My experience as a technical student at CERN during the COVID-19 pandemic: meet Håvard from Norway!

Always be curious about learning more! 

At CERN that there is always more to learn and engineering is more of a mindset than an accomplishment.

In this interview, we get to know Håvard who recently completed his technical studentship at CERN, during the COVID-19 pandemic. He tells us about his time in this unique Organization, what he learned and experienced in the unusual COVID-19 context, with insights and great advice for future applicants. Enjoy the read...

Hello Håvard, tell us a little about yourself and what brought you to CERN .

My name is Håvard Selseth and I come from Kvæfjord near Lofoten in Norway. I am an electronics engineer student (BSc.) at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU). Technology and curiosity for finding out how things work is something I have always had and has been really helpful on my path to CERN. I have a background from a technical high school and originally planned to become an automatition technician, but I quickly found out that I wanted to learn more.

My curiosity for electronics and space made me apply at NTNU to become an electronics engineer. When attending my first year, representatives from CERN came and told us about all of the many career possibilities at CERN and I immediately wanted to apply for the technical student programme. After two more years of studying I finally applied for the technical student programme and I got accepted!

What did you do at CERN?  

As a technical student you get assigned a project when you start at CERN and finish it in 12-14 months with guidance of your supervisor and help from colleagues.

I worked as a software developer for a section called MTA (Measurements Test and Analysis) where I developed a PXE configuration and deployment tool in LabVIEW. I was responsible for planning and developing the project which has been really interesting and given me a lot of valuable skills as an engineer. 

What was working at CERN like for you?

Working at CERN has really been a dream come true for me! I remember reading about CERN when I was about 13 years old and to be working here and contributing to getting closer to answering the big questions about the universe has really been a great experience. I got to work with great colleagues and supervisors which really helped me develop into an engineer with a much wider technical perspective and better problem solving skills. I was also lucky enough to experience the CERN open days where I got to visit ALICE and CMS, two of the biggest detectors on the LHC!

You experienced the challenging work context brought about by COVID-19 – can you tell us how that worked out for you?

When CERN entered the safe mode phase in March because of the COVID-19 pandemic, everyone had to work from home with no exceptions. I had just finished developing all of my functionality for my project and I had to assemble the program when I started teleworking from home.

This was an interesting experience for me as I was at a critical point in my project and could no longer ask my colleagues to come and help me understand some concepts on a whiteboard. The usual standup meetings and section meetings were now online meetings and so were the code reviews with my supervisors. This was challenging in the beginning as I went from three monitors, fast internet and supervisors in the office next door to one only working on a laptop with 14" screen, very unreliable internet connection and supervisors only available through the internet.

My supervisors did a great job to give me guidance to finish the project, but it became way more challenging because of the bad internet connection. I could only test my code on my work computer because I had functionality that only works on the CERN network, so I used Git to push my code between my personal computer and work computer in my office many times a day. If I had a bug in my code I could use almost 10 times longer to debug it because of the poor remote connection to my work computer.

It worked out in the end and I will compare the teleworking period to building a house when you have removed all of the handles of all of your tools. It is possible, it just takes more time.

What lessons did you take away from that time, and more broadly from your time at CERN as a student?

I learned that perspective on problems and when to ask for help are two of the most important things to know when developing big projects. Perspective is very important when solving problems as it enables you to break down the problem into smaller "packages" and milestones.
Many people think it is really scary and embarrassing to ask a lot of "stupid" questions when working with software development, but it can be very helpful to ask colleagues for help if you feel stuck on a problem. Especially if you are a beginner!

I learned that instead of spending four days to solve a problem by myself even if I am stuck, it is better to ask a colleague for help which maybe gives you a new perspective of the problem and thus makes solving the problem quicker. At my university I learned the theory of many technologies but at CERN I learned how to actually use the technologies in a creative and effective way. I learned at CERN that there is always more to learn and engineering is more of a mindset than an accomplishment.

What have been the main hurdles or challenges you encountered along the way?

The main challenge has been to find out how to split up the project into smaller "work packages" and create an architecture which combines all of the technologies needed in a good and effective way. My project relied on many different technologies that I needed to study to be able to use. At first it was hard to ask for help because I felt that I was wasting my colleagues' time, but I soon realized that the faster you accept that you need help/guidance to progress, the better. All of my colleagues gladly helped me and the only person having a problem with my questions was myself. It is important to trust yourself and do not let negative thoughts and doubt let you from learning and develop yourself into a great engineer!

What advice would you give potential applicants?

I would highly recommend everyone who can to apply for the technical studentship at CERN. If you are studying engineering, especially electronics, I would recommend you to create hobby projects aside from regular university work. Learn new technologies, especially programming, and create small projects for learning purposes. The bigger your hobby project portfolio is or more technologies you have worked with, the better prepared you are for working at CERN. Having good grades are of course important but you should always be curious about learning more! 
And remember, all previous work experiences are good experiences! If you really want to do something, never give up and try to learn as much as you can on the path to your dream job. The opportunities will come quicker then!

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