Targeting challenges like a self-guided missile
First steps at CERN, with CERNDOC
Laure's first encounter with CERN was through a friend when she was working for Bell Northern Research in Ottawa, Canada. She was considering returning to France and this friend, who was then working in the Radio Frequency group at CERN, informed her that there was the possibility of a fellowship at CERN for computer engineers. Her application was accepted and Laure arrived at CERN in July 1986 when she landed at the Data Processing DD Division. Shortly after her arrival, Laure suffered a real culture shock!
"DD was mainly a British department, and I noticed that people weren't used to greeting each other in the corridor like we do in France, I felt like I was transparent!"
Laure reassures me by telling me that she also had the chance to make lifelong friends in the department, notably, Catherine Delamare and Antonella Krige, both engineers in the DD Division and now alumni. Her function within DD was mainly to work on CERNDOC, a computer project with an interesting history :
"I had the chance to work on a project called CERNDOC, a program written in REXX running on an IBM 3070 and designed so that SGML documents could be shared between different institutes on different platforms. For the anecdote, CERNDOC is mentioned in Tim Berners-Lee's famous memorandum, whose proposal would eventually lead to the birth of the World Wide Web".
CERNDOC was deployed but its life span was very limited and it was very quickly replaced by new technologies and programming techniques. It must have been extremely exciting to work in the DD division as Tim Berners-Lee and his colleagues designed what would be described as the most important invention since the printing press,
"I had absolutely no idea what was going on before my eyes and that it was going to revolutionize the world. And at the time, I was too focused on writing the code for CERNDOC, and making sure I was doing the best job possible! I had also met my future husband, a physicist and SGML expert."
The AIS project
Carlo Rubbia, Director General at the time, had the ambition to provide CERN with the most modern administration. John Ferguson was given the task of implementing this project. AIS, the Advanced Information Systems Project, was launched in 1990.
"Following my employment as a Fellow, I applied for one of the positions in the AIS project and was lucky enough to get the job and get a permanent contract a few years later. At the time, getting an indefinite contract was not the absolute challenge it is today".
Carlo Rubbia's ambition to modernise CERN's administration with the AIS project was a bold one, and I wanted to understand if and how it was achieved?
"At the time, it certainly was, although I am not sure that it is still true today. I'm aware that it's terribly difficult to get rid of the databases and software you inherited and continued to develop. The AIS project had opted for a "best of breed" approach to select the software best suited to each functional area, be it logistics, human resources, purchasing or accounting. The two prerequisites for the purchase of each software package were that it had to run on the Oracle DBMS and the Unix operating system. Next, each software package had to be interfaced to a database layer called Foundation. At the time, this was a really original approach."
Laure found herself working in a department using the most modern and recent technologies, first as a data analyst, then as a project manager. After her second maternity leave, Laure found the return to work particularly difficult.
"Life went on, students and fellows in computer engineering came to work at CERN, always the same age and trained in the latest programming techniques. I concentrated mainly on developing an application called Contract Follow Up, which I worked on alone! "
After several years with AIS, Laure decided it was time for a new challenge and took over the position of LHC budget planning manager from a retiring colleague, Alain Brissonnaud, by joining Lyn Evans' office in 2003. At the same time, the new Managing Director Robert Aymar decided to decentralise budget planning and control to give responsibility back to each of the departments involved in the construction of the LHC. This also meant that the function that Laure had just taken over was supressed. This turnaround led Laure to look for new opportunities, this time within the departments of the Director General.
Internal audit, a key element of CERN governance
"I had worked in the past for the head of the Director General department, Jean-Daniel Mandica, who was a great colleague, and I asked him if there were any opportunities for me within Internal Audit. He spoke with the then Head of Internal Audit, Jean-Claude Gouache. As fate would have it, they were looking for an auditor with an IT background and I joined his team. "
Laure spent several years as an auditor and was then appointed in July 2008 as Head of Internal Audit. She remained in this position for the seven-year term of Director General, Rolf Heuer, from 2009 to 2015.
"I discovered a whole new profession with internal auditing and quickly realised that I had to be properly trained for it. I resumed my studies and obtained four different diplomas in internal auditing, including the internationally recognized CIA (Certified Internal Auditor) certification. It wasn't easy, but it was well worth it. I even received the award for the best internal auditor 2012 from the IIA Switzerland (the Institute of Internal Auditors). I really enjoyed my work as Head of Internal Audit.
This service is a key element in the governance of an organisation! It was a great honor and pleasure to work for Professor Heuer.
In particular, my team worked with the Human Resources Department to implement the Code of Conduct and successfully implemented an anti-fraud policy, two important milestones in the history of CERN's corporate ethics.
I also learned a lot from the network of Heads of Internal Audit of International Organizations (HOIA) and led CERN's internal audit department to become a very active member of this professional network. I also had the honour of serving as a member of the Audit Committee of the International Criminal Court in The Hague from 2016 to 2018. Well-designed and well-functioning governance is of paramount importance for an organisation! "
I didn't anticipate some bumps up ahead
"On October 30, 2015, I was informed that the new structure of the Organization did not include me in internal audit as of January 1, 2016. As this was totally unexpected and unexplained, I felt slightly taken aback, but it lasted one day... on Halloween..."
The new Director General, Fabiola Gianotti, proposed several opportunities to Laure, including one in particular, which had been suggested to her by the previous Director General Rolf Heuer as an important project and which consisted in creating a community of former members of personnel.
"I asked the Director General which project was most important to her and she gave an answer without hesitation: the network of former members of personnel. So I embarked on this project without thinking twice. The direct support of the Director General was a very strong motivation! I also confess that I like to get out of my comfort zone on a regular basis".
Laure also explains that the CERN Alumni project was not only very interesting, but also a real hot potato; there had been several attempts before, which had not been successful, but Laure considered that she didn't have much to lose and decided to go for it! She also adds with a smile: "Moreover, internal auditing prepares you very well to analyze situations and problems and to find solutions".
Staying agile to maintain support
In light of the above, Laure's approach to setting up the network and the project team she was going to form were critical to its success.
"I formalised the mandate in early June 2016. I knew that collaboration with internal stakeholders was paramount, so I set up a project team consisting of ten different departments, and asked for two representatives from each department to keep the momentum going. I also wanted close liaison with our IT and central database colleagues. This was really important because when the network was created, these departments were going to make a huge contribution and not including them would have been a mistake."
Laure points out that despite the fact that the network is a hot potato, there has been a lot of good will on the part of all parties involved. Rather than saying that people were skeptical, Laure believes that their line of thinking was: "we already have so much work to serve the current community, why and how are we going to be able to provide service to the community of former members of personnel".
Laure countered these opinions by bringing together a team of enthusiastic and dynamic people, encouraging lively discussions that would move the project forward and avoid stagnation, a team in which there was mutual trust and ... fun working together.
"The project team did a great job and I am very proud of the work they did and what we were able to deliver in just 4 months! “
Laure had identified some challenges that could have derailed the project.
"I knew that if the project took too long, the support from management would not last. I also knew that we had to reach a critical size for the network and that if we didn't, it was not impossible that the project would be stopped. Finally, for good governance, the alumni themselves had to be involved in the strategic development of the program."
The project team worked quickly and drew up a proposal for the CERN Alumni program, which Laure presented to the Enlarged Directorate in September 2016. It was approved and the necessary resources for its implementation were granted. An online community management software was identified through a competitive process and a contract with the chosen supplier, a young start-up called Hivebrite, was signed in February 2017. The High Energy network was finally launched on June 8, 2017, along with the launch of the alumni.cern website.
Laure explains that the selection of the start-up Hivebrite was a bit risky, but that the plan paid off,
"We have a good relationship with them and, because we signed on early, we were able to influence their development to some extent. They now have other prestigious clients such as Harvard Business School, Imperial College and St. Gallen and have made a name for themselves in the field of SaaS software for online community management".
She adds enthusiastically: "We managed to launch the web platform exactly one year after defining the project mandate, from June 2016 to June 2017! ”
On February 3, 2018, the first alumni collisions were held at CERN and, in the wake of this, the first meeting of the CERN Alumni Advisory Committee. This committee, composed of 8 members including 6 alumni, provides recommendations to the CERN Director General on the development of the network.
The importance of Prosecco ...
Laure remembers the day we launched the network and the weeks that followed:
"We were trying to advertise as much as possible, and every time we reached 100 more members, we would open a bottle of prosecco to celebrate! We soon realized that at the rate we were welcoming new members, it would be prudent to increase the number of members we were celebrating each time. With 6564 members today, I'm looking forward to celebrating the 7000th member!"
Some of the challenges were totally unexpected and impossible to meet. For example, as we use CERN's SSO, to ensure proper authentication, alumni must first register their email address as an external account, in a completely different environment, and then activate their account on the alumni.cern platform. The process is long and tedious and is infinitely more complicated than creating an account on any of the social networks or other applications on the Internet.
"We were surprised by LinkedIn's change of strategy in March 2019, which no longer allowed our members to import their personal data from their LinkedIn profile to their alumni.cern profile. As the reliability of this data is the key element of good network management, we had a real problem. Fortunately, this is now possible again. We also realized that we needed to continue convincing our fellow partners at CERN that alumni are not just members of the general public; they are highly valued members of the CERN community and we need to take special care to be consistent with the message we are sending! “
"Furthermore, I didn't expect us to have to master audiovisual tools to create, edit and publish our content ourselves. Finally, social media, which was not and still is not my cup of tea, are paramount in our communication! "
Laure draws great satisfaction from the achievement of these objectives. She mentions that one of her superiors once told her that it was a "self-guided missile" and, after careful consideration, she admits that this is indeed the case!
The pleasure of working for a community
The successful launch of a highly appreciated CERN Alumni Network is not the only pleasure she has derived from this position ;
"Being in charge of alumni relations means getting in touch with former colleagues, young and old, and realising that they are always ready to participate and support the network. Writing content such as alumni stories is something I have never done before and I really appreciate it. I also greatly appreciated the effective collaboration, energy and creativity of my colleague Rachel Bray and my former colleagues, Antonella Del Rosso and Orestis Galanis".
"We have also benefited, from the outset, from a great deal of autonomy on the part of the Executive Director and the Director of International Relations, as well as their continued support. We have really been working on a blank page. Building the CERN Alumni Wall in Restaurant 1 for the network's second anniversary was a lot of fun, as was travelling to Vienna for the launch of the CERN Alumni Vienna regional group. It is also extremely gratifying to hear our colleagues now talking about former colleagues as CERN alumni ... Jackpot, the term has been adopted! "
If you insist on a word of advice ...
If you insist a bit, Laure has some advice to share. She underlines that for any profession, one needs an adequate training: "It is simply not possible and it is dangerous to improvise".
She also stresses that consistency is essential: "If the message you want to convey to your community is that 'we like you' but you don't act accordingly, not only will you not succeed, but you will lose all confidence and credibility."
After having organised several events for future alumni, Laure was able to witness the tangible anxiety felt by some, faced with the prospect of leaving CERN and research for another professional sector.
"I advise those starting their career to take on any responsibility offered to them, however minor it may be at the time, as this will help you gain experience and build your network of contacts. In addition, do something you enjoy, otherwise move on. Finally, don't let people label you in any way, or tell you what you are worth, they are not allowed to do that and you know much better than they do who you are and what you can do".
Laure attended the launch of the CERN Alumni network and also saw its enormous potential. She is convinced that this is a very positive program for CERN. The survey that was conducted in the summer of 2020 and the feedback we received confirm that the network is indeed filling a gap!
"Management's vision was absolutely correct, we have a community that shares a CERN experience, is enthusiastic and is ready to support the Laboratory's mission. Our job has been to create this network and to provide members with the tools to keep in touch with CERN and to support each other".
There is also immense potential to be unleashed from the network,
"Our alumni have their own circle of activity and influence, be it with their high schools, universities, start-ups, in C-suites of industry or government agencies. They support us and are proud to belong to the great CERN family. They have firsthand experience, know CERN and can speak about the Laboratory's mission and be our best advocates. Collaboration within the laboratory leads to solidarity outside CERN. As long as the network remains highly professional, exclusive, with high-quality content and with the spirit it has today, I am sure it will prosper".
Although the network reached over 6550 members in early December, Laure sees some challenges ahead.
"We will need to clarify the form of commitment and participation we expect from our alumni. I also think it is crucial that all scientific collaborations manage their communities of former colleagues on alumni.cern, as more than 80% of our members are former users of the laboratory.“
Returning to the notion of coherence between the given message and concrete actions, Laure is convinced that offering alumni tangible benefits will reinforce the message, "you are a valuable member of the network". In return, this will contribute to the growth of the network.
"It would be nice to be able to offer our alumni tangible benefits, such as access to selected IT resources. These benefits would certainly outweigh the costs and bring our offering in line with most university alumni networks."
Back to the start ...
After five enriching and dynamic years, Laure has chosen to leave her position as Head of Alumni Relations at CERN at the end of 2020. Not only does she wish to set aside more time to devote to other priorities in her life, but she hopes that her next professional challenge will be just as rewarding and - very importantly for her - meaningful. Laure hopes to use the talents she has developed throughout her career at CERN but also to continue working on the more human and relational side of the Laboratory.
Laure leaves the reins to Rachel Bray as of January 2021, but will give her all her support during a transition period until she takes up new functions.
"I'm sure Rachel will do a great job, she has an incredible amount of energy, creativity and enthusiasm! I wish her every success in building her team and hope she receives the resources and support that are essential to developing and nurturing the High Energy Network. Once again, I would like to extend my heartfelt thanks to all my colleagues who have contributed and supported CERN Alumni. They have been absolutely wonderful and without them, nothing would have been possible!"
A big thank you to Laure for leaving the CERN Alumni network so well established within CERN. Her dynamism, unwavering support and humour have made the last five years an extremely enjoyable experience and I thank Laure for her continued commitment to developing the network for the benefit of its members and the Organization.
Laure, we will miss you, stay connected!
Author Rachel Bray, CERN