September 11, 2009
A career in science? Not exactly ...
I've been thinking for a while about the trajectory my "career" has taken, and overall, I'm not disappointed with it. I haven't acquired vast wealth, universal adoration or unimaginable power. But I have, over the last eight years, been working in science, something which I always wanted to do as a child. I wanted to be an astronomer, originally, but when I wrote to an observatory as a kid, I was a bit dissuaded by their reply - discussions of first and second degrees seemed like too much work to me. I mean, how hard could it be to stand around and look through a telescope? But they wanted me to spend six more years studying? No thanks! Being impatient and easily distracted meant that once I had found my niche, I just wanted to get on with it. And for me, getting into computers at the age of 10, just around about when it was even possible for a 10 year old to do that, meant that I couldn't wait to finish school and get programming - forget astronomy as a career! I was never the best or most imaginative programmer, but it was an obsession. So I left after my 'O' levels, pretty much as soon as was legally feasible, and of course spent six months on the dole (actually claiming social security). They were actually fun months - I'd wander around Hockley and Southend-on-Sea, enjoying the summer air on the "beach" or in the woods in Hockley, where I lived, or would spend time in the library checking out esoteric concept albums ("Pentateuch of the Cosmogeny", anyone?) and special effects records ("Volume 19 of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop: the squeaky door album") and books which I didn't really understand but enjoyed anyway (I seem to remember a satirical book on higher mathematics, and a less satirical but still entertaining book by Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, also known as Lewis Carroll, on representing multiple sets in the style of Venn diagrams - Symbolic Logic Part I, it was called, apparently).
Then I got a job with the Department of Health and Social Security (or DHSS), as it was then.
Quite. I hated it. The only computer involved in the job was a teletype machine in the corner of the office that we would use to communicate with the National Insurance computer in Newcastle, for NI contribution enquiries, or to set up a new NI number for someone that didn't already have one. Everything else back then (1985) was paper based - there were great tomes of procedures for processing maternity payments and sickness benefit claims (I worked for the sickness benefit section). I bought a Sharp pocket computer with one of my first wage packets (I still have the damn thing somewhere). It had 1K of RAM, a 2 line LCD display and could be programmed in BASIC. So I wrote a small program based on the procedures in the to automate some of the more Byzantine claims procedures, so it would ask "Doctor's certificate? [Y/N]" etc, and would take you to an outcome screen - either approval, or a request for more information, or rejection. It speeded some things up enormously. I'm sure it's all fully automated now. Apart from that, I was horribly bored and spent a lot of the time figuring out square and cube roots using a desktop calculator. I can still remember them today ... square root of 5 is 2.236068-ish ... Yeah, I know - your tax money hard at work.
I lasted six months.
It wasn't that I was lazy. I'd written dozens of letters to councils, banks, engineering companies - anyone I could think of that might have use for a 16 year old computer programmer. Apart from the odd interview (thank you Sumitomo Bank!), no dice. But I kept trying. Maybe my style improved with practice, because in the spring of 1986 I got two interviews within days of each other. One was with the Arab Banking Corporation (ABC) of Bahrain, located near St Paul's cathedral. The other was with a company called Industrial Control Services (ICS) in Heybridge, Essex. Of the two, I was most enamoured of the ICS job. It was engineering! There was programming! And there was a chip-shop next door!
ABC were quicker off the mark, and in March 1986 I started my career as a back-office assistant. I got an ABC chequebook, luncheon vouchers, everything! Shame the salary only just covered the train fare, but hey ho!
Two days in, ICS came back and said they would like to hire me on their apprenticeship scheme. The pay was less, but we're talking the difference between low and lower, and as I wasn't paying any rent to my long-suffering parents, it was just a reduction in spending money for me. They had been impressed with my knowledge of FORTH, a fairly obscure programming language originally developed by IBM for controlling radio telescopes (it was supposed to be called FOURTH but the file system could only cope with five characters ...). I won't say I was an expert in FORTH, but thanks to having a copy for my Atari 800, I had at least dabbled with it - heck, I even knew what BUILDS ... DOES ... did. Sort of. So I handed in my notice to ABC (needless to say, they were less than impressed ... but more of them later) and started work at ICS in April 1986.
Bear with me. We're getting there.
I'll fast forward a bit - the ICS job was an eye-opener. I learnt some very useful things from some very clever people. They put me on an apprenticeship, part of which involved outplacement at Marconi Communication Systems Ltd (MCSL) in Chelmsford, which was like time-warping into the heyday of British engineering. Lots of clever brown lab-coated guys who could have been extras in a film about the invention of RADAR in World War II, with odd haircuts and moustaches and a world-weary patience with the apprentices who were often interested in some of what they were learning, but who, towards the end of the week, wanted to go out and get drunk and dance with girls.
So I was there for a while, and finally got fed up with the meagre pay. Then, one lunchtime in late 1987, I was wandering around Colchester after college, and spied a recruitment agency. I dropped my CV in the next week, and got an interview with Pont Research (actually the day after the hurricane in October ...). They were developing financial information software for banks. I got the (better paid) job anyway, and spent more than two years there, learning how to handle noisy financial data and noiser bankers. In 1992, I went to work for J P Morgan in the city, then another financial information vendor in 1992 in High Wycombe (who got bought by ABC ...), then back to Essex in 1995 to work for some ex-Pont guys (all very incestuous), then contracting in London in 1996 through to 2000 (and co-founded a somewhat unsuccessful company along the way), until I finally came to Denmark to live with my then-girlfriend in January 2001.
Here the story takes a twist.
Frankly I was a bit fed up with banks. You might think me stupid or odd, but I've never really gotten the hang of money. Sure, I can spend it as well as the next man, and it's nice to see a healthy bank balance from time to time. But these banks: the numbers seemed to be fictitious. You say it's worth x, but someone else says it's worth y (which is usually x plus or minus something, depending on whether you're buying or selling!) As has been so adequately demonstrated in the last couple of years, it really is an illusion. They rely on mathematics which they don't understand, implemented in software which the programmers don't understand (yes, that's me waving my hand in the air). Increasingly, I was writing the same thing for different customers - and when you're impatient and novelty-driven like me, it really doesn't matter how much you're getting paid - you're still going to go mad if you don't do something else pretty damn quick.
But at the time I came to Denmark, I wasn't really caring about incipient madness - I needed a job. So I honed my CV and penned cover letters detailing how I was an ideal fit for the job of programmer/analyst/operator/architect/software development manager at Nordbank/Sydbank/Danbank/whatever. No dice. You see, I didn't have a degree that came from a Danish University, and as such I was scum. Not that they would have ever said such a thing, but with the Danish educational system so intimately intertwined with the employment system - especially pay grades and unemployment benefit - they simply didn't know where to put me. Finally, after five months of applying, I got a job with LEO Pharma. No, not a bank. It was a drug company, and the money was OK - a lot less than I had been getting on contract in London, but I didn't care. I wasn't so engaged at first - what did I know about the drug industry, after all? I'd spent 10 years in banking! The someone showed me a diagram of the drug development pipeline. The particular diagram showed the relationship of the IT systems I had been working on to the particular function in the drug pipeline, and immediately I could see patterns and improvements. Both these systems are using MedDra and WHODrug, but they are importing different versions in different ways separately - surely we can fix that? And this system here needs input from the system just upstream from it - but you're telling me that they print it off from the upstream system and reinput it into the downstream system!?! Whoa, Nelly! We can fix that too!
I was hooked.
It was an amazing tapestry of science and system management and legal process and IT, with all the threads intimately woven together. It still amazes me today. It can take 10 years for a drug to turn from a "well, *that* looks interesting" from a bench chemist to a stress ball on a physician's desk. And the cost! Figures like $800 million are bandied about. This is applied materials science in action - tailored molecules interacting with the complex envionment of the human body to alter a process and produce a deliberate effect by modifiying the behaviour of certain proteins, typically. Forget banking, I honestly don't think there is anything more exciting that drug discovery.
And since then, I have worked (mainly) for biotech and drug companies, in Denmark and now in France.
I seem to have ended up doing discovery data management - a broad canvas consisting of curating chemical structures of compounds and handling experimental data. These days, I have also gotten involved in handling compound requests, generated when certain compounds show up as having promise against certain disease trgets and have to be retrieved from storage and sent somewhere to be assayed. Sounds straightforward enough, but tracking thousands of physical containers containing volumes of millilitres is non-trivial.
When the contract finishes here, I will leave Paris (it's not really where I want to be on my own) and go to San Francisco. I hope I can keep doing what I do here - I like working with scientists, and the science itself fascinates me - both the chemistry and the molecular biology. I'm now doing science vicariously, I suppose, and it works for me.
Posted by daen at September 11, 2009 02:01 PM
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