Hiring Engineering Leaders for Scaling Bioinformatics 101

Hiring Engineering Leaders for Scaling Bioinformatics 101

Swetabh Pathak
May 14, 2021

We, at Elucidata, work with many small to mid-size biopharma companies that use large amounts of high throughput data. They generate this data in-house or through CRO partners. Apart from this, they are also looking at multiple public data sources - data repositories, databases and papers.

For a while, the teams are composed of just bioinformatics scientists. If you are lucky or have hired well - your team can make and deploy production-ready pipelines on their own. But at some point, that isn’t enough. You need a way to link your data store to notebooks, connect interactive environments to production-ready pipelines and build dashboards. Like lots of dashboards!

This is when many of our partners identify the need for an engineering leader. You need someone who can think of software maintenance, building scalable infrastructure, enforcing code practices and more.

As pharma companies reorient themselves to tackle the biological big data revolution, bioinformatics leaders often find themselves tasked with filling technical/engineering positions within the organization to help meet their team’s growing computational needs. Hiring for a position that you have no background or training in can be very challenging. Ask me! I have hired for many roles where I couldn’t pass the most basic first round.

If you’re a bioinformatics scientist looking to hire an engineering leader for your team, here’s a handy guide to help you get started:

1. Identify the Technical Gap

The first step of the hiring process is to identify the gaps in knowledge on your team. Different roles will require different areas of expertise (see infographic). Narrowing down on the exact technical requirements will help you in your search for potential candidates and simplify the selection process. For instance, if your team is required to build a large number of dashboards, you can anticipate a big front-end gap. On the other hand, if your team deals with a high throughput of next-generation sequencing (NGS) data, you probably want to hire someone with significant experience in cloud computing services like AWS, GCP or similar platforms of your choice.

2. Remember that You are a Biopharma Company, Not a Tech Start-up

If you’re hiring an engineering leader at a tech company, you’re looking for someone who can build scalable technology and grow and manage teams of developers. On the contrary, at a biopharma company, the focus is on enabling bioinformaticians/bench-scientists to be more efficient. So advice which is excellent for tech companies, such as this post from a famous technology venture firm, might not necessarily work for you. The person you are looking for is more of an individual contributor who can also play a bit of the product manager role. Tech companies have specialists to do product/project management. In your case, it’s more likely that the head of engineering is also talking to users to understand requirements and translate them into products. This is NOT what a traditional head of engineering at a tech start-up would do. They would focus a lot more on hiring, building engineering culture and be answerable for the final engineering delivery.

3. Know When to Buy Versus Build

Once you’ve figured out what kind of technical expertise your team needs, you may be able to work with contract tech professionals instead of hiring a full-time employee. This is a common trend in tech; Google reportedly employs 102,000 temporary/contract workers worldwide. The question is when to opt for a contractor. The most common reason is when you require someone with a niche specialization for a fairly high-level need. Hiring a subject matter expert for a short-term project, such as a cloud migration specialist to get your cloud infrastructure up and running, would serve you better economically, as opposed to hiring a full-time employee. Outsourcing could also be a good long-term strategy when the requirement is for a small team that doesn’t have to be scaled.

4. Hire Someone Comfortable with Working with Contractors or Outsourcing Companies

Leading up from the previous point, It’s unlikely that you can hire for all the diverse skills that a bioinformatics platform needs. Budgets won’t allow it. In that case, your leadership might need to more open to hiring contractors or outsourcing companies. However, If your engineering leader wants to do everything in-house, you can run into problems. In tech companies, engineering leaders primarily focus on growing their teams and managing them. On the other hand, biopharma companies would require them to work with a limited team of engineers and be more involved in project and stakeholder management. In this scenario, you’re better off hiring a candidate who is amenable to leading a fairly small team of engineers while working with and managing contractors as required.

5. Provide Context to Attract and Retain the Right Tech Talent

Engineers and developers who lack pharma industry experience may not understand how their work will contribute to the team and its growth. This may make it hard to attract and retain talent. It’s important to provide this context through a well-crafted job description that talks about specific technical requirements, day-to-day responsibilities as well as how the potential hire’s contributions will fit into the larger vision of the company. The better you are at telling your story and specifying what you want, the easier it will be to find the right candidate.

6. Look for Someone Who is on Top of Biopharma SaaS

Over the past decade, the intersection of technology and biomedical research has considerably accelerated the process of drug discovery. As Pieter Peeters of Janssen Research & Development put it, “AI is affecting every aspect of the pharmaceutical industry, from the very early drug discovery aspects, all the way through to how we do clinical development and bring medicines to patients.” There are a plethora of SaaS products on the market today that cater specifically to the data-intensive needs of biopharma companies. This ranges from access to ML-ready biomedical data (Elucidata) to cloud-based services for processing (Databricks) and deploying machine learning models (AWS SageMaker) on massive quantities of high-throughput data. In order to be a good fit, an ideal candidate would be someone who is excited about harnessing technology to solve problems in the pharma sector and keeps up with the latest technology trends in this space.

7. Leadership Qualities are as Important as Technical Capabilities

While it’s a given that a technical lead should have superior coding skills, you should also be looking for someone with prior project and people management experience, the ability to serve as a good mentor, and has great communication and conflict resolution skills. Another underrated quality is the ability to delegate. It may be tempting for a tech lead to tackle every challenging problem hands-on, but this might leave them with limited bandwidth for their other responsibilities. Look for someone who not only surpasses the technical criteria but is also open to delegating important tasks to other team members without micromanaging them.

8. Involve Someone with Prior Experience in Hiring for Similar Technical Roles

It’s never a bad idea to ask for help when you need it. Talk to your friends, family, mentors, etc. to find someone who has prior experience hiring for similar positions. Get them involved in the process at some level. They will have a better sense of what to look for in terms of technical abilities as well as cultural fit for your team. If you have questions or would like to know more about hiring engineering leaders for a pharmaceutical company, feel free to reach out to me on Linkedin or via email at swetabh.pathak@elucidata.io.

-- Swetabh Pathak is a co-founder of Elucidata, the world’s largest repository of ML-ready biomedical multi-omics data.

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