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Software Development with Darren Platt - Biotech Software Group

Updated: Sep 21, 2020

Hi everyone, it’s Amber Shao, Founder and CEO of AduroSys, a laboratory data management software company. Welcome to AduroSys Lab Software podcast. Joining me today is a very special guest Darren Platt. Darren is Chief Information Officer and President at Demetrix. One of his roles is to oversee the team that handles data management and analysis for Demetrix’s cell engineering platform. Prior to Demetrix, Darren was VP of Data Science at Amyris, Head of Research at 23andMe, and led the computing efforts at Joint Genome Institute from DOE and Exelixis, overseeing several multi-million dollar software projects and large teams of software developers in biotech settings covering DNA sequencing, consumer genomics, and Synthetic Biology.

Amber: Hi Darren, welcome back.

Darren: Great to be here again.

Amber: You and I did two episodes on software development for the biotech industry. In the first episode, we talked about buy versus build. The second one was on how to design good scientific software. For listeners who haven't listened to those two episodes, do check them out, but today we're going to talk about software development resources. We're going to go behind the scene to see how software group in the biotech industry are unique, and the challenges in hiring, and how to address them.

Amber: First, let's look at what is a typical software group in the biotech industry. Is it different from other industry, if so how are they different?

Darren: That's a really great question. I think if you peer inside typical biotech, you often find not one computing group, but a whole bunch of them. It can be very blurry, who's actually running the software. I think of it like a mixture of skills ABC. There are people who are good at automation, maybe a little bit better with robots and software, people who are great with sort of the computing big C and B, really strong on the biology. And some people are big B, little c. Some people are big A, big C, little b, big B, little c. You need sort of all of those types and you also need to get them to sort of work together, so you can have a blend of homegrown programmers who just learned it on the job because they got interested and experienced developers who have gone through school and spent decades writing software. And somehow you need to kind of glue all of this together. One of the more important roles that somebody who can actually translate the requirements for this is not just sort of whether the buttons go and know the user flow, but how does the particular science of that company work and help the software engineers, the people who are probably better at writing the software, actually sort of translating those requirements into a working piece of software.

It tends to be a very lean environment. It's been very common in places I've worked for, one person, one software developer to support many different applications rather than typical software development company with maybe a few products where you have a whole team of people working on a single piece of software and you can break the team up into requirements and testing and deployment and stuff like that. And so you often have one person managing the full software development lifecycle, top to bottom for multiple apps. That really puts a lot of pressure. You need good software engineers to do that. I had one person who really decided to move to take another job for really good reasons and one of the things appealing things for him, going back to regular software development was, is I'm going to have a team of 10 people who just do software testing for me. Not to worry about that anymore. Completely understood that.

I think one of the great things about those teams working in the biotech is that they get very quick feedback on their software. So you have a captive internal audience. You can watch them use the software. And so these teams tend to be very, very close to their users, literally can deploy a bit of software, walk into the lab and actually see how the users are using it rather than relying on sort of web metrics and how many millions of people visited the website.

Amber: That was a very good insight into the software group in the biotech setting. I do think it's a much more fluid and diversified environment. In fact, I think that's exactly why I like working in the biotech space because I got to do a lot of different things, backend, front-end, databases, talking to users, getting real-time feedback, even software validation, which wasn't my favorite thing to do. But in a lot of cases, it was definitely necessary. I wasn't boxed in to do one thing or one type of thing, so it was a lot more fun.

So what kind of challenges have you come across in hiring developers in this industry?

Darren: I think some of the common challenges are the same things everybody has that is just there's a lot of competition for good software developers. I had one friend who was listening to a conversation between somebody being recruited to, you know, it was Amazon, somebody had been recruited to Oracle. And they were comparing notes on what kind of test they got was the signing bonus. So it's a very, very sort of competitive business, and you obviously still need to be competitive salary-wise. But you're going to have a really hard time going up against sort of Google, which really comes down to pay. Often biotech companies are pre-revenue. They're early, and rely on stock compensation. So they have to find somebody who's going to be interested in that long term equity in something that's a high-risk business. Also, bringing somebody in who is not going to be scared, scared away by the biology who's actually going to find that really interesting. And a lot of people who end up coming to biotech companies because they're interested in doing something a little bit more interesting than just by the credit card payment website.

On the other hand, they've got to get along with biologists and some biologists I was working with say to one of my software developers once that they were just an overpaid calculator and they really didn't feel like, the software development, didn't feel like they're getting the respect they deserved. And the software isn't the center of the company. It's not the reason you exist if you're in biotech. And so for a lot of software developers who worked at site X, where they were the stars, you know, psychologically being a group that supports a group that supports the development of a product is just a little bit harder. So you got to really select for those kind of personalities who just fascinated by the domain and the ability to do something that impacts cancer or, you know, better products or diagnostics and things like that.

Amber: So over the years, have you figured out anything that you can do to stay competitive against other industries?

Darren: I think you've got to at the end of the day, you've got to admit if somebody is comfortable working at Google or Facebook and they just like that really big, big, very, very secure job with good compensation, you can't win. I'm not going to persuade somebody that this is the, you know, come and work for biotech because you're going to make a lot more money. They may think companies can be very successful. You do need to be competitive. You don't want to insult anybody on salary and total compensation. But the best developers I think I've seen come in, have come in often because they really were bored with doing a lot of websites that were at the end of the day, very, very similar, repetitive tasks. And they were just interested by the biology. So the ability to work on something software tends to be a lot more complicated in biology. There's some really, really interesting problems. And so those people who if you can get a hook in and just say, look, if you come work for us, you can use CRISPR or if you come work for us, you can help us cure cancer or you can help people understand the DNA better. That's sort of really the hope, the impact they can have. And then, you know, if they really interest some people very personally interested in the biology of working on it, whether it's making sustainable biofuels or maybe a product that they've used personally. That's sort of the best way to get somebody in. And, you know, at the end of the day, I also find commute is a big thing. Definitely recruited a number of people who just didn't feel like getting on a bus and driving down the Mountain View every day. So it definitely helps if your biotech isn't located right next to Silicon Valley.

Amber: That's awesome. I completely agree. The best appeal is biology because biology is relevant to our lives. Quite a few companies I worked for had developed molecular diagnostic products. One of them had a blood test for mom-to-be checking for the possibility of a fetus developing Down syndrome. So using the blood test, moms during the pregnancy don't have to go through the invasive Amnio procedures. I felt the product was really relevant to me at the time because I had just my second kid at the time and I didn't want to go through any invasive procedure during the pregnancy.

Well, Darren, thank you so much for sharing the insights on the biotech software group, I have more questions for you regarding the hiring process, but I'm going to have to break them into the next episode. I look forward to talking with you again.

Darren: Absolute pleasure, Amber. Thanks.

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