Careers in biotechnology, part III: Life in a bioinformatics software company

What do people do in bioinformatics software companies?

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In our old conference room, in our last office, we used to have this little card on a stand, entitled "Sun's universe of stars." Over the years, we watched several of those stars blink out, one by one. The card disappeared, too. Maybe we got tired of marking off the companies as they went, maybe we just lost the card when we moved to our present office. No matter. Over time, the bioinformatics universe got a little smaller and colder each time another company disappeared from the universe.

But not us.

Our company was started in 1997, and we're still standing. We've kept our heads, done well by our customers, and we're entering our second decade, ten-fold bigger than we were in 1997, and intact and strong. So, in this segment, I will use Geospiza, as an example to show how jobs can be organized in a bioinformatics software company.

Admittedly, my knowledge of software companies is based on a very small sample size. Nevertheless, considering all the hype and the madness in field, we've done pretty well and we're moving forward.

In our company, people work in teams. We have a management team, a development team, a sales & marketing team, and a quality assurance team, and a delivery team. Our development team has programmers, some who began life in biology, some who began in software. We have people who are interested in interface design, people who specialize in databases, IT, software testing, people with strong organizational and planning skills, and people with expertise in science. Our programmers are expected to have deep technical knowledge and strong programming skills. About a third of us have PhD's and unlike many tech companies (at least, this is my impression), close to half of the people in our company are women.

People with degrees in software engineering and computer science work with people, who have backgrounds in biology, to design and build software. Other people have degrees in technical communications and various types of engineering. Many of us have lab experience, having worked in biochemistry, molecular biology, microbiology, and immunology. Many of us have worked with proteins, and enzyme assays, done DNA sequencing, PCR, and other molecular lab techniques. The people with PhD's work in all areas of the company.

As some of the commenters mentioned in a previous post, we all have different talents and skills that we bring to the table. No one expects everyone to know everything; so we hire people who bring complementary areas of expertise.


Click this image to see a larger picture.

Oh, yeah, you're probably wondering what we make. We develop IT solutions to automate genetic analysis. Our products support core laboratories, and organizations that need to automate data workflows for a variety of applications, such as genetic testing, for genome sequencing, for discovering mutations, biomanufacturing, confirmatory analysis - anything that you can do with genetic data - just about. Core labs like us because we provide a complete solution from orders to data delivery.

But, the best part about software is that it's kind of magical. Together we create something cool and useful out of nothing but ideas.

Read the whole series:

  • Part I. Careers in biotechnology
  • A look at the jobs in biotech company, making biomedical products.

  • Part II: Bioinformatics
  • Where does bioinformatics fit into a biotech company? Who makes bioinformatics tools? Who uses them?

  • Part III: Life in a bioinformatics software company
  • How do people work together to make bioinformatics software?

  • Part IV: The tip of the informatics iceberg
  • What about the software engineering and IT side of bioinformatics software companies?

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Thanks for the post. I'm looking to go back to school for a masters in bioinformatics. Just got to choose a school!

One of the fun challenges at any scientific software company is maintaining that balance between science and software engineering. Leads to some rather interesting debates and points of opinion between the PhD's and the software geeks :).

Having made the switch, I'd also add that a career in product management/product marketing can be quite satisfying.

Nice post! It should be very useful for bioinformaticists in the making.
I am going to share it with bioinformatics major students in my department.
Paramjeet Bagga

We're on that Sun ad! - and the Government contractors doing bioinformatics, like SRA International on that ad, are hanging in there with profitable businesses. I also whole-heartedly agree that maintaining the balance between science and software engineering isn't easy - try doing it in a wholly IT culture!!

Just out of curiosity, what level of computational expertise should a biological scientist have to be able to enter a typical bioinformatics software company? I'm from a pure biological background (biological ph.d) and I've learned some programming and computational biology stuff too. But I don't know what it takes for me to enter a bioinformatics software company: do I need to be experts in one of the IT fields such as prograamming or database management? or some coding skills with deep biological knolwedge and experience is enough?


By Zhihua Li (not verified) on 26 Jul 2007 #permalink

In your company, how many people really straddle the lines of contributing something from a a biological perspective and a software one? Also, are these people writing code, developing goals for functionality, or what?

I'm asking, because I come from a programming background but will have my Master's in Biology soon. I'm curious to see if people where hybrid backgrounds fit into the operations of a bioinformatics company.

All good questions and comments. I was told - by one of my co-workers - that the treatment I gave the IT and software side was a bit too light and that I should discuss it in more detail. I think some of your questions will get answered in that next post.

I'll link to it when I get it on-line.

Since I already posted in "part II" of the topic before noticing "part III", I'll just comment on the diagram. It seems odd to me that Software Engineer/programmer has so many important (at least in my opinion) tasks designated as "might ...". For example, might write custom bioinformatics programs. What do they write if not custom bioinformatics software??? :)

I'm curious to see if people where hybrid backgrounds fit into the operations of a bioinformatics company.
They fit very well. I'm one of those people. Scientists find people like us very easy to convey concepts to because of similar educational backgrounds.

By S. Johnson (not verified) on 28 Jul 2007 #permalink

S.: You asked

What do they write if not custom bioinformatics software??? :)

Lots of things. For example, they might write software for displaying information on web pages, for querying databases, for automating testing, for tracking orders and handling credit card data, for data mining, creating reports, among other things. There are many activities in bioinformatics software companies that have very little to do with biology.

I will write more about those kinds of activities later this week.