Leading the CARCAS project’s transition to a new back end

Erin Watson’s graduation reflection

I started this year excited to continue working on CARCAS, an archaeology project about displaying 3D scans of animal bones. I am now graduating, and looking back on the work I have done, I am incredibly proud of the technologies I have learned, the technical documentation I have written, and my growth as a team leader.

This winter, with the addition of the Alpaca skeleton, it became clear that the current systems in place for storing the CARCAS models on the web server were no longer sustainable. There were too many big files, and the method for storing them took up too much additional space.

The transition took a lot of time and effort. I started by researching different tools, eventually settling on Datalad since it has clear, beginner friendly documentation and it can play nice with the web server that CARCAS already used. Figuring out the correct configuration tested my patience. My early attempts at making the models downloadable caused a nasty little bug that prevented the correct method from working. I tried troubleshooting on the Datalad forum, but even experienced users couldn’t figure out how to fix it. I finally started over from scratch, and everything worked like a charm.

Dealing with this bug, and solving it by starting from scratch, reinforced that failing is part of the learning process. The second time around, everything went a lot smoother because I understood how all the pieces fit together. And, I was able to write down what I was doing because I wasn’t overwhelmed with learning new things.

Once the new system was in place, my supervisors emphasized that I needed to write instructions so that future DHAs could learn how to use it. After all, a system for collaboration and backups is useless if no one knows how to use it. I thought this would be relatively straightforward. After all, I knew how to use the system and I didn’t have comprehensive notes of my own.

I discovered that I had learned a lot through experimenting with Datalad and the new CARCAS system, and that it was not immediately obvious to others what to do. I collaborated with Noah Zameer Lee, another DHA. He had completed the Datalad tutorial like I had, but he had been working on other projects while I set up the new system. When I was sitting right next to him, I could guide him through using the system, but there was a lot that was not clear, even to someone familiar with the software.

I wrote a few different sets of instructions and documentation for different use cases. I focused especially on first time set up, routine tasks, and where to learn more to deeply understand the tools. These were the areas that overwhelmed me when I first started working on CARCAS. First time set up and routine tasks look easy when you have done them before, but when you are just getting started, there’s nothing for your brain to latch on to.

Also, towards the end of making it easy for a future DHA to get started, I hosted a recorded Zoom meeting with my supervisors and coworkers where I demonstrated what it looks like to follow my instructions and start making changes. I deliberately chose to record this video from a new account on my computer so that I would have to show the set up.

Recording this walk through was also incredibly helpful for me. I discovered tasks that I had forgotten to write about because they had become second nature, and I discovered sections of my documentation that were too cluttered and difficult to reference. Just as revising is helpful when writing an essay or a blog post, I learned that it is also an essential step of writing technical documentation.

Working on CARCAS’s back-end transition has taught me a lot about working as a team leader. I made impactful decisions, like when I decided that Datalad was the best tool for CARCAS. I had to reassess and choose whether or not to stand by my decisions, like when I spent weeks looking for the bug in my first attempt at using Datalad. I needed strong communication throughout the whole process. I explained to my supervisors what I was doing and why, without getting into the technical weeds. I taught Noah how to use the system I set up, and I helped him figure out how it fit in with his piece of the project. I created documentation and a video for future DHAs, in hopes that I could pass on my knowledge.

I have had a wonderful time working on CARCAS this year. As I go off into the world after Carleton, I can’t wait to look back and see how CARCAS keeps on growing!