A True Interest in People

Jan 01, 2021
Interviewing Cris Cordeiro for the launch of the CERN Alumni Network

You all know Rachel Bray! As CERN Alumni community manager for the past three years, Rachel has been in contact with most of you and on your screens many times. In preparation for the events, which we have organised, she has reached out to you to ask if you would be willing to share your career story, she has invited you to set up regional groups and she has always been there to provide support, whatever the request.
As I am handing over the leadership of CERN Alumni to Rachel, I thought it was time to give you an insight on HER professional trajectory so that you may see for yourself the energy  and enthusiasm she demonstrates!

Building up her independence

Rachel graduated in modern languages at Rennes II University in Brittany, France in the 1990's. Rachel was determined to trace her own trajectory as she wished and worked throughout her studies to ensure her independence. She recalls having worked in the education, retail, hospitality, and tourism sectors . All experiences which have forged her character.
Following further studies in web authoring and HTML, in March 1999, she came to CERN on an industrial services contract with the Merrow agency, which specialised in providing temporary staff with language and communication skills.  A number of colleagues were working at that time on this contract and Rachel recalls that they were called the “Merrow girls” …

Managing the security zone for CERN’s 60th Anniversary September 2014

The Supplies Procurement and Logistics division (SPL) was implementing an online document management system, which would provide timely access for the CERN delegates and Industrial Liaison Officers to all documents related to CERN procurement documentation, such as invitations to tender, market surveys and price enquiries. She was entrusted with the responsibility of managing the DELIS user interface (Delegates’ Information System) and supporting the delegates.  In this first role, Rachel made many useful contacts worldwide, including with Finland, as the developers of TUOVI, the underlying system for structuring DELIS were a Finnish team .
By 2001, Rachel had extended her responsibilities to include developing the Purchasing Service website, managing the CERN Suppliers database and also- providing CERN-wide training on the Contract Follow-Up application.  Her memories of that time are mitigated, as Rachel, along with other female colleagues faced harassment from one of her male colleagues. She refused to accept such behaviour and reported it to her supervisor. The issue was dealt with appropriately. Rachel got a staff contract in 2001, by which time her functions had evolved to incorporate contributing to the production of the annual purchase report.

Community manager of EDMS users and Local Administrators

In March 2008 Rachel had developed the whole portfolio of competences and skills that her position in SPL could require. Looking at scope for further development, Rachel applied for a job in the Technical Services division, to join the EDMS team. EDMS is the CERN Engineering and Equipment  Data Management system which provides product lifecycle management solutions. For 8 years, Rachel provided consultancy, training and support on the applications and the related tools such as CDD ( CERN  Drawing Directory) and MTF (Manufacturing and Test Folder) and contributed to redesigning EDMS. The user community, which Rachel supported, extended to users in the scientific collaborations.
“I loved the technical side of things as much as the contact with the people. I have always been service-oriented and very much interested in the jobs of other colleagues. What they do, how they do it, what problems they meet and finding out how we can help them improve” says Rachel.
She shares her enthusiasm for working in the Lab: “CERN is such a unique place, and you can learn so much by working there, from very approachable colleagues from all over the world! I was always given a large amount of autonomy and freedom, also in developing tools that did not exist in industry, specific to CERN’s unique needs.”

Zumba session, post CERN relay race May 2016

At the time also, Rachel was very much involved in CERN Clubs; she founded the CERN Fitness Club in 2007 and became a Zumba instructor in 2014, Rachel also became more active in the management of clubs and was elected Chair of the CERN Clubs Coordinating Committee in 2013.

Between 2008 and 2015, Rachel was managing and providing support to  a large and diverse community, as well as representing CERN and promoting its work at international PLM conferences in the USA and Europe. Unbeknown to her, she was preparing herself, for future functions.

“However much you love doing what you do, if you do it long enough, the need to change, progress and learn something new comes and it is time to move on …”

The appeal of relationship building

In 2015, the Director-General elect was preparing a new organizational structure and it became clear that a new sector would be devoted to the management of international relations. Rachel was convinced that her experience and skillset could be put to very good use in this area and contacted the future Director of International Relations, Charlotte Warakaulle, to propose her collaboration.
The contact was appreciated and later, in June 2016, when the CERN Alumni project was launched  Rachel joined the project team. As project administrator, she seconded the project leader in all aspects of the project and thoroughly enjoyed working with the project team.  

“The meetings and discussions were very pleasant and constructive; we all had the same goal and the synergies worked. The Alumni relations team itself was a small team of four. We shared ideas and opinions and it worked in quite a democratic way “

Rachel was aware that several attempts at building a network of former colleagues had failed in the past, but she never doubted that the project would succeed this time.
“In my previous jobs, I had witnessed on several occasions the strength of resistance to change and how this has the potential to  ruin projects. Most of the time, people are focused on their work and on their span of influence, without looking at the bigger picture. However, I could see very clearly that the CERN Alumni Network was filling a gap, both for CERN and for the people who had left the Organization, so I was fairly optimistic that it would work”

I ask Rachel, what from her previous experiences, particularly helped her facing new challenges. She replies with a smile: “Working in hospitality (and particularly running a bar) helped a lot, as it often involved dealing with difficult people and situations. Also teaching children and providing technical support to adults, you learn how to evaluate their needs and their problems and provide solutions."

Working on setting up the CERN Alumni programme also taught Rachel  new skills:

 “You cannot improvise, and you need to be properly trained. Alumni relations is a whole new business field, and I learnt a lot from our membership to CASE (Council for Advancement and Support of Education) and the training which I followed.  I also learnt the importance of close collaboration with many CERN services that I had not been exposed to before, for example the Legal Service. You need to involve them at the earliest stage of such an endeavour as the CERN Alumni project, otherwise you end up with problems which you had not thought of! I also deepened my experience with the scientific collaborations. 80% of our CERN Alumni community are former users so it is of primary importance to know the world they come from.”

"In addition, I decided to return to my studies in 2018 to follow a Masters in Digital Media, part-time, taking evening classes, knowing that such skills would be beneficial for the CERN Alumni Network in this digital era. After two intense but pleasurable years, I obtained my diploma, summa cum laude and valedictorian 2020 and am putting this newly acquired knowledge to good use in developing the digital and communication strategy for the network. My return to further studies was fully supported by hierarchy, for which I am truly grateful.”

Broadcasting live from CERN during the Moving out of Academia to Entrepreneurship event Oct 2019

Rachel is also the Data Privacy Officer for the International Relations Sector and collaborates closely with the CERN Data privacy Office. “Data privacy constraints may appear obstructive and adding a barrier to progress, but they are not. Indeed, they are a success factor, as our alumni know that the data they entrust us with are secure and used for no other purpose than networking and statistics, unlike  with social media where their personal data are also used for commercial purpose”.

The first memories which come to Rachel’s mind of this 5 year period are the weekend of 8 June 2017 when the alumni.cern platform was launched. True enough, we had a picture of Bill Gates on our desk which said “You will never be 100% ready, just start!” and this is exactly what we did.  

The first CERN alumni collisions on 3-5 February  2018 were also a great moment, which Rachel thoroughly enjoyed. Flying to the United States in 2018 for the kick off meetings of the CERN Alumni New York and Texas regional groups was also a wonderful experience, particularly because it included a live linkup with the operators in the CERN Control Centre.

Launch of the CERN Alumni Texas group, Rice University, April 2018 ( L to R Pedro Paul Alvarez, Paul Padley, Rachel Bray)

Future directions: engagement and empowerment

As Rachel is taking over as Head of CERN Alumni Relations, I ask her what her plans are and how she intends to pilot the network.

“The independent survey which we conducted in the summer of 2020 has confirmed that the community is united in its desire to stay connected with the Laboratory. Our members are proud of having worked for such a unique Organization with its mission of fundamental research. For some of them, even if their experience was a little bit sour at the end, this pride remains and we need to channel this. With this survey, we have now clarified the unique value proposition of the network and need to make this clear on the alumni.cern platform, so alumni understand how they can benefit from becoming members”.

“Furthermore, the alumni relations team is thoroughly supported by the formidable members of the CERN Alumni Advisory Board, who provide input, experience and strategic guidance to the Director General on matters pertaining to the CERN alumni programme and its implementation. Thanks to their expertise, I am confident the network will flourish and develop in line with its members needs and supporting the Organizations mission.”

Taking up her new functions, Rachel has conducted her own SWOT analysis and thoroughly reflected on the risks and opportunities for the programme.

“Having reached a size of close to 7000 members, it is unlikely that CERN management would withdraw its support for the programme.  However, we are a small team, and if we are unable to take up all the proposals to engage that we receive from our alumni, simply because we cannot face the workload, we run a high risk that we disappoint our alumni and our reputation is affected. We need to be able to act on their proposals!”

“Many colleagues are starting to see the value of the CERN Alumni programme and how it can contribute to their own objectives. We also hope that we can alleviate the stress of supervisors when their collaborators on short-term contracts are leaving, by providing support and the possibility to maintain a link with the Organization. “

Rachel keeps very much in mind the necessity to demonstrate regularly to all stakeholders, the progress made and the return on investment of the CERN Alumni programme.  “A difficulty we have is to capture the level of interactions between members and to quantify the support that the members derive from the network. For example, it is impossible to find out whether a member has found his/her new job owing to the network.  The only way to collect such data is to convince the alumni themselves to let us know. “

Rachel has a very clear vision of the network in the next years: “We need to maintain the same spirit that we have today of trust, mutual support and engagement. But we need to empower our alumni so that they can contribute directly to animating the network. I call on them to create and share their own content, to get in touch with other members to offer or ask for help, to create blogs and forums, tell their own story and share their experience etc..”

Rachel is particularly keen on introducing a mentoring scheme for alumni. As a member of the Women In Technology Steering Committee (WIT), and also because she has been both a mentor and a mentee herself, Rachel has significant experience with mentoring and its benefits. “In 2021, we will implement a mentoring scheme, supported by a new set of functionality in alumni.cern. I am convinced that there is a need for mentoring for early career scientists, and a real desire to help from mid to late career alumni.” she explains.

Three wishes for the CERN Alumni genie in the lamp

“A slightly enlarged team, up to 4 or 5 members would allow us to take up all offers that we receive from our members. We cannot disappoint them. Also, these new team members would produce high-value content for other colleagues such as those in the Knowledge Transfer or Talent Acquisition services. I am aware that they are currently no plans to enlarge the team, but if you ask me what my first wish would be, there it is!”

Rachel’s second wish seems easier to fulfil:
“I would like to work with our IT colleagues, whether in IT central department or in Business computing to solve all the issues that we currently have with the systems and get those badly needed developments done. For example, we would be very keen to extend the network to include the alumni of the Teachers programmes, as physics teachers are top advocates of CERN.  We risk losing people if we do not get these developments done rapidly!”

As for her third wish, it is a matter of strategy that only top management can decide: “I wish we could empower the most engaged of our alumni such as CAAB members and group managers with the tools they would need to be true relays of the CERN Alumni team in the community. To do this we need to provide them with some computing facilities. We need to be coherent with the message that we value them!”.
As the interview draws to a close, I ask Rachel whether she has a specific demand for the community members:
Rachel replies, laughing: “Be patient with us, we are a small team and we are working hard to keep up with a growing community. Please keep your profile up to date, as this is the most important thing you can do for us. It will not take much of your time as importing your profile from LinkedIn may be done in a couple of clicks. Share your stories, create and share your content, spread the work and ask your former colleagues to sign up! Thank you so much for your help!”

1-3 October 2021: Save the date for the next alumni collisions

Rachel has an important message to leave all of you with.
“Next year on the 1st to 3rd of October we will hold the second CERN Alumni collisions, to unite all alumni under the theme ”Research matters”. We will need you to demonstrate how CERN alumni have an impact on society so please save the date. With the still uncertain circumstances due to the pandemic, we are planning a hybrid event, where both a reunion at CERN will be possible, as well as satellite celebrations all around the world. We are also planning an awards ceremony to acknowledge both the engagement of alumni for the network and the impact their trajectories have had on society. So stay tuned!”.

The secret of networking revealed

Having worked closely with Rachel for 5 years, I have always been astonished at the size of her personal network, so I asked her what her secret is for establishing and nurturing a network of contacts.
“I have a true interest in people, what their needs are, and how I can support them. My memory is not great for certain things but I can remember a lot about people and their lives, what their interests are. For example, when I collect people ‘s business cards (Not yet a thing of the past) I always write down on the back of the card a few words of what I learnt about him/her.
I also very much like creating links between people and using what I know about them to connect them.  I think that people appreciate the genuine interest I have in them and then, they are also ready to provide support."

I fully confirmed this Rachel, you are a born and impressive networker. Thank you for all these years of effective fun collaboration, I wish you continued success and a lot of pleasure in leading the CERN Alumni Network!

Author: Laure Esteveny

Interview with Radio Lac during the CERN Open Days 2019


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