Where were you on 9/11? Many people can recall it vividly; after all, we tend to clearly remember significant events. “In Manhattan,” is the answer from Chief Information Officer Henri ‘Rik’ Vanroelen, who is retiring on 1 October. After an international career in IT, Rik decided three years ago to put his experience at the service of his alma mater. “It was very different from what I had imagined, but the choice was deliberate,” he says. From VUB to the USA and back to VUB: we take a look back at Rik’s career.

Departing CIO Rik Vanroelen is part of the first generation to have had an entire career in IT. While his successor, Karin Voets, is already hard at work at VUB, we look back with Rik on his fascinating professional journey. His stories revolve around IT, but they’re also about culture: from architecture to corporate culture to interculturality. And planes.

An AFS exchange year in the US brought Rik into contact with the very first mainframes in 1976. Although he chose to study civil engineering, he could never move away from IT. The positive impact and life lessons he took from this intercultural experience would also remain a common thread. He spent a significant part of his career with American companies such as Exxon and Estée Lauder. They took him to downtown New York on that fateful September 11, 2001. His children wanted to study in Belgium, leading him back to his home country, where he worked for the Independent Health Fund, Ingersoll Rand and SD Works.

“When that story came to an end, VUB came into view,” he recalls. “At the end of your career, there’s a growing need to pass on what you’ve learned along the way. VUB was a sudden opportunity, but the choice was deliberate. What hadn’t been an option immediately after my studies now completed the circle. What you want to achieve in your life, you have to do yourself. However, as the years go by, you realise how the learning experience at VUB, in its entirety, ultimately contributes to everything that follows.”

IT as a barometer of an organisation

“IT is a universal technical sector. In essence, it’s always the same, yet it’s different everywhere. That has everything to do with a company’s culture. What do you value? What choices do you make? Where do you want to invest? By working in an international context and then consciously seeking out different types of organisations, I became increasingly aware of this.

“I must admit that VUB was different from what I’d imagined. I wanted to make an immediate impact, but sometimes I felt like I was back in the 1980s, experiencing a kind of flashback. I’m not claiming it is, but in my perception, initially, VUB felt very administrative: the decisions, the approach, the style. In that short time, we tried to strengthen VUB as an international company as much as possible. And that’s the positive side of working here: there’s a lot of freedom to take things into your own hands and set the direction. Having a role like CIO makes that easier. In the end, you achieve it with a whole team. We’re proud of what we’ve accomplished together in recent years.

“In terms of IT, VUB was still historically connected to ULB through the data centre. Severing that connection was important, but it wasn’t without risks. The modern data centre aligns much better with VUB’s current goals. A state-of-the-art data centre is also being established at the Green Energy Park in Zellik. It’s big and powerful, the best of the best.

“We opted for a structured services approach and transparent processes. We’re trying to develop a commercial mindset within the department. What are the project costs? What does our approach cost? What do you do, and more importantly, what don’t you do? We now also support Macs.

“Changing a culture is difficult. It never stops, and you have to work on it consciously and continuously. A new computer is easy. A new organisational culture isn’t. Once you do it, you’ll enjoy it for years. Culture determines what solutions you use within an organisation.”

“It was unreal. Just like a movie”

We return then to New York, in the early years of this century. The IT sector had just survived the Y2K bug. The transition to the new millennium was expected to paralyse IT systems around the world. No one could accurately assess the impact. Rik: “From an IT perspective, the world was indeed supposed to end in the year 2000. There were 800 or 900 of us on standby in accordance with carefully considered scenarios and contingency plans. When the clock struck midnight, literally nothing happened. It was very bizarre. In my view, the Y2K bug was both well-prepared for and greatly exaggerated.” Then, 18 months later, on September 11, 2001, disaster struck.

“I worked in New York for a total of six years, including on the 41st floor of what is now the Trump Tower. At that time, it was still the GM building, on the corner by Central Park. I’d experienced some flying incidents during business trips to Asia, America, the Middle East and Russia. I guarantee you: when a plane attempts its landing for the third time through thick fog, it’s dead silent on board. And when we were flying to America, during the first flight with our two youngest children, trying to stay above the waves of a raging sea in a storm, we acted as convincingly as possible that this was always how it went on a plane.

“On the morning of 9/11, I had to be in Manhattan. We were meeting in a basement. I still remember how I saw the second plane flying abnormally low above our heads. I hoped it would land safely. Shortly afterward, the concierge reported a problem and told us the building was closing. We lived in Long Island, but Manhattan was cut off from the outside world until 16.00. We managed to rent a car for the four of us. On the way home, we saw the caravan of people on the bridges. It was an exodus in complete chaos. People were clinging to trucks. It seemed like a movie. It was an unreal day.”

For once, no plan

“A beautiful summer with lots of sun,” Rik says in response to the obligatory closing question of a retirement interview about what he plans to do now. The conversation takes place in June, and by now, we know how that ambition has turned out.

At that point, Rik had already made the decision. He’s not going to remain professionally active, but he immediately added: “Never say never.” He has no plan, let alone a bucket list. “I’ve never been bored. It will work out.”

Thank you and best wishes for a pleasant retirement, Rik.