Women in tech: engineering a change
Fran Bennett in conversation with Hannah Thompson
Hannah Thompson is a Product Manager at Healx. She’s a scientist by training, with a PhD in ‘wet lab’ science, and a background in a number of biotech startups before Healx.
Fran Bennett is the VP of Data at Healx. Her background is in data and artificial intelligence, and before Healx she co-founded and later sold a startup providing data science solutions to the UK government and other health organisations. She’s got a particular interest in the social impact of technology, and is a trustee of the Ada Lovelace Institute for AI ethics.
Fran: Your PhD was in lab science – how did you get into Product Management? It doesn’t seem like an obvious route.
Hannah: I didn’t know what I was going to do straight after my PhD, but I knew that I wanted to work with a lot of different specialists and not be a lone expert. I found a job at a startup as the first employee via a friend, and ended up as the Chief Product and People officer, which was a huge thing in my first role. I moved to Healx to focus more on product management, which I’ve found is a great fit for me, and to learn more about the scale-up side of biotechs.
Fran: What actually is product management?
Hannah: In general, it’s about helping to find solutions to problems for specific groups of people. It’s a fairly new discipline in Europe and in areas like biotech. At Healx in particular, I work with scientists, curators, and bioinformaticians to understand their problems and find solutions alongside engineers and designers. It’s really all about being the glue between lots of teams. I didn’t know it existed as a job when I was younger, although I recently looked back at some old notes from a career strengths finder when I was wondering what to do with my life, and ironically it had predicted product management would be a great fit – I just hadn’t known what that was at the time, and only got into it much later.
Fran: Is there a stereotype of what people in Product Management are like?
Hannah: Because it’s quite a new role, I don’t think there is really a stereotype yet. It’s a very ‘soft skills’ role because you need to deal with a lot of people so I think it helps to be an extrovert because you spend so much of your time talking.
Fran: Do you feel you’ve experienced bias in the workplace?
Hannah: That’s a tricky question. Perhaps I volunteer too easily to take on the little jobs like writing notes, instead of making sure it’s shared around and that I have time for the bigger strategic work. I’ve been learning to say no more. Overall I think I’m not someone who dwells on incidents – there might have been things I’ve forgotten, but in general I’m confident enough and have the privilege and the network to feel I can just leave places where I feel I’m not treated appropriately. I feel that I’ve experienced some positive bias in that most of my jobs have come from my personal network – I’m supported in that way.
Fran: What work achievement are you most proud of so far?
Hannah: I’m really proud of how much I learned in my first job – I built a team of 40 people, built a really strong culture and organisational reputation, and gave people a lot of opportunities. I also miss the naivety of that time, where I would try things out because I didn’t know any better!
Fran: That’s a massive amount to do in your first job, how do you think you managed it?
Hannah: Being very organised and a good judge of personality really helped. But also part of my move to Healx was coming back to a more junior role but one where I could observe and learn from how more experienced people did the same job.
Fran: What advice would you give to a woman interested in tech and starting out in their career now?
Hannah: I actually mentor PhD students who are moving into industry so I have these conversations a lot. I think the most important things are:
- Be super self aware – what makes you happy, what gives you energy, so that you understand what sorts of things you want to be doing
- Talk to people about those things – be comfortable sharing what you enjoy to other people, they’ll remember you and look out for those opportunities
- Be able to tell your story – why you did the things you did, how it makes sense, why make certain choices, and finally
- Build your network – they’ll help you, you help them
Fran: You’ve made quite a few interesting career moves already, were those decisions easy to make?
Hannah: There was a good reason each time. One challenge when jumping jobs has been that older people would be quite negative about the idea of moving a lot – but I think the landscape has changed and we don’t expect to stay for a lot of years in each role. Do you think the same?
Fran: Yes, I think when I was starting out it was folklore that you shouldn’t ever move jobs in less than a year because it looks bad on a CV. I think now if I’m hiring, if I see someone who’s moved jobs quickly once or twice then it’s pretty usual and they might have just gotten unlucky with a role. If they’ve done it loads of times then I would be more worried that they don’t know what they want – as you said before, being self aware is really important to find the right job.
Marlene Staib in conversation with Charlotte Chorley
Charlotte Chorley is the Director of Strategic Alignment and Communications, with experience across big health tech companies and startups. On top of being the youngest member of the Healx leadership team, she also has a track record of growing diversity and inclusion initiatives across all of the organisations she has been part of, including Cambridge University, Google Health and DeepMind.
Marlene Staib is no longer at Healx, but she worked with us (Apr 2021 – Mar 2022) as a Machine Learning Engineer, focusing on extracting biomedical information from scientific publications. She started out with a background in linguistics, and has worked as a journalist in Germany, so she was keen on swapping seats with communications expert Charlotte for this interview.
Marlene: What does your ideal day at work look like?
Charlotte: I really value flexibility and variety so my role is great since I get to work on different types of work throughout the day and week. I’ll jump from working with the CEO on an upcoming presentation, to liaising with our partnerships team on a potential announcement, to hearing the great ideas my team has come up with for new campaigns. My undergraduate is in English, so I also get a lot of joy from writing press releases and drafting speeches.
Marlene: What specifically drew you into the Health Tech sector?
Charlotte: We’re of the generation where technology really blossomed. There is so much cool stuff going on and I think technology really does have the power to do a lot of good in the world. I have always worked for companies that are looking to apply tech in a socially responsible and innovative way in order to improve people’s lives. Specifically in healthcare, there are just so many inefficiencies that I think can be solved with tech.
Marlene: You’re the youngest member of the healx leadership team; you came in to lead a new department at age 26. What’s your recipe for success?
Charlotte: I always knew I wanted to manage people and I’ve also always loved strategic thinking and planning, so when this role at Healx came up I thought “why not?”. Startups offer fantastic growth opportunities for people: there is a lot more ‘jumping in and trying things out’. But the role did also come with a lot of anxiety. Starting out I had this perception of myself of “I’m 26, I know nothing of the world, what am I doing?”. I think the idea of a leadership team in society is that they are older, more industry-experienced. I didn’t have a role model for how this is done, so it was a bit scary. When I started, I thought to myself: “I could be quiet in the face of those with more experience, but that is not really what I was hired for”. The people who hired me believed that I was the right person for this job; they believed in me and so I had to, too. It’s a big job, but I have an amazing team to support me. This is also a great opportunity for me to show people that young women can be effective leaders.
Marlene: Did your initial anxiety correspond to any biases you encountered from others?
Charlotte: Not explicitly. But where I have faced bias in jobs, it’s always been to do with stereotypes of the broader PR industry. I’ve always worked in highly technical environments and my role is to be this interface with the outside world and make the complex things people are working on accessible. Some people think I might be ‘dumbing their work down’ or that I’m not understanding the complex stuff, and might treat me differently because of that. I guess that is tied to broader social issues though because the tech industry is very dominated by men, and the PR industry is really women-led, so maybe there’s something going on under the surface.
Marlene: What advice would you give to your former self, starting out?
Charlotte: Feedback is super important. When it is done right, and with kindness, it is one of the best ways to grow, and to help others grow. Before meeting my mentor, I would have taken a lot of feedback personally. I wanted to do my job well, and didn’t have the training to always take it in the right way. But I’ve now shifted my mindset to see it as a learning opportunity. Separately, for people who are thinking about becoming managers, I can’t recommend Julie Zhou’s book “The Making of a Manager: What to Do When Everyone Looks to You” enough.
Marlene: Do you ever think about starting your own company?
Charlotte: I have a lot of friends who have started their own company, or are at least in that entrepreneurial, start-up space. I would be keen to do it in the future – all my experiences so far have been great training blocks for that. But I don’t have an innovative idea yet [laughs].
Monica Jianu in conversation with Jeena Rajan
Monica Jianu is an Engineering Manager at Healx. Her background is in software engineering, and she has worked at various biotech and medtech companies (from small start-ups to large corporations). She is particularly interested in mentoring early career software engineers, and she has worked with organisations such as CodeFirst:Girls, Stemettes and Codebar to improve diversity in tech.
Jeena Rajan is a Disease Data Coordinator at Healx. Her background is in curation, genomics and bioinformatics, and she has previously worked at academic institutions. She is interested in good data management practices to ensure sustainable data.
Monica: Can you tell me a bit about what you do at Healx?
Jeena: I am part of the curation team here at Healx, and I look after the Data Management sub-team. Our focus is on identifying new sources of disease data, as well as overseeing data management to ensure we are using ontologies, standards and linking data properly across the company.
Monica: Healx is a tech-enabled drug discovery company. Given your role, do you consider yourself a scientist or a techie?
Jeena: My background is in biology, but I actually have a postgraduate diploma in Computer Science. While I am not a techie, I do understand how things work at a high level. I used to code a long time ago, but I don’t do so anymore. In the last few years I have worked with a lot of tech people and scientists so while I consider myself a scientist, I actually sit at the boundary between science and tech, and I act as a bridge between the two.
Monica: What does your ideal day at work look like?
Jeena: No two days are the same at Healx, which is really good because I like variety. I started at Healx back in October, so I am relatively new and I am still learning a lot. I also get involved in a lot of cross-functional activities across the company.
Monica: What is your biggest challenge being a leader at Healx?
Jeena: Starting at Healx as a manager, my biggest challenge has been joining the company remotely and having to lead people. You miss out on having a more personal connection to people, and trying to get to know people on a personal and work level has been challenging.
Monica: Do you feel you’ve experienced bias in the workplace?
Jeena: Unfortunately I have experienced bias, yes. I was excluded from a whole team benefit whilst on maternity leave in a previous position. I also think there is often a lack of women, especially women of colour, in senior leadership positions. In one of my previous workplaces, I was one of the few, and because of this I was often asked to be on interview panels. So that in itself is a form of bias – being asked to do something, not necessarily because of what you know, but because of what you look like.
Monica: And lastly, what are you most proud of having achieved in your career so far?
Jeena: I am really proud of the work I did at the European Bioinformatics Institute. I had to scale a team threefold in the space of 6 months in order to work on coordinating coronavirus data. It was an amazing and really diverse team that worked well together, and I had to do this as well as business as usual tasks. And the general turmoil the pandemic brought made it even more challenging. But the output of this work and ensuring data was collated systematically in one place has enabled scientists to use this data for research and also to perform phylogenetic analyses to track new variants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, so it was an amazing thing to be involved in.