Women Who Code sits down with Alyss Weissglass, Software Engineer at Benchling, Maritza Diaz, Chief Executive Officer at ITJuana, and Dana Caulder, Executive Director of Research Informatics & Software Engineering at Genentech, for a panel discussion, “Leaders in Biotech and Engineering.” They talk about their individual paths into Biotech, their challenges as women in tech, and how men can be better allies.
What inspired you to pursue a career in technology? How did you get started?
AW: Dungeons and Dragons. I love it. When I was nine years old, I wanted to write a text-based "Choose Your Own Adventure." I stole my older brother's C# coding book and learned just enough to do if statements and input and output, and wrote a very bad text adventure. I joined my middle school robotics club, and the rest is history.
MD: I grew up in Ecuador, where there were not many computers, especially at home. I never owned a computer. My parents were always telling my siblings and I that we needed to have an education and to go to university. The day to register for the university came, and I was standing in front of this person, and she was telling me, "What career are you going to choose? I see you have good grades in math, and we have a lab with computers. Do you like computers?" I'm like, "I don't know." Long story short, it was luck. It was an accident.
DC: I was always a science and math nerd in middle school and high school. I had a Commodore 64. I could make my name scroll across the screen. That was about it. I kept going to school for chemistry because I had a great chemistry teacher in high school. When I was finishing undergrad, the professor I was working for said, "Oh. You should go to grad school." So I did. Then you'd go to postdoc because that's what you do. Then you have to actually make a decision. I realized it was not chemistry. I asked my graduate advisor, "Well, what should I do?" He was on the scientific advisory board for a small biotech. They wanted to hire someone who could understand science and translate that to something that their software engineers could do something about. He said, "You're good with computers. Why don't you go talk to them?" So I did, and that's kind of how I landed in this field.
AW: Would it be cliche at this point if I said it was an accident? In a Rube Goldberg machine of coincidences, I accidentally applied to a software engineering headhunting agency called Triple Bite. They had an embedded ad. I thought I was taking a BuzzFeed quiz. It turns out it was the first round of interviews for a company. They agreed to represent me. They represented me to a suite of startups. In their whole system, they had exactly three that had anything to do with the arts. I threw on a random biotech scientific collaboration tool I had never heard of at a random healthcare company I had never heard of, really just to fill out the week. I flew to San Francisco on a Sunday, had an onsite interview every day, and then flew back to Baltimore, where I was living at the time, that Friday night. By the end of the week, I never wanted to hear from any of the three arts companies ever again. They were all terrible for their own special reasons. I was heartbroken when choosing between Benchling and Datavant. I got here and couldn't get over the energy of it. Bringing drugs to market faster was quite motivating, especially during a global pandemic.
MD: How I got into life science was also an accident. We don't think about life science as a first choice when you're in technology. I was still in college and this company called PricewaterhouseCoopers was recruiting the best students for their trainee program. I went and worked for them. As part of this program, they assigned me to a client, Agilent Technologies. Long story short, I moved to the US when I was 22 to work on a project at Agilent, and I really enjoyed my time there. Later, I started working for Life Technologies out of Rockville, close to Baltimore. As my career progressed, I had the opportunity to work in R&D product development. That's when my love for this industry became real. I was seeing the impact of the work that I was doing firsthand.
DC: I obviously started in that industry because I started from a scientific perspective. You're helping some of the smartest people in the world discover the next breakthrough. There's really a tangible impact.
What do you believe are the most significant recent advancements in biotech and engineering? How have they impacted your work specifically?
AW: Scale and networked labs. This is very much a function of my role. My job is integrating machines into Benchling's core platform. We're trying to slurp up as much data as possible, so scale and networking. We've seen clients who have greater than a one-to-one machine-to-scientist ratios. The level of automation and high throughput scale that we're seeing in some of these labs is really inspiring to me and only going to accelerate.
MD: For us at ITJ, we work with life science companies to help them deliver their product to market. One of the biggest challenges, and also things that we're proud of, is that these products are saving lives. The engineering we're doing and the code we're writing need to be working 100% of the time every single time. It is exciting to be able to work in products like that, but it's also a lot of responsibility. As an engineer, you need to double and triple-check. It is challenging as well to make sure that everything is ready. The FDA is always making sure that these products are safe as well. Working in a regulated environment is challenging, particularly for software engineers that are used to CICD.
DC: We have gotten to a point where we can measure the human body at an individual cell level. We are generating massive amounts of data. Biology is becoming a math problem and a data engineering problem.
In the rapidly evolving fields of biotech and software engineering, how do you stay informed and adapt to new technologies and trends?
MD: By networking and surrounding yourself with people who are in the industry and really listening, learning from them. I'm very fortunate to have clients that are working on the most fabulous products. When they're telling me about their products, the technologies that they're using and the innovation, it's just very inspiring. The best way to learn is by creating these networks. Be curious and ask questions.
DC: I'm surrounded by a lot of incredible, smart scientists. It's focusing on the problems that you have to solve first and then trying to find the right technology for it. We often get hung up on the shiny new object and then try to find a nail for that hammer. Focus on the problems, not the technologies; the technologies are a means to an end at some point. That's how you can ensure that you're focused on the right new technologies to put your learning effort into.
Dana, you received multiple awards related to leadership and development because collaboration between scientists and engineers, it's quite crucial in biotech. Do you have any thoughts or advice on how leaders can best foster interdisciplinary teamwork?
DC: Focusing on what each individual's expertise needs to come to solve the problem is the best way to get people working effectively together versus a tug of war. I think that's the best way to anchor people in effective collaboration.
Would any of you like to share examples of successful cross-disciplinary projects that you've been involved in with your respective organizations?
MD: I can share a success story of one of our clients. They had just gotten approval from the FDA to release a new and revolutionized pump delivery for insulin. During covid, this client couldn't hire fast enough because everybody else was trying to hire the same software engineers. We came in and helped with the software engineering part of it. This device also has a hardware component. We needed to collaborate with the mechanical engineers and the electrical engineers, and then we needed to know the science of it. What is the algorithm to dispense diabetes in the human body? It truly became a combination of all of the hardware, the science behind it and the software piece that combined delivered this product.
AW: I have to talk about Benchling's partnership with the Allotrope Foundation. The Allotrope Foundation is a consortium of professionals from across the biotech sphere who are dedicated to standardizing the formats that data comes off of lab machines. It is minute, granular work at the edges of data standardization. It is not glamorous. It's unbelievably important. If you can try to imagine building an Internet where every single link you built had to be researched with documentation written 30 years ago by someone who was no longer at the company, that's kind of what it's like trying to integrate with lab machines. They all speak their own languages. They speak like eight different languages within one manufacturer. There are no standards. There are 500 standards. There are 14,000 standards. It's a mess. Benchling has committed to building a suite of open source connectors to adapt some of these most popular competing standards into the single unified Allotrope format. We hope that the rest of the biotech scientific community will join us in that endeavor as we try to standardize the way that we get data readable.
Maritza, you were recognized as 2022 CEO Rising Star by San Diego Business Journal. What advice do you have for emerging leaders aspiring to make an impact in the biotech and engineering sectors?
MD: I have a lot of experience in the biotech industry. I have two daughters, they are my inspiration. It sounds cliche, but my advice is do what you love. When you do what you love, you don't work a single day. Everything becomes easier. That's how I drive the company. Follow your passion.
What strategies do you use to attract and retain top talent given the high demand for skilled professionals in these fields?
MD: The job you do will impact life. Somebody will benefit from the work you do. That is priceless. You cannot pay anybody enough to do that kind of work. We partner with life science companies because we can attract people who are passionate about making an impact. Also, we do hire a lot of students and young engineers. For them to be able to have a career path and have somebody that really cares for their development is very important as well. We spend a lot of time on coaching, mentoring, training, and making sure that every day they become better. We invest in those two things. Those are my two major factors why people will want to be with us. Money is not a good indicator, because next month somebody's going to offer them a few more dollars. And if they decide to go, then they're probably not the right person for this industry.
Alyss, you co-founded Benchling's Queer Employee Resource Group, and you were the recipient of Benchling's Equality Champion Award in 2022. Can you share examples of initiatives in your organization that have been effective in promoting diversity and inclusion in tech?
AW: When I joined Benchling, it was 85 people. Benchling's LGBT employee resource group was like four friends having lunch. We swiftly became 80 people and what works when you're four friends having lunch doesn't work as well when you're a company that's over 1,000 people. I have to shout out Ronnie McGee, our amazing head of DEI, as well as all the other ERG co-leads who have built a system that leaves room for grassroots organizing while also still having formal structure, a budget, executive sponsorship, events that get executive pushes and company eyes on it.
What unique challenges have you faced as a woman in the tech industry, and how have you overcome them?
MD: It's not a secret women in technology are not too many. In fact, when I went to college, I was one of three in our classroom. When graduation day came, I was the only one. That has been for many years. I'm the only one. Whether it is I'm the only woman or I'm the only Hispanic, certainly I never met anybody that was a Hispanic CEO, so no role models. That needs to change.
DC: I think earlier in my career, I was pretty much oblivious to anything going on around me from a gender bias perspective. Actually, I'm in the 1% of the population that strongly associates women with STEM because I had amazing teachers in middle school and high school. At some point, my eyes were opened and I realized, "Why are there so few of us?" There are still way too few of us.
AW: I warned you I was going to talk about trans stuff. I transitioned in college, and I got to watch in real-time as strangers who originally saw me as a freshman who didn't know anything but saw me as a boy who trusted my technological knowledge way more than they did when I was a senior when they saw me as a woman. That has followed me through my professional career. I have just gotten so good at my job that no one could deny it. That's a joke. Part of what I did is I dyed my hair blue. I wear a leather jacket and punk artsy clothes. I learned early in my technological career that the people around me would have an intuition that I didn't belong. I made the active choice to push that to the forefront of their mind. Unconscious bias is insidious. It is really hard for people to root out. I am more comfortable if I can make it so obvious that it comes to their conscious mind. I can be almost aggressive about daring them to think that I don't belong. That's not going to work for everyone. That is what works for me.
What can men do to be better allies and advocates for gender diversity in the tech industry?
DC: I am so tired of being the one who has to point out in seminars and lineups for conferences and town halls that there are no women. Men need to start paying attention and counting these things and calling it out.
MD: I would agree with that. They need to have that conscious mindset of making a change to bring more women to those types of roles.
AW: As a trans activist, I'm legally required to say respective names and pronouns. The spicier answer to this question is that men need to actively make the choice to assume the competency of their non-male colleagues and coworkers. Unconscious bias is big and hard and difficult to root out, and it is going to require what feels like a conscious overcorrection to address.
Can you share personal stories or experiences that highlight the importance of diversity in tech teams and the positive outcomes they can bring?
AW: I legally changed my name a couple of years ago. The hardest system, including government systems, to change my name was my Amtrak customer rewards, harder than Social Security. It had just never crossed their mind that somebody might need to change their name. How hard is updating your username in the products you build or work on? How hard is it to update an email? Do you ask for chosen names and pronouns before you send out company-wide welcome emails? These are the small quality-of-life changes that aren't going to fix the big structural issues in society but might make someone's day a little better or at least prevent them from having a really bad day.
MD: It is actually very eye-opening as you start working with products that you think will work for everybody. Software should work for everybody. As an engineer, you don't always think about things that are very important to other groups. As we develop software, we started to learn about these different factors, it has been really eye opening.
DC: We live in a product-centric world. We build things for people. We need to make sure that our teams of people who are building them represent the diversity of the customers that we serve.
What are some key skills or areas of knowledge that women should focus on to excel in tech roles?
MD: I have recruited almost 1,000 software engineers, so I think I have a pretty good idea of what we look for in software engineers. It is not about the hard skill, the Python or Java or whatever technology that's involved. You guys can learn at any time and technology changes so frequently that the hard skill is not necessarily as important as it is the type of soft skills that you have. For a software engineer, we look at learning agility. Another one is team collaboration. Software is a team sport. We use practices like pair programming or even code reviews. Focus on your soft skill abilities. They will be very important, technology you guys can always learn.
AW: You stole my answers, communication and collaboration.
DC: Yes, communication and collaboration.
How do you see the future of women in tech evolving and what changes would you like to see in the industry over the next decade?
DC: This is kind of a, probably fantasy, but it'd be funny to see and nice to see at some point that there are more women's names on the conference speaker list or the scales are tipped slightly towards the women versus the men just because it would prove a point that it's possible.
MD: We all need to support organizations building up women in any way we can. We're all here to empower and create those role models. When you are in leadership positions, bring more women; be mindful and conscious about it. There will be more women in leadership roles in science and technology. We have a lot to bring to the table. We just have to believe it.
AW: Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was once asked how many women would need to be on the Supreme Court before she was happy, and she said all nine. I hope that support and mentorship are things that continue throughout people's careers and lives. I hope we can continue to build a more equitable future.