Meet Raluca Cruceru, shown in figure 33.1. She graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) with Industrial Experience in 2020 when this episode was first recorded. She completed her industrial experience at home.cern and a summer internship at www.koder.ly in Oldham, Greater Manchester.
Listen to the episode by clicking Play ▶️ below, or subscribing wherever you get your podcasts, see section 21.2. An annotated and edited transcript of the audio is shown below.
My guest today is Raluca Cruceru. I want to find out a little bit more about your story and your journey from arriving here. Four years ago, is that right? Three and a half years ago? Yeah, it was it three and a half years now, isn’t it? Can you tell us a little bit about yourself your name and where you’re from?
Raluca: Yeah, of course. My name is Raluca Cruceru. I am 22 years old and originally from Romania. I came to the University of Manchester to study computer science. And here I am now in my final year.
(You’re) about to graduate and go off into the big wide world. So I think it’s always interested me hearing what made what made people study computer science so what was it that made want to study it? While you were doing your exams, applying to Manchester and what why did you study why did you choose to study computer science as a subject? Not why Manchester necessarily, but why computer science?
Raluca: Well, I think that everything I’ve experienced before university connected together to my final decision, when I was a child, I was always interested into how computers work or what they work that they work, but of course at the time, everything was worried. But then in high school, it became more clear that I’m attracted to this idea of technology and computers. My class was focused on mathematics and informatics. So therefore, I was always into this kind of information. The solving problems became natural for me I could spend hours doing that. So at the end of the high school, it was obvious that I wanted to do something concerning Computer Science and Mathematics. And it was a decision between mathematics and computer science. And I chose computer science because it felt like something that could be used in more circumstances in more industries, and more linked to the general technology. Yes.
So did you I guess, did you do you must have done a fair amount of computer science at high school did you do much in the way of coding in high school or was it more more focused on the mathematics?
Raluca: It was focused on the mathematics but then we also started to code in high school, and I think this is actually what helped me a lot to realise that they want you to do computer science. Also one of my exams that I chose at the at the end of my high school was boring informatics. I kind of fell in love with this idea. So yeah, yeah.
So, how did you go about deciding whether that was something that you wanted to do?
Raluca: Initially, I didn’t know about this option to have one year experience in industry. But when I found about it, I was really excited because I think for myself, the hands on experience, very important. And of course, we did all the way behind and all the lessons but I really wanted to understand what software engineering job actually requires. So as soon as I found out about this option, I was motivated to take it. I started to search for possibilities.
So this typically, most people are looking for placement style that are getting their second year. So after you’ve done the first year, so what sort of what sort of places did you apply to and what you were looking at lots of different things. You weren’t focused in on one, one or two places?
Raluca: Well, to be honest, I was very focused on CERN because I knew I wanted to work there. However, my I was very doubtful. Regarding my chances. I thought it was my only option. I applied for other companies in the UK. In places like CERN will expect you to have, or your application will stand out a lot more if you’ve got some experience like Yeah.
So you’ve done a summer job Web applications UK, which is now called, they’ve changed their name now to Koder.ly with a
K (see figure 33.2). So, you’ve got a broad exposure to different sorts of software engineering ideas, working in a team and that kind of stuff.
Raluca: Yeah, it really meant a lot because it’s one thing to work on a lab at university to be in another thing to work on something that you know, can impact a whole number of people. So it makes you want to do a good job. You know, that you’re, the stuff that you’re writing is is going to be used by hundreds, sometimes 1000s of people
I think that’s one of the satisfying things about software engineering is knowing that what you’ve made can get ended up getting used by lots of people
Raluca: but stressful, stressful and exciting in my opinion, right? Yeah, there’s, there’s lots of places it can go wrong. Isn’t that I think when you’re building software,
okay, good. So, I think you mentioned you were particularly focused on CERN. I think they have two application rounds. Is that right? So you applied in the autumn?
Raluca: No, actually applied in the second one, from May onwards.
All right. So you didn’t you didn’t apply in the first round in autumn?
Raluca: In the second round in May,
I guess lots of people have heard a lot about CERN but what can tell us more about CERN as an organisation and what your what your role was, while you were a technical student there for a year?
Raluca: so the European organisation for Nuclear Research in Switzerland, and their main focus is on high energy physics research. They operate the largest particle physics laboratory in the world. The main focus is to unravel the mysteries of the universe, more specifically, how it was formed, and from from there to understand how it will evolve in the future. And the thing that attracted me the most was the fact that they push the frontiers of not only science, but technology computing, and also medical technology. And maybe a lot of people know that the World Wide Web was created there in 1989 (see (Cailliau 2014) for web history and also birth of touchscreen technology (Stumpe 2014)) And it’s interesting to know that I was to a university where we have a software that has no computers, and then go through the transition that created the World Wide Web. Like everything is connected. And, of course, I knew about since I was a child that I didn’t really imagine that there would actually work there. It was just like something to dream about when you go to sleep. But yeah, in the end, I got accepted. And I worked as a software engineer in the electrical engineering department. Basically, my task included building and maintaining software applications for the department for monitoring projects of cabling and fibre optics there. And I have several tasks to do, building technical panels that would extract and migrate information from different databases regarding this project. Then, a dashboard that was monitoring the project’s evolution and generating statistics regarding the quantities of cables for the radiation dose intake. And then after that, those two pieces were published on the department website, which I also maintained. So as you can see, there were a lot of tests and I learned very much how to be able to handle multitasking that time.
The thing that thing that I think is perhaps most surprising about CERN is the fact that for every scientist they employ there are 10 engineers (see figure 33.3), and an awful lot of those engineers are software engineers, but you’ve also got the hardware and electrical engineering as well. So there’s an awful lot of engineering that goes on.
Raluca: I mean, it’s a big, it’s a big machine underground, basically, isn’t it at the end of the day. machines need lots of engineers. So there’s lots of lots of stuff but I guess it was nice being part of a international community while you were there, because you’re you’re meeting people from all over literally all over the world and principally Europe, but you and an all students and staff coming together in the community they created there? It’s so beautiful. There are scientists and engineers from around the world. And the atmosphere is just great. You feel like everybody has the same purpose. And we have something to collaborate for, and something to work on together. It just brings people together from different domains is great.
So with that, so when you applied to CERN, what was what was your strategy because I know you have to write sort of a personal statement type thing where you you describe your interests. So were there were there any things that you emphasise Did you particularly tailor what you’d written to particular groups at CERN? Because there’s lots of different groups certain doing software engineering is not just one, did you? Did you tailor it at all? Was it was there anything? Anything that you want, you know, how did you go about applying?
Raluca: The thing that I knew was that when you apply there’s not a specific departments to apply to? So you’re applying and then you were sent to a specific group. But yeah, I spent a lot of time in trying to make my application. Having having a personal touch. I was as honest as possible about why I wanted to work at CERN about what you personally I respect what they do. And of course, I try to talk enough and a lot about what makes me a good candidate for them. Yeah, I think we, in general, I think when applying people should put a lot of focus on details. Even if you think that something is not relevant to put the accent on. It can be actually something that makes you stand out. Even at the time, I was not sure how would be accepted even with all these efforts. I was still doubtful. I reminisce it takes quite a long time to do it as well. So every application and in particularly a certain application takes a long time to have to think quite hard about what you’re being asked and what you’re going to say. And yes, you never know if any of this is going to come to anything it can be quite demoralising sometimes filling in all these forms and writing all these personal statements when you never actually know if you’ll get a reply. Yeah, because they asked you not only about what you can do, but more questions to see what kind of person you are. And what do you want to bring into the department we’re working? Yeah, they have to pay a lot of attention.
So you were at CERN for, was it 12 months or were you there for slightly longer did you extend over the summer?
Raluca: Yes, it was initially one year but then I had the contract extension with three more months when they proposed that to me, I was more than happy to accept it. And of course, I had to confirm it with university. And luckily it was accepted.
Did you learn any French when you did you? Do you speak any French when you’re out there and or was it mostly in English? That you were speaking?
Raluca: Mostly in English, but also in French and we have French courses when we went for the first time there so the beginners could choose to have a French course for a couple of months. So I learned a little bit. I cannot say now they know enough to go didn’t want to talk about difficult for me, like switch back to the English system. Like you were living in in France or Geneva in France because it’s close to the border, isn’t it of France. Very close in the border is open so you can just pass.
So did you spend any time exploring around Geneva and parts of France that you’re in or did you have any chance to see see see, see the country while you were there?
Raluca: Were a couple of citizens in Bern, I think from Switzerland, but it’s my favourite city. It’s a small city but it’s very beautiful and I think when somebody has the chance to go to CERN, there are a lot of things to do and to visit. You can just go hiking, if you’re bored because nature is around there. Yeah.
Are you do you ski or snowboard at all? Is that somebody a winter sports person as well?
Raluca: there was a ski club at CERN, but I didn’t go this year. But now I will. I will try to go with them. Because at the beginning I was not a very winter sport person. But now I’m going to push myself because it seems very, very fun. Yeah. It can be quite expensive and expensive sport but when you’re living close to the mountains, it’s it becomes a lot more affordable. Because you know it’s only a 30 minute drive away or whatever it is, whereas normally it involves hiring an expensive chalet and you know, and all that stuff, but I think we’re living in a country. It’s sort of it’s it’s a good thing to do. Yeah.
Okay, good. So you came back from 15 months, I suppose at CERN into your final year.
Raluca: So actually, before before I move on to that, actually, so what would you say was the most enjoyable or rewarding part of the placement and you mentioned that you’re part of this international community and learning heaps of stuff. There’s anything that really stands out for you, from what you’ve got from your year from your year at CERN. Yeah, so first, of course, is the whole community that I found there. So I just felt like my place was exactly that. Well, I think one of the most important thing is that I learned how to multitask a lot, how to be able to learn new things, because I think a couple of years ago, I thought that okay, if you if you feel like you can now learn this specific skills, skill, you will never learn it. But in the end itself, there were so many things I had to learn that I didn’t even have time to worry about not being able to find it and yeah, I learned details that I never thought I would understand. Also, not in my area of expertise. For example, details regarding cables, fibre optics, I never I never got in contact with that before. Yeah. And also, it wasn’t my first experience seeing how what you’re doing is actually used and has impact on people. And it gave me this sense of purpose, because I had full responsibility over my tasks. It made me even more excited to do a good job. Those were the most important thing is I enjoyed it.
Good. Okay. So yeah, so we, you came back from your year at CERN, or just over a year at CERN last September and came into your final year. So what were you doing your final year project? Can you tell us a little bit more about what you did for your final year project?
Raluca: Yes, I was working on a project related to neuromorphic computing, which is concentrating or building computer architectures that lay the working in the structure of the human brain and I worked on SpiNNaker, which is the computer built at our university. The idea behind it is to implement spiking neural networks, which are artificial neural networks that have computational elements that mimic real neurons. And my job was to build a new neural models implementing Spinnaker to be able to see if it provides the right behaviour that we were expecting. And I was lucky to be lucky able to live for it and in the end, it was working. And I saw how, how complex and complicated it is to hear even one neuron. How complicated is the field another full network of neurons. And the reason I chose this project is I believe this area of research is very interesting. Being able to simulate the real brain will not only bring progress into computer science, but also neuroscience, for example, just a platform where neuroscientists to analyse the brain and see how it works or how does it do that? Yeah, was a great journey for me this year. Yeah, so that was that’s part of the Human Brain Project Isn’t
it always amazes me the the, the size and complexity of the human brain is far beyond what we can currently even begin to simulate. I think I forget the figures, but how many how many mice brains is spinnaker now up to how many how many mice can you can simulate the brain for the rat cortex at the moment Right.
Raluca: Yeah, but other than that, I guess it is evolving pretty fast. So who knows? And that’s a lot of that’s a lot of silicon, isn’t it?
How many processors do you have on Spinnaker at the moment? And it cause? I don’t know for sure how many they are to be honest. So the part I think, was it last year or the year before they passed a million core. So a million cores which is which is an insane amount of power. But it can it can you say all that power. You can only simulate a rat Cortex A brain a bit of a rat and use a huge amount of power and your your brain the brain inside your head does that on something like about 40 watts or something? It’s it’s much much lower. It’s amazing, but it’s amazing. It works at all. With all the speed and learning progress of the brain. I think it’s not even fully understood by neuroscientists. So simulating it it’s even harder because it’s not fully understood. Yeah, so your supervisor, your supervisor for that was
Right. Good. So so the next thing then is, well, there’s two things really. You’re planning for the future. So I know that sounds actually unusual in that a lot of students who go to CERN aren’t recruited so that they can go back after they have done an a placement. Students go back to their employer after they graduate, but with a lot of CERN students, that’s not the case because they have this educational thing where the money that they’re getting from the European member states, and sort of condition of getting that money is that they educate and train people all over Europe. So it’s not just about recruiting lots of engineers doing a placement there. It’s about spreading the knowledge of all the technology and systems and know how that is it sends spreading that around as widely as possible around Europe. And so in your case, you are you are actually planning to go back I think you might be the first University of Manchester students go back other Josh Dawes, went back there to do a PhD. But there aren’t so many students who go back not because it’s not a nice place to work. It’s just because the way that there’s paper temple students ships are set up as is to encourage people to learn some stuff and then move on to somewhere else. So your plans for the future are to go could to go back to CERN. Is that right? Yeah.
Raluca; So luckily for me, I was offered a graduate position in the experimental physics department on our major experiment that they had there.
Is that a different group to what you’re working on before?
Raluca: Yes, it’s the experimental physics department and it’s on the ALICE experiment, which I can talk about if you want. Yeah. So that’ll be another adventure. Then I guess, in terms of stuff that your stuff that you’re going to be learning
Do you know, do you know too much about the group or what they’re doing it?
Raluca: Yeah, I already know something because I wanted to get into that position. I knew about it. But of course, I was not sure I would be accepted. And I was. It’s called a large iron collider experiment. It’s one of the experiments at CERN where they studied the properties of matter, at extreme densities and temperatures, the collisions of the accelerator, and I will be working on a technology for organised distributed data analysis that is dedicated to storing and accessing the physics data output from ALICE. Yeah, and this is very important for the allosteric output to be able to be accessed by scientists and analysed.
So the Graduate Programme is on is it called a Graduate Programme and do they call it a scholarship or what? It is a fellowship or fellowship? Okay. So how long is the fellowship for is it for a fixed term?
Raluca: It’s three years, three years, six months, and then you can extend it. It’s a trial period of six months. And then if you manage to First up, you can extend it up to three, three years.
Do you know what you might do?
Raluca: Um, no, no, three years is obviously a long time.
So it’s almost as long as you’ve been studying as an undergraduate to do you have any sort of plans after that or any sort of things that you’re thinking of in the future that you might like to do after this period of three years?
Raluca: I’m not sure to be honest, I could. Because once you finish that you can also continue at certain with, for example, a sub contract if you want to, and he managed to get it, but I’m thinking that maybe I will find something that I’m very passionate about a specific kind of software technology. And who knows, maybe try to have a master or PhD if I’m not sure the moment or just stay there and work head on carry on being an engineer without doing any further study. So I guess I’m there’s lots of options there for the future.
Sounds good. So I’ve got two two final questions, really. So one is, these interviews are aimed primarily at other students. So what advice would you give to students who are looking for either summer internships or placements during their first and second years of study? What would you what would you advise them to do? What do you think they should be doing?
Raluca: I think I could talk a lot about that. So yeah, first, I think they should try to find companies or organisations that they identify with what they appreciate. Because this way they will be more dedicated to make a good application. And also if they get accepted, they will be more happy to be happier to work for that specific company or organisation we should try to find companies or organisations that they identify with what they appreciate because this way they will feel more dedicated to make a good application. And also if they get accepted, they will feel more happy. They will be happier to work for that specific company or organisation. Then a lot of effort, a lot of effort has to be put into the application. I know myself because in the second year I realised that a lot of talented students that want the same job, it’s very important to be able to stand out with some personal touch of the application or opening the CV so putting a lot of effort in that is important. And then I think, I think it’s just pretty much it.
I think the point you’re saying about personalization is very important, because I hear stories about how many the volume of applications that the more competitive schemes and CERN’s probably one of the more competitive ones is, you know, it’s hundreds a day of applications. Yeah, you have to remember that there’s a human being on the end of that, who has to somehow try and find that stuff that they’re interested in. And it’s the easiest way one easiest way to do that is to go through ones and just avoid ones that just look like they’re generic applications.
Raluca: I’m sorry to say that I have a third advice. Do not apply to one company. Right. It’s a very risky. It’s very important to be able to have a backup, or who knows maybe that backup that you have will actually end up being the company you want to work for. You never know.
So what were your backups? I know, because it sounds obviously quite an attractive employer. Did you have any backups other than certain what there are other places you were thinking? Well, if I can’t get certain then I’ll do this. What other places were you considering at the time?
Raluca: Yes, yes, I had. I had two others. There was DataStax and Koderly right. So I got to know that I could go there.
I think it’s always tricky balancing quantity of applications with quality because you can either do one or two really, really good high quality applications, but then if they get rejected, then you’re stuck. And the other on the other end of the scale is the sort of scattergun approach where you just apply to lots. If you’re doing lots of applications, then no, I’ve seen students do applications for 50, 60, 70 different internships or placements. And obviously, the more you start doing that, the quality starts going down. So you’ve got to try and balance the quality with the quantity and that’s, that’s not always an easy thing to do.
Raluca: They also have to keep track of the 70 applications.
You may remember what you said, why did why was it I wanted to apply for that company, what is it that they do? And I think that it can also be bewildering as well because I mean, how did you find balancing those commitments with manage managing, you know, managing your second year of study, but then also you need to have a social life as well. And balancing all these commitments can be quite hard sometimes I think.
Raluca Yes, no, it was not easy because second year, it’s busy with more things to do more labs and then you also want to apply for jobs. And you also want to have a social life. Exactly. So I try to organise my making pretty clear to know what am I doing today or tomorrow I, I usually make lists with what I have to do. And take, let’s say, for example, that weekend that’s free or at least one day in the weekend is free. And but I was very passionate and I really really wanted to get a placement. So I dedicated as much time as I could to them.
And it’s good to see that paid off.
Raluca: yeah, definitely.
Okay, so the other question I had was, so we talked about your plans for the future. So what do you what would you say the most interesting thing or things happening in computer science or technology at the moment there any things that you think this is, this is a growing area? This is something that’s going to be really, really interesting in the future?
Raluca : Yeah, actually. I will answer it in a personal way. neuromorphic computing that I talked about before bit of above unbelievably hard, actually. Yeah, yeah. Okay, so that’s that.
Is there any crossover there? So we’ve talked about physics and the CERN, the Large Hadron Collider and then you’ve talked about neuromorphic computing. And there are two, almost entirely separate fields. Is there any are there any sort of interesting crossovers between the two or any things that you think anything’s you think might you might be able to apply from what you’ve learned in your final year project to to physics
Raluca: Yeah, this could be because, as we know, there’s a lot of data generated from the physics experiments at CERN. We have around 1 billion collisions per second. So we always have to find ways to store and process that data very fast. And very good not have those somewhere. So technologies such as neuromorphic computing, and this kind of architectures could maybe be able in the future to process information faster or better. Of course, now the link is not completely clear for me. I believe there could be some more way of using that knowledge to process the physics data generated.
Because I know a lot of the computational power of Spinnaker, this neuromorphic computer has yet to be used. So you can build a very powerful computer but then you need people to be able to understand how to operate and then use the resources that that such a machine provides. So yeah, that’s that that sounds that sounds very interesting. Okay, so I think I think I’ve covered all the ground I wanted to, it’s interesting finding out a little bit more about what you’ve been doing what during your time here. It was great to hear about your experiences of CERN, and what you’ve got planned for the future. Is there anything else you’d like to add before we before we close off?
Raluca: Nothing, just maybe good luck to the students that are about to be in a placement or find a job?
Yes, thank you for joining us Raluca. Now, I always struggle is I never know with the name. Who could do I emphasise the A or the you where do I put the stress? Is it RalUca? Or is it RAluca? Luca is Raluca right? Okay. Yeah. I, I because we have we have several other students called Raluca. And I always struggle with getting the emphasis rights
its a difficult name for somebody who’s not Romanian.
Yes. I don’t think there’s no there’s not a near equivalent. But thank you, Raluca for joining us.
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