of our users do this.”
How did the researchers react when they learned about your background?
Sometimes I’d get talking to them, and as I explained that this was my “year off” from my job working on the Mendeley Desktop team, their first reaction was that it was pretty intense for a year off. But the second one was that often they would say, “Oh, Mendeley Desktop – I love it! Ah, OK, OK, do whatever you want with this equipment!” So I ended up getting extra leeway for doing things around the ship because they liked and trusted Mendeley (and therefore me).
If I worked on some unrelated industry that they didn't know about, they would have been more reluctant to let me change things around, I believe. They were really happy that I came from a place where I actually understood part of their work, what they actually do, etc. But I have to say that after this trip I now know waaaaaaaaaaaaay more than before!
Were there any awkward moments?
One user was scared about the fact that Mendeley had been acquired by Elsevier, so we had a long talk about how Mendeley was publisher agnostic, and how that could still work in the Elsevier business model. Many users came up with long lists of ideas. Some of them turned out to be things that we already had tools for – deduplication, for example – but sometimes there were things that we could do, or that we hadn’t considered. I always encouraged them to tell me about these so I could either email them to the Desktop team back in London or consider them once I got back – which I have!
Did you get any surprising product insights during your time on the ship?
We were mostly working from the "expedition office," where we had two "hot desks," so lots of different people were coming and going to do their printing, use the intranet, send something over the Internet, etc. One of my favourite things to do was spot whether they were using Mendeley Desktop, and if they were, I’d sometimes ask if they liked it or not before confessing that I’d actually done part of that. I felt a bit like a “mystery shopper” or perhaps an undercover "Mendeley investigator."
One really amazing thing for me was seeing how Mendeley Desktop was being used offline during the expedition because the Internet connection was almost non-existent (we only had a limited satellite link, but this was only for email and data, not normal use). It was good to see that users really appreciated that they could carry on accessing all their notes and information easily even when there was no Internet connection.
One of the researchers said to me (and I think he was only half joking) that usually he did not use Mendeley himself because he was a professor now, and “that’s the reason why I have assistants –they use it for me!” I thought, well, maybe that's one of the reasons that some of our users stop using Mendeley – they become professors!
Some days, when I was feeling like talking to more researchers about Mendeley, I’d just put on my Mendeley T-shirt, and that would soon get some conversations started.
My favourite day was when four of us were having dinner round a table – myself, my partner Jen, who was the expedition’s Data Manager, one researcher who already knew I worked at Mendeley, and one who didn’t.
The one that didn't know where I was from saw the T-shirt and started saying, "OH WOW! MENDELEY! I LOVE MENDELEY! I use it every day! It's fantastic! I added all my papers, I can find them, cite them, share. I really like how it's done and what it can do! It’s AWESOME!"
So I was sitting there blushing, until she asked me where I got the t-shirt, and when I told her I worked at Mendeley, she actually jumped up and went “WHAAAAAAAAAAT??!!! YOU WORK AT MENDELEY?!?! It's best thing ever!!!!”
As I said, it can be an emotional thing for researchers, and it sometimes feels good to be reminded of that.”