Catching up with Cohort 3 Alumnus Noel Barrion

It’s natural to wonder what to expect when one leaves the university to join the “real world.” For this reason, it’s always interesting to catch up with QUEST alumni to see what they’re up to. I was recently able to talk to Noel Barrion from Cohort 3, who graduated from UMD in 1998 with a B.S. in Chemical Engineering. He currently works at Ultragenyx as a Director and HR Business Partner. 

Noel is originally from Silver Spring, MD. Upon graduating from UMD, he moved to San Francisco where he spent five years as a management consultant and got his Masters in Human Resources and Organizational Development in 2004. He’s worked in Human Resources in the biotech/pharmaceutical industry in San Francisco, the UK, and Switzerland over the last 15 years. Today, he’s 44 years old and still lives in San Francisco with his partner Rob.

Noel has fond memories of his time in QUEST. He has vivid memories of the experiences he had and has three favorite memories from his QUEST journey.

Orientation is the first one. Noel says, “I remember doing a ropes course and taking the MBTI personality assessment. It was my first time doing both and it was very eye-opening. The ropes course required trust, teamwork, and self-reflection and the MBTI helped explain personality types. Up to that point, my focus in academics was in chemistry, biology, and math and so learning about some of the science behind personality and behavior helped me understand myself better and how people’s personalities can be.” 

Noel told me that his second highlight was the cross-cultural course, which sounds like the equivalent of the 390H course that current QUESTees take. Noel said, “I was always fascinated with foreign cultures, partially because my parents were immigrants, and I always felt like I was caught between their culture and western ‘American’ culture. In the cross-cultural course we learned how communication, sense of individual versus group, and relationship versus task orientation can vary in different cultures especially in a business setting. These lessons were the beginning of a passion of mine as I have spent almost 5 years working abroad. Learning how to work and live abroad is an important part of my life.”

Finally, Noel loved the experience he had during his capstone project. From his perspective, “It was my first experience in paying attention to client needs, and without expertise in their business, still helping them problem solve. The critical thinking and problem solving felt in some ways quite similar to the scientific method I was learning in the lab and my chemical engineering courses. My experience with the practicum inspired me to pursue a management consulting career after graduating instead of engineering.”

Noel has had a diverse array of experiences since graduating from UMD. He first spent a few months traveling Asia before working in management consulting. During this time, he moved to San Francisco as he wanted to work more closely with clients in High Tech. He worked with clients undergoing large-scale technology changes and focused on the people side of this change, specifically in organizational change management and training. He would then decide to move on from consulting as he didn’t feel like it allowed him to learn more about the companies he worked at.   

Following this realization, he started working at Genentech. It was a very exciting time to join the company, as it was doing ground-breaking work in oncology therapies, and it had just topped Fortune Magazine’s “Great Places to Work” list. It was the perfect place for Noel at the time because his science and engineering background helped as most of his clients were scientists and engineers. It was at Genentech that he decided to move into Human Resources and also pursue an international career. He spent over 1 year in the UK and 3 years in Switzerland. While in Switzerland, he managed a group of early-in-career HR professionals and also managed a global project with 40 team members from all over the world. After returning from Switzerland, he decided to leave Genentech after over 13 years there to join a small biotech startup. It was a big change going from a company with 90,000 employees worldwide to one with 50 employees and two locations, which is why he then joined Ultragenyx as a Director, HR Business Partner. Ultragenyx is a biotech/pharma company focused on developing therapies for patients with rare diseases. 

Noel loves his current work, saying, “Working in the biotech/ pharmaceutical industry is very rewarding knowing that the people I help hire and the culture I help foster can lead to therapies that help people with terrible diseases.” A big focus for him lately has been on inclusion and diversity and so he is working with the company to see what they can do to create a culture of inclusion. Part of this is ensuring that their employee population has more balanced representation across different dimensions of diversity, such as gender, race/ ethnicity, and generations.

As for the future, Noel is looking forward to the pandemic subsiding and being able to do things with family, colleagues, and friends without having to think twice about social distancing or poor air quality.  Beyond this, he wants to explore California more. He also hasn’t traveled to South America or Australia/New Zealand yet and would like to travel there one day. 

Finally, Noel wanted me to include a big thank you to the QUEST program from him for all that he’s learned from it.

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