Tag Archives: Ridley College alumni

Data Driven: Jeff Bell ’88

Ridley students and employees spent the past year connecting largely via Microsoft Teams, so we just had to sit down with longtime MS expert, Jeff Bell ’88 to talk tech. Now, the alumnus shares his take on the future of work—and how Microsoft kept us clicking during a global pandemic.  

Jeff takes our call from his home office in Seattle, Washington. “Well, it wasn’t a home office until a year ago,” he explains practically, looking out at the Olympic Mountains, “it was our guest bedroom. But that’s the way the world has changed.” Like many of us, Jeff, too, has been working from home during the pandemic.

Back in 1991, the numbers minded Ridleian took on a summer internship at Microsoft. At the time, Jeff was working on an adaptation kit for companies to put MS-DOS 5.0 in their handheld devices (which he nods to as an essentially early ancestor of the iPhone). His officemates were busy working on Windows 3.1 and employees one door over were tackling applications. Jeff returned to Princeton University that fall to finish up his senior year, then moved out to Seattle as a fulltime Microsoft employee.

“There were always people who worked remotely—we just tended to ignore them. Now we’ve all been that remote person for the past year-and-a-half, there’s that much more awareness of how to make it work for everyone.”

He’s worked there ever since, challenging the ‘Bay Area stereotype’ that people in tech tend to hop from company to company. Over the years, Jeff’s been able to move within the organization and dive deep into a variety of projects that speak to his skills and interests, including type and typography; digital rights management; digital payments and wallets; tools for early e-commerce; and eBooks and ePub standards. And if, like us, you love the ‘Save as PDF’ functionality in Office Suite, you can thank Jeff—he led the small team that worked with Adobe to add it as a built-in feature.

Today, Microsoft employs more than 175,000 people worldwide, and Jeff is an expert on Microsoft 365 subscriptions. The quick pace of technology means they’re always rolling out new features and waiting for customers to renew can be a real drag—for creators and consumers alike. But with people now automating everything from music to razors to poultry, a simple subscription ensures users will always get their mouse on the most current iteration. 

“Think of Netflix as an example,” Jeff explains. “If I were to buy a hard disk or a chip with all the shows on it, but it doesn’t update itself with anything, how exciting is that? People producing a new show would have to wait for viewers to upgrade their Netflix or buy a new TV.” 

“In the software world, we’ve long had this challenge—we’d build all these great new features we really like, but our customers were still using this thing from five years ago that they’d buy new only when they’d buy a new PC. We want to get the updates to everyone faster, and if we can help make that easy, we can give everyone a better experience and a better product.”

“There are a whole lot of paths to being successful. There are smart people everywhere and it takes a lot of people—and a lot of types of people across the board—to deliver products in tech.”

Since March 2020, discussions of secure, collaborative products and ‘work-from-home ergonomics’ have taken on new life as employees perch at kitchen counters, occupy dining room chairs and hunch over coffee tables. 

Though we may have had to keep an eye on our steps, many of us were undeniably lucky to be able to work remotely during a time when the world, in large measure, shut down. Technologies like Microsoft Teams, Zoom and Google Meet kept us connecting, celebrating, and producing. 

MS Teams saw a huge uptick in users over the pandemic, and was one of the fastest growing apps, adding a whopping 95 million users in 2020. More than 500,000 organizations worldwide now use it as their default messaging platform, including over 183,000 educational institutions.

Though he may be working from home these days, for Jeff, connecting virtually is old hat. “At some level, that’s how my old world was. I spent two years where my manager and immediate team actually sat in Dublin, Ireland,” he recalls. “And Microsoft is a decent-sized campus. When I’m working with the commerce team or the payments team and they’re a 10-to-20-minute shuttle ride or walk away, you meet with them on Teams. So much of my work was done on Teams and via email already.”   

Microsoft has been thinking about the future of hybrid work for years. One of the projects Jeff worked on, now nearly a decade ago, was meeting technology and hybrid meetings, with the team considering such things as collaborative notetaking. “We didn’t end up solving the problem at the time, but we made a little headway,” he muses, “and the world moved on. But there’s certainly an interest in watching how things played out once everyone had to go virtual.”  

And in many ways, Jeff’s been in on the experiment, as his own family learned to operate remotely this past year—which included everything from the logistics of virtual orchestra to scrambling to find a Nintendo Switch to play Animal Crossing. Jeff lives in Seattle with his son, Andrew, who’s going into Grade 12, and daughter, Elizabeth, who will be entering Grade 10. His wife, Anna, a lawyer by training and a former JAG officer, is a romance writer. Though there was certainly some trial and error in the day-to-day, the pace slowed for everyone; a smaller stride meant more frequent video calls with Jeff’s Ottawa-based parents, his extended family in Alberta, and his sister, alumna Jensa Morris ’90, who’s now a doctor based in Connecticut. 

He’s also continued to keep active in his downtime, golfing throughout Seattle’s long season and still serious about running—he’s run 20 marathons to date, a passion which goes back to his days as a harrier at Ridley. 

Jeff came to the Lower School over Christmas in Grade 7, having started French immersion earlier that year and wanting a different kind of education. A conversation with family connection Reverend Hunt soon led the young whiz to Ridley—and, once there, Jeff never looked back. He spent the next seven years as a day student. In Lower School, he played cricket, soccer, squash, tennis, and hockey. When he transitioned to Upper School, now a student of Merritt South, he focused on playing hockey and competing both as a harrier and on the tennis courts. He was a Cadet sergeant, a House Prefect, and received both the TR Merritt Matriculation Gold Medal and the Governor General’s Medal. 

Jeff’s impressive skills in mathematics were known widely, so it was of little surprise that he sought a future career in engineering. “There are lots of domains in which you can solve problems, but I was strong in maths and sciences,” he remembers. “Engineering just felt like a place where there are always fun problems to solve and good tools for doing it.”

It was simply a question of where. Jeff was in Grade 12 and applying to Ontario programmes when his teacher, Brian Martin approached him and asked if he’d considered any American schools. He hadn’t, thinking those kinds of plans were years in the making. But it was a late decision which paid off; Jeff got in his applications just under the deadline and was accepted to the engineering programme at Princeton University. 

“It used to be fashionable to talk about how everyone should be fluent in coding—and the expectation of numeracy and comfort in data modelling might sound equally dated in 20 years. But right now, it feels like the easiest people to work with are the ones who can have a conversation about the data.”

What comes across as he talks about his work, however, is that it’s clearly about more than math alone (though he certainly spends his time deep in the numbers): Jeff is essentially a storyteller, contextualizing the data and using it as a tool to gain insight into what consumers are doing (or aren’t), how the business is working (or isn’t), and what’s going to be good for both. What impact are we having? Are we touching people at scale? How can we build the right thing? 

“That fluency is almost more valuable than code,” he agrees, “It used to be fashionable to talk about how everyone should be fluent in coding—and the expectation of numeracy and comfort in data modelling might sound equally dated in 20 years. But right now, it feels like the easiest people to work with are the ones who can have a conversation about the data.” 

And after the past year-and-a-half, the data has a lot to say. Today, Microsoft’s signature problem-solving efforts continue as a workforce contemplates its return to the office. How do workers use the chat function? How do things function when half the meeting’s attendees are remote? Is the chat channel more visible to those who are remote—and is it then ignored by those in the room? As we all inch closer to a new working model, mock-up solutions are popping up across the Microsoft campus. Their teams have been busy learning from what we’ve been doing these past months—and envisioning what a hybrid future might look like. 

“I think we’ll get to a place where we have more of a recognition of those who are remote,” Jeff predicts. “There were always people who worked remotely—we just tended to ignore them. Now that we’ve allbeen that remote person for the past year-and-a-half, there’s that much more awareness of how to make it work for everyone.”

“I have a lot of appreciation for the data scientists; the best ones are artists who understand the numbers and do a great job of storytelling and making sense of the world, making sense of the work we do.”

And, notably, these changes bring with them important conversations about diversity, accessibility, and opportunities to broaden the hiring pool. “While Redmond and Seattle are lovely places, we don’t need to move the whole world here,” Jeff points out practically, citing his organization’s recent hires who will be staying put. “There are smart people everywhere and tons of opportunity. In tech, it takes a lot of people—and a lot of types of people—to deliver products.”

Speaking with Jeff, you can’t help but be excited by what’s to come, knowing these technologies will only expand our reach across both office and globe. And though we’ve each had to pivot over the course of this pandemic, to park our cars and watch our work clothes hang in our closets like question marks—we are the lucky ones. There’s plenty of promise in the ‘new normal,’ status unknown, even as it’s still coming into focus.


This article was printed in the latest issue of Tiger magazine. Learn about our alumni, get community updates and find out where Ridley is heading next! Read more from the Fall 2021 issue.

Talent, Time & Treasure

Ridley welcomes new Director of Development, Shelley Huxley

Though we’d hoped to welcome her in person, the pandemic had other plans. So, we sat down for a virtual Q&A to learn more about the Niagara native—and get a sneak peek into what she has in store for our community. With her passion for education, strong local ties, and decades-long experience working at universities across Ontario, Shelley’s ready to hit the ground running.

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself? I was born and raised in Niagara (specifically, Fonthill), though I left for a period of time to attend university and launch my career. After my son was born, I realized there was no better place to raise a family, so we came home. It was really important to me that my kids understand the traditions of my family and grow up with their grandparents nearby — I grew up with mine and they taught me a lot. I wanted my own children to have that same experience. Now, I live in Fonthill with my partner, Iain, my two children: Evan, who’s 16, and Nathan, who’s soon to be 12. We also welcomed a new addition to the family, a now 10-month-old Labradoodle, named Coco! We’re a busy family; the kids are involved in a number of activities, so a lot of my free time is spent supporting them.   

You’re coming to us from Brock University, where you were their Director of Alumni Engagement. Can you speak a bit about your professional background? It’s usually a circuitous route that gets you to Development. [laughs] Originally, I went to Wilfrid Laurier University to study Business—I wanted to be a floor trader. But a year into school, I realized I could spend all my time studying, or I could invest in the fulsome student experience that Laurier had to offer. I switched my major to English and Sociology and spent a lot of time doing various activities on campus and working in student government.

That’s what really set me up for my career path, because it introduced me to senior administrators, and those relationships ultimately led me to return to support my alma mater professionally—initially through communications, speech writing and working for the President—and that then led to working in alumni relations.

From there, I went on to work at Queen’s University. Queen’s was embarking on a $250 million capital campaign at the time, and I was responsible for setting up their Toronto office, working with campaign cabinet members and developing campaign strategy. I next had the opportunity to work at McMaster University—which is a big research-intensive school—where I was able to blend both alumni relations and development in my role. Five years later, I had my first child and it was then that I decided to move home. By happenstance, a job came up at Brock University and I was the successful candidate. Over the past 15 years, I’ve worked in all areas of development at Brock: I started as their event planner, then as their advancement strategist, which later morphed into responsibility for donor relations and stewardship and most recently alumni relations. I’ve spent the past six years as their Director of Alumni Engagement.

What led you to Ridley—and what are you most looking forward to as you embark on this new journey? I’ve been lucky enough to work for some great institutions, so when you decide to make a move it has to be the right one, and there were a number of factors at play. The top of my list was that I would be going to a place where I felt I could make a difference, and at the same time felt that Ridley really believes in what they’re doing and how they’re doing it.

What I love about Ridley is its level of tradition, its strong reputation and collegiality, its dedication to education and commitment to innovation. Take the recent pivot to online learning: for any school to have done this so quickly would have been a challenge, but Ridley made the transition beautifully. These are all really appealing to me and working in development will allow me to use my skills to connect with alumni and engage donors in philanthropic opportunities. I’m really just hoping to help Ridley grow and prosper.

“Together, alumni and donors provide support, foster strong reputations, contribute to our admissions, and are an essential part of the student experience. They’re a core part of the school’s mission and values—and that network is important for the health and well-being of any institution.”

You obviously have some close ties to the local community. What are your thoughts about the changes taking place in the Niagara Region—and what is your approach to fostering relationships between school and community? The Niagara Region has been steadily growing both in sophistication and opportunity—particularly over the last ten years. We had a fair amount of big business exit our region, but Niagara’s response to that has been good: both Brock and Niagara College have developed programming and outreach strategies in terms of innovation, entrepreneurship and growth. For example, their makerspaces and the programmes they’re putting in place to help businesses develop within the community have been incredibly beneficial for us as a region.

The result is that there’s a lot of opportunity for students to participate in this innovation. I find myself thinking about cultivating the student experience, about potential experiential opportunities, and finding partners for mutual benefit. How can we engage our community partners to allow students these opportunities? How can we leverage our alumni connections both within our local community and beyond?

We’re here to build the student experience, and if we’re talking about preparing them for university—particularly our upper school students—there is a lot happening in this region from which they can learn, whether in business, tourism, or through partnerships with Brock’s Performing Arts Centre, or applied opportunities at Niagara College. There are plenty of ways we can offer experiential learning.

Your experience with events, alumni and development in the education sector is certainly impressive. What is it about this work that you find so rewarding? I find it a lot of fun. Every day is different and brings with it its own challenges. I’m proud of the work we support in alumni relations and development, and in working to educate minds. And that’s what brings me back day after day: I feel I’m making a difference and contributing to the fabric of society. That’s a pretty special thing to be a part of.

Shelley is virtually introduced to Ridley team members.
Shelley is virtually introduced to Ridley team members.

Can you speak to the importance of Development and Advancement when it comes to educational institutions? Any good school works hard to build and sustain a strong reputation—and alumni and donor engagement supports that. We think about how alumni contribute: with a sense of pride, loyalty and tradition, and a deep understanding of their alma mater. They share this not only with each other but with those around them who may want to attend or support the school philanthropically.

We think about alumni, who return to the school to engage with student life; they can be really beneficial in judging where an institution might be or needs to be.  They can contribute in terms of time, talent and treasure. We think about donors, who invest in our future. Donors support an institution that knows where it is headed and the work that’s taking place now—this support is what allows faculty, students and staff to aim higher and dream bigger. Together, alumni and donors provide necessary support for our success, they help us foster a strong reputation, and are an essential part of the student experience. They’re a core part of the school’s mission and values—and that network is important for the health and well-being of any institution. For me, it’s all tied together: what’s happening on campus and what investments are taking place as well.

You’ve worked at a number of Ontario’s universities. In what ways do the approaches taken in higher education—in relation to development, events, community outreach, and alumni engagement—transfer nicely to an independent school setting?  The strongest similarities, I think, will be in the student experience. Some students live on campus and others off, but together they contribute to the fabric of the school. Dedicated faculty are working hard to educate, staff are supporting students and the school at large—and when an institution is collegial and respectful of its faculty and staff, students pick up on it. A strong student experience is made up of more than what is learned in the classroom; everybody plays a role, and this creates a tight-knit community. This feeling of belonging, of family, ultimately contributes to student success, because when there’s belonging, the pride and respect come along with it. And those are wonderful nurturers for life.

We have a very diverse alumni population, comprised of different generations, who may come from or be living in different geographic locations, and who represent a range of political opinions and interests. How can we reach and keep our community strong as a whole, while also ensuring that we’re meeting the different needs of the groups within it? A diverse population contributes to a healthy environment; we learn from each other and learn to respect each other’s values and principles—and these various perspectives that students learn about at Ridley will help them to navigate life. We need to encourage open dialogue and use our vast network to reach out to each other both locally and globally. We all have stories to tell, we all have perspectives to share.

But everyone’s experience is different, and we have to approach those experiences differently. I will reach out to someone who graduated three years ago quite differently than I would someone who graduated 50 years ago; we use different platforms, we respond differently because they’re looking for different things. Each alumni is important to engage and value, to listen to, and provide with opportunity to be involved. And when we do this effectively, our alumni come forward to support us, to provide meaningful input that affects change. It’s mutually beneficial.

Welcome to Ridley, Shelley! We look forward to getting to know you over the coming months and are so pleased to have you join us—we’re sure there will be a number of exciting changes and opportunities ahead! As we introduce you to Ridley faculty, staff, parents, and alumni, is there anything in particular you’d like them to know? I am really thrilled and honoured to be joining this community and can’t tell you how much I look forward to hearing from each of you about what makes Ridley so special. For now, I will say that the Development team is here to support our student experience, to provide resources for faculty to thrive in the classrooms, and to connect alumni to one another and alumni to Ridley. We’re here to support Ridley—and you—today and in the future.