My Mid-Career Transition into Biosecurity

October 2nd, 2023
bio, ea, switching_jobs, tech
After working as a professional programmer for fourteen years, primarily in ads and web performance, I switched careers to biosecurity. It's now been a bit over a year: how has it gone?

In terms of my day-to-day work it's very different. I'd been at Google for a decade [1] and knew a lot of people across the organization. I was tech lead to six people, managing four of them, and my calendar was usually booked nearly solid. I spent a lot of time thinking about what work was a good fit for what people, including how to break larger efforts down and how this division would interact with our promotion process. I read several hundred emails a day, assisted by foot controls, and reviewed a lot more code than I wrote. I tracked design efforts across ads and with the web platform, paying attention to where they might require work from my team or where we had relevant experience. I knew the web platform and advertising ecosystem very well, and was becoming an expert in international internet privacy legislation. Success meant earning more money to donate.

Now I'm an individual contributor at a small academically affiliated non-profit, on a mostly independent project, writing code and analyzing data. Looking at my calendar for next week I have three days with no meetings, and on the other two I have a total of 3:15. In a typical week I write a few dozen messages and 1-3 documents writing up my recent work. I help other researchers here with software and system administration things, as needed. I'm learning a lot about diseases, sequencing, and bioinformatics. Success means decreasing the chance of a globally catastrophic pandemic.

Despite how different these sound, I've liked them both a lot. I've worked with great people, had a good work-life balance, and made progress on challenging and interesting problems. While I find my current work altruistically fulfilling, I was also the kind of person who felt that way about earning to give.

I do feel a bit weird writing this post: while the year has had its ups and downs and been unpredictable in a lot of ways, this is essentially the blog post I would have predicted I'd be writing. What wouldn't I have written in Summer 2022?

A big one is that the funding environment is very different. This both means that earning to give is more valuable than it had been and it's harder to stay funded. I think my current work is enough more valuable than what I'd been donating that it was still a good choice for me, but that won't be the case for everyone. If you've been earning to give and are trying to decide whether to switch to a direct role, a good approach is to apply and ask the organization whether they'd rather have your time or your donations.

I do also have more knowledge about how my skills have transferred. My skills in general programming, data analysis (though more skills here would have been better), familiarity with unix command line tools, technical writing, experimental design, scoping and planning technical work, project management, and people management have all been helpful. But I'm not sure this list is that useful to others: it's a combination of what I was good at and what has been useful in my new role, and so will be very situation- and person-dependent.

Happy to answer questions!

[1] Except for ~six months in 2017 when I left to join a startup and then came back after getting laid off.

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