What It’s Like to be a Scientist at 23andMe

illuminagroup3sized.jpgPart of my role as the ‘People Manager’ here at 23andMe is leading recruiting efforts. I take a lot of calls from people who are interested in science careers. While many of those calls are about specific positions, an equal number are from people who just want to know what it’s like to work here.Most of these questions focus on the transition from academia into a startup environment (a leap many of our current employees have taken), and what the future might hold for someone who chooses to make this transition. We pride ourselves on having built a unique blend of top-notch science, engineering, design and operational talent, and have created an environment and culture that we feel fosters creativity, innovation, collaboration and fun.But don’t believe me — here are some impressions from 23andMe scientists who have made the transition … Serge Saxonov, PhD Founding R&D Architect
You may wonder, what is it like to work at 23andme? I can tell you — it’s intense and it’s enormous fun.I came to 23andMe in the summer of 2006 as employee 1.5 (an Irish chap, named Brian Naughton, and I came together as the company’s first two hires.), having just finished a PhD in bioinformatics. While in grad school I sensed that I would enjoy the startup environment, but it’s hard to tell until you actually try. Looking back, I’d encourage anyone with a similar inclination to give it a shot.When people ask me what do I enjoy the most about my job, it’s hard to pick a single answer, but several points invariably come to mind:* I love working on something that feels valuable. I find this a sharp contrast to academia, where goals often have little to do with making useful things. * I love the intensity of the work. We strive to give as much value to our users as quickly as possible while doing novel science, solving complex engineering problems and dealing with tricky UI challenges. * I love the potential of the company. This may sound trite, but it applies to us and not to many other startups: if we are successful, 23andMe will truly change the world and affect the lives of countless people.Most importantly, many of the reasons above would sound hollow had we not managed to build a spectacularly talented team of fun and easy-going people.
Joanna Mountain, PhD Sr. Director, Research
As a scientist I have found the transition from academia for industry to be both exciting and rewarding. I suspect that the excitement and rewards stem from the unique culture here at 23andMe. For one thing, the company places a great deal of emphasis on scientific integrity and discovery. The company’s founders consistently support my goals of ensuring the scientific accuracy of our service and of pursuing research. Our scientific consultants and members of our Scientific Advisory Board are not only experts within their fields, but also accessible and supportive. It is for these reasons, I believe, that we have garnered the respect of many members of the broader scientific community. The second factor underlying the excitement and rewards is the company’s culture of interaction: the emphasis on teamwork, the steady focus on shared goals, and the sense of humor that permeates the sometimes heated but always respectful discussions over how we can provide the best Personal Genomics service possible.
Andro Hsu, PhD Content Manager
The big difference between academia and working at 23andMe is that we consider our educational (and to some extent, entertainment) mission as important as our goal of performing cutting-edge scientific research. We rely on the goodwill of our customers to help us with our research goals, and one of the ways we do that is to keep them coming back to our site. Our customers wouldn’t have joined if they weren’t interested in learning something about themselves, and we take very seriously the presentation and clarity of our content and features so that they’ll keep coming back to learn more. Because what we do spans so many disciplines, the 23andMe team has a wide variety of skills: from writing to statistics, from graphic design to programming. Working with this many moving parts presents a lot of challenges, but when the final product comes together and we take a step back to wipe the sweat off our foreheads, it’s really quite amazing to see what we’ve been able to do, and to hear feedback from happy customers.
Joyce Tung, PhD Human Geneticist
Leaving academia is hardly ever encouraged — after all your P.I. is in academia, and enjoys it, and generally can’t see why you would want to leave (at least if you’re doing reasonably well). One result of this is it’s not easy to get exposed to the “wider world.” It’s much easier to go on to an academic postdoc because you know what to expect there.I decided before I finished grad school that I was not going to be a professor at a big research university like UCSF or Stanford. I tried to apply to jobs as I was finishing my degree, but I didn’t really seem to be qualified for anything interesting. So…I went to do a postdoc at Stanford and I got lucky there, because the lab and the work were really interesting.About 7 months into my postdoc, I passed this flier in the hallway advertising positions at 23andMe, and just thought it was the coolest thing ever. I didn’t feel comfortable about leaving my postdoc yet, but fortunately the people at 23andMe thought it was okay if I just did some consulting work.I really think I was unusually lucky, because I got to learn a lot about the company and what it might be like to work here, and I didn’t even really have to leave the security of my lab! Still, it took me 6 months to decide to leave my postdoc for 23andMe, and another 3 months to actually do it. I had a LOT of concerns: What if the startup fails in a year and I’m out of a job? Will I have gotten sufficient experience to be marketable for another job? Are there even other jobs at other companies that are anything like this? Am I making myself less attractive to a regular biotech company? Will I miss doing research?Six months later, I don’t regret leaving the bench. And we’re starting to do research ourselves here, which is super exciting, and so I don’t really feel like I’m missing anything by not staying in academia.
So there you have it. If you are a brilliant scientist, an extraordinary engineer or have other talents you are eager to lend, feel free to visit our career site or email us directly at jobs@23andme.comCheck back soon for more insight into careers at 23andMe; next time we’ll talk a little about engineering.
  • Subho

    Can you tell me how the life at 23andme is different from that in any other biotech startup? What is the prized quality in its employees that allows 23andme to stand out from all other similar start-ups?

    Cambridge, UK

  • Thanks for your question. Life at 23andMe is likely quite different from being at a biotech startup, as we’re actually really not a biotech company. One of the things that makes 23andMe so unique is that we are a consumer internet company; the subject matter happens to be genetics. As a result, the focus here is frequently around solving not just scientific problems, but also complex design/presentation challenges, as we’re building a service that is used by an audience who frequently do not have a foundation in biology or genetics. I think the fact that we have built such a unique and collaborative team of scientists, engineers and designers who understand these challenges is one of the things that makes us unique.

  • Oliver,

    Heh, when you said ‘not a biotech company’ I paused for a moment. But, you explain your view of a ‘consumer internet company’ well.

    Yet, now I am wondering if that is really what you are.

    Maybe part of me wants to describe the magic that you do as more than ‘just another internet service’. But, then, I am not savvy to all the social aspects of 23andMe that reside a spitting distance from where I am.

    Ah, a discussion for another time. And, I’ll go back and think about it some more.

    Hope to meet some of you guys some day for a nice chat.

    Cheers to you and all,