"Take every opportunity to learn that comes your way": meet Michael, Computing Engineer at CERN.

Michael, tell us about yourself and your first encounter with CERN

I am a Computer Scientist from Belfast, Northern Ireland. My first encounter with CERN was when the "Big Bang" Roadshow came to Queen's University Belfast in May 2013. The Higgs Boson had been discovered the previous year, CERN was in the news, so I went with a few friends to attend the public lectures. We weren't fast enough to get tickets to hear Peter Higgs, but managed to squeeze into the back of a crowded lecture theatre to listen to Steve Myers. Steve is an alumnus of Queen's and at that time was Director of Accelerators and Technology at CERN. I remember being inspired by his talk about the engineering challenges of building the Large Hadron Collider. I did not suspect that in a few years I would be working on the LHC's control systems myself.

Later that same year, CERN was hosting its quinquennial Open Days. As it happened, I was attending a Computer Science conference in Prague which finished the day before the Open Days. I thought the opportunity was too good to pass up: I arranged for a stopover in Geneva on my way home. I spent two days wandering around CERN's amazing complex, including a visit to the vast underground cavern which houses the ALICE experiment. I was particularly interested to learn about the Data Acquisition and Data Storage technology. For the first time I began to wonder if there was a future for me working at CERN. I spoke to some of the volunteers and learned from them about the Fellowship programme.

Things moved surprisingly quickly after that. I went home, finished my Ph.D. and applied to become a CERN Fellow. To my delight, I was accepted and a month after graduation I moved to Geneva to start working on control software for the LHC's main magnets.

What have been your personal experiences, challenges and highlights at CERN?

The flip side of things moving quickly was that there was not much time to prepare! My contract started in the summer and I wanted to move my family with me, before the start of the new school year. We found an apartment but it was not available to move in for several weeks, so we were camped in temporary accommodation. We threw our ten year old daughter in at the deep end by sending her to a French-speaking school, a language she didn't know. I have to say there were some tears during that first year. But eventually we adapted: we all made progress in French, to the point where my daughter laughs at my bad accent. She made friends, began to see the upsides of living in the Geneva area, and started to do very well at school. Now she has opportunities here far beyond those she would have had back in the UK.

Professionally there were many challenges as well. My project was in the domain of power electronics and control systems, something I had little previous experience of. CERN terminology and acronyms are also quite formidable! I know I'm quite intelligent, but in the beginning I frequently felt stupid because there were so many things I didn't understand. But I have to say that my supervisor, section leader and colleagues were nothing but supportive. Step by step, I gained the knowledge I needed and began to contribute to the project. In the end it was very fulfilling: I cooperated with experts in electronics, control theory and precision measurements and had the privilege of seeing the project through to completion and deployment in operations. Every time I walk past one of the many status screens around CERN and see beam in the LHC, it's a satisfying reminder that my code is a small part of what makes this massive machine work.

As my Fellowship came to an end, I was sure that I wanted to continue working at CERN, so I applied for a staff position. I have just started working for CERN's Data Storage Group. Once again I am back to learning new concepts and technologies and trying not to feel too stupid!

If you had any messages to give potential applicants out there, what would they be?

Take every opportunity to learn that comes your way: CERN is incredibly diverse and it seems that whatever knowledge you have in any field, there will be some way to apply it here. There have been many times that I wished I had put more effort into learning French at school!

The other side of that is that CERN has opportunities in every technical field (and many administrative fields) and at all levels. It wasn't until I attended the Open Days that I became aware that my skills were in demand at CERN. Whatever your engineering discipline - software, electrical, electronic, mechanical or civil - there is a project here that needs you. The Fellowship Programme is a great way in as your specific skills and experience will be matched to a CERN project which needs them. Take part!