Between the third and fourth years of his Computer Science degree, in 2004/5, Tom Griffin spent a year as part of the Software Development team at the ISIS Neutron and Muon Source. On graduating, he joined STFC as a Software Engineer in the ISIS Data Analysis Group and has been at STFC ever since: working his way through a variety of roles up to becoming director of the Scientific Computing Department (SCD) in 2018.
Initially, Tom was intrigued by the sandwich placement adverts; “they were really technical, which I think put a lot of people off. For me, however, it made me want to find out more!" He was offered multiple positions, and chose the one that looked most interesting at the time, even turning down a role in what is now his own department.
During his placement year, Tom developed a distributed computing system, and worked closely with ISIS scientists to ensure it solved their problems. “I had an excellent manager, who went out of his way to explain the science that was being done with the software we were developing." He continued to work on maintaining the code part time during the final year of his degree.
On finishing his degree, his partner (now wife!) found a job in Oxford, and this swayed Tom's decision to go back to ISIS; “My placement year had given me the chance to see what working in science was like, and it seemed more interesting than other sectors, such as finance."
He joined ISIS as a permanent member of staff, returning to the Data Analysis Group in ISIS where he had been on placement, and working on data management alongside the student who was now continuing his work on the distributed grid system. While in this role, he was able to get involved in a range of activities, including work with the user office and the proposal system.
“Working at ISIS gave me the opportunity to be part of lots of different projects, and grow my responsibility," Tom explains; “the value of STFC was that I was encouraged to move around." This included changing departments when, in 2014, he became group leader of the Research Data Group in the Scientific Computing Department, managing a team of fifteen people; “I knew I was ready for a group leader position, but there were no ISIS vacancies."
He was encouraged to return to ISIS a few years later, when the Computing group leader retired. He was now working alongside his wife Hannah, who was also a group leader in ISIS. “This role had a great mix of technical work and management. I enjoyed seeing projects go from idea thorough to completion, including one project that started as a conversation over coffee, and is now a piece of software used to have a positive impact across many instruments at ISIS."
“I expected to be the computing group leader for a while, but it was actually only two years before I was encouraged to apply for the role of SCD director; it was a big step up, and huge responsibility" says Tom. “I needed a lot of persuading to apply for the role, and was astounded when I got it".
During his time at STFC, his role has adapted gradually from being purely technical, to purely managerial; “I do miss the coding, but this role is extremely varied, and gives me a great opportunity to steer the direction of projects. I also benefit from the variety of experience I gained from moving a lot between roles and departments." He adds; “I really enjoy my job, and am grateful to have been given the opportunity to lead the department."
“I've always been the kind of person that wants to fix a problem if I see it, and I think this attitude has helped my development," says Tom. As well as going through the review promotion system, he was also part of the Accelerated Development Programme (ADP), which both raised his profile amongst the rest of STFC, but also enabled him to learn more about the organisation.
Being a director at just 34 has brought challenges; “Imposter syndrome is a huge part of my life!" He explains; “this role comes with a level of uncertainty, and it's difficult to make decisions when the detail just doesn't exist, but my colleagues and managers have been very supportive. I've learnt that it's OK not to always know the answer, and trust that I bring a different perspective to discussions."
As well as working his way up through ISIS and SCD, Tom has also risen through the ranks of the Table Tennis club, and is now club chair, having played since he first started at RAL. “I am the STFC Wellbeing champion and this covers both mental and physical health. I was part of the introduction of STFC mental health first aiders and I'm also the Vice-President of the RecSoc."
Although disrupted due to COVID-19, he explains that his department is in a good place to adapt; “we have a small number of systems staff who are based on site, but we are used to running agile projects remotely, and so have been able to continue almost as normal during lockdown." He has also been able to work with other departments to share how SCD's way of working could be used more widely in STFC.
Throughout his time at STFC, Tom has maintained an interest in the sandwich student placement scheme, and other early career activities. “Although I am biased, as the scheme was so good for me, I think it's a really good opportunity for both the students and for the organisation," he says. He is now the Early Careers lead for computing, and keen to build on the success of, and develop, the current STFC student and graduate programmes.
“The sandwich placement scheme is a great way to bring new people on to site, and it's a chance for STFC to recruit excellent graduates who already have experience in the organisation." He adds; “Throughout my time at STFC I've been given the freedom to do lots of different things; this is a bonus that you can see in the organisation, even as a student on placement."