Q&A: My Computer Science placement experience at CERN

Q&A: My Computer Science placement experience at CERN

This is an extended case study from the NCUB Research Report Growing Experience: A Review of Undergraduate Placements in Computer Science for the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills.

Iain Steers undertook a placement at the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN) as part of his Computer Science Bsc (Hons) degree at Northumbria University.

What attracted you to placement at CERN?
"Being here when the Higgs discovery was announced...we were riding the buzz for quite a while."

Part of it was that it was CERN the birthplace of the Web. Also the fact that it was in a different country/culture was intriguing and I decided that the risk was worth it especially with the benefit it would do my CV. In a way, excluding Religion and Governments, I’d say no other organisation in the history of Humanity has had such a wide-spread affect on the course of this world than CERN

Did you find your placement beneficial?

Definitely, both in terms of skills and knowledge gained here and also additions to my CV and work experience. I also had a chance to network with a great deal of people very high in industry such as CEOs and Presidents as well as people at CERN that I can take away as contacts.

What kind of experience did you gain?

In University you work in a team and produce something fairly minor in a semester. At CERN you work in a team and management tell you they need it next week so I’d say I’ve definitely learned how to work in a team in a high-pressure workplace. I’ve made some great friends and some great contacts including CEOs and VPs of multi-national companies.

What unique skills and experience do you think you gained with CERN?

I learned several new programming languages (Python, Ruby and Perl) as well as frameworks (Django, Puppet, Quattor). I also delved into Big Data analytics in a big way with a system called Splunk. We monitor thousands of logs and events (in the 10s of Terabytes range) we produce and then analyse it looking for trends/incidents etc.

Meeting high-ranking bosses and CEOs of world famous companies and have them explain in great detail why we should care to give their products a try was an experience in and of itself.

In which department of CERN did you work and what did your role entail?
"I’d say I’ve definitely learned how to work in a team in a high-pressure workplace"

I worked in the Computing Facilities Group of the IT Department in the Procurement section. The role itself was multi-pronged, my main set of tasks was to develop a script that could inventory the hardware of a machine and automatically upload it through a REST interface to a database that we termed the Hardware Inventory.

This script also generated a changelog from Hardware changes which allows us to calculate all sorts of statistics and work out the best component models from a life point of view and the worst. I was also involved in writing/reviewing tender specifications for new hardware we procure as well as testing sample systems from outside companies including components not even announced yet.

We also maintained a suite of tests called Burn-in tests, run when a machine arrives, testing the cpu, memory and performing checks on the drives. Our team is currently involved in building an infrastructure so that when a new server arrives, it gets plugged in and does everything automatically without manual input. Such as registering itself in the network dbs, acquiring host certificates and launching the burn-in tests and finalizing in registering with Puppet/Foreman and launching VMs with physics jobs.

What was the highlight of your time at CERN?

It’s difficult to say really, I’ve enjoyed so much of it. From a purely my work point of view it has to be when a paper I co-authored was presented at CHEP in New York and gained a great deal of interest.

On personal/work note it was being here when the Higgs discovery was announced as we were riding the buzz for quite a while.

What was the atmosphere like at CERN when news about Higgs particle got announced and did you get affected by it?

It was to put it quite simply, absolutely mental. We heard they were organising a press conference on the Monday so we knew something big was going to be happening. I have a couple of friends on the experiments and knew something was up when they started pulling all-nighters and sleeping in their offices for about a week beforehand.

As part of the infrastructure, keeping the LHC Compute systems and data up, we were under a lot of pressure to maintain absolute uptime and make sure there were no problems, when you’ve got an average transfer rate of 5GB/s per second this can get tricky. Several people our team knew were involved in maintaining/running the webcast and we scaled to somewhere in the region of 2 and a half thousand new connections per second during the broadcast.

On the morning of the announcement all you could hear in the corridors of the building I’m in was the echoes from the webcast and we all watched it as well. I’m really glad I was here for the announcement definitely something to tell in the future.

Would you recommend doing a placement to another student? If yes, why?
"I would definitely recommend to any student to do a placement."

I would definitely recommend to any student to do a placement. If only for the world of good it will do your CV. It’s also nice to get a chance to see how the corporate world works without being under huge pressure to be everywhere and do everything.

What are your career plans?

I plan to complete my Bachelors and then go on to get a Masters degree, after I’ve attained a Masters I’ll apply to CERN for a Staff position which is a minimum five year post. Depending on how I find it at that point I may apply for an indefinite contract.

Have your career plans changed as a result of your placement? If yes, why?

Yes. Before the placement I knew I wanted to be in Computing, particularly Software Engineering, however that was about as far as I’d thought. However having enjoyed my placement at CERN so much and gotten on with everyone so well I’ve decided I’d very much like to go back however to do that I really need a Masters degree to apply for the kind of position I want.

Do you think the support you received from the University before and during your placement was sufficient?

The support was excellent, my Visiting Tutor was always available for questions or other items and made sure I was aware of everything. The Placements Office made sure given the distance that I would still be able to hand in anything that was needed.

This is an extended case study from the NCUB Research Report Growing Experience: A Review of Undergraduate Placements in Computer Science for the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills.

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