How to Get a Job Like Mine

October 26, 2012

I rarely discuss personal details on this blog, but See Ar Oh's Chem Coach Carnival seems like too much fun to pass up. The idea is for chemists to answer a few questions about their jobs and how they got there, with the aim of inspiring chemists and chemists-to-be. Although there are a few popular chemistry career paths, I hope what follows illustrates one of the many ways to do something different.

My Current Job

For the last five years I've run a small chemical software company. The early days were funded with a small amount of savings, and now it's self-sustaining. The company has never taken outside funding or government grants.

Before this, I worked as a medicinal chemist at a large pharmaceutical company.

What I Do in a Standard "Work Day"

The day usually starts at 6:00am and runs through 6:00pm. That's about the only thing that's really constant, though.

My time is split between three categories I think of as: "Customer Service"; "Programming"; and "Business Stuff". These days I'm working toward the launch of a fairly involved new product, so most of my time has been spent on Programming.

Programming includes writing code and documentation, and researching new technologies. Right now I'm writing a lot of Objective-C because I'm working on a new iPad/iPhone app for organic chemists. I've really enjoyed this project because it's given me an excuse to dive into the amazing Apple technology stack.

Customer Service involves a spectrum of activities ranging from in-person meetings, to phone calls and emails - even blogging. In one way or another I'm trying to understand a problem a customer or potential customer has with their process or my software and then follow up with a solution.

Business Stuff includes all of the little (way too easily ignored) things it takes to keep a business running: maintaining financial records; preparing taxes; negotiating contracts; paying bills; and filling out forms. If I find myself doing the same boring thing more than once, I look for a way to automate it by writing some software, or finding a service that will do it for me.

I generally set my own schedule during the day, which I take advantage of by breaking to bike along the coast or to the beach (exercise is mandatory in this line of work), run errands to places that would be crowded during the weekend, and reading.

What Kind of Schooling/Training/Experience Helped Me Get Here?

I hold a B.S. degree in chemistry from U.C. Berkeley and a Ph.D. degree in Organic Chemistry from the University of Texas at Austin. I did a synthetic organic chemistry postdoc at Stanford University.

The defining experience during my undergrad degree was working in a chemistry research group at Berkeley. There I worked with graduate students and a professor who all patiently taught me the basics of doing research. The combination of applying knowledge toward problems with unknown solutions and building stuff was incredibly addictive. I consider this experience far more important than any course I ever took.

If you're at a research university and plan to do anything significant with chemistry later in life, consider doing undergraduate research.

How Does Chemistry Inform My Work?

I build and sell software-based solutions to chemistry problems, so chemistry is the star of the show in my mind.

My current project is an iPhone/iPad app for viewing and working with chemical datasets. The idea goes back to my time in pharma working with these datasets myself, and my frustrations in doing so. In that environment, success favors those who efficiently spot trends in data and otherwise squeeze every last drop of insight out of it.

As a medicinal chemist, I worked with a number of software products - some better than others. I also generated massive amounts of paper by printing reports so that I could review data and plan my next move in the lab. I thought that touch-based computers might offer a fundamentally better way of doing things, given the right software.

Nearly all of the products I've worked on started with the idea of making life easier for those who work in labs, generating and using chemical data.

A Unique, Interesting, or Funny Anecdote About My Career

Although I write software for a living, I've only taken two formal programming classes - one in junior high and one in my first year of college.

Everything I learned about programming came from reading, talking to others, and trying to solve real problems. It didn't hurt that I started in my early teens, but by the time I started programming again after my postdoc most of that knowledge was outdated.

Programming is different from chemistry in many ways, particularly in its culture. Having a credential counts for relatively little in most areas of the software business - what matters is what you can do.

For anybody with a strong chemistry background and an interest computers or software, don't let your lack of a computer science degree stand in the way of expanding your career options.