How a Bioengineer Became a Product Manager

Hi, my name is Hanna, and I’m a Product Manager here at Ginkgo Bioworks. I’ve been with the company for over a year now and previously interned as well. As a product manager at a rapidly growing company, I’ve been able to work on cool, exciting, and high impact projects even though I’m still in my first year in the workforce! As a member of the Product Management Team and Software Team, we help write custom software to be used internally by the Ginkgo scientists and foundry engineers.

Briefly, what I’ve worked on:

  • Another intern and I set up a Confluence space and documented the user interface for all the major in-house software programs.
  • I did the background research for a future software migration project,
  • I created our company’s first set of software training video tutorials.
  • I’m using data science to track the efficiency of our COVID diagnostic process.

My Background

If you were like me, you may be surprised that I was able to make such a splash without having a “traditional” computer science background. But in reality, many product managers don’t actually have a computer science background and actually come from a variety of different paths. Today I am sharing my experience.

For undergrad, I majored in biological engineering at MIT. Since my freshman year in high school, I liked biology and envisioned a future where I would be in the lab being a wicked cool biologist. And for the rest of high school and the beginning of college that vision held true. Initially I really enjoyed bench work and thought “I could be content with doing this for the rest of my life”. But then, over time I became less interested (I still like it, but as a friend) and also realized that if I wanted to pursue a career I should probably get a PhD. The idea of a PhD really intimidated me, but I still wanted to do something related to biology. I was then like “Crap, what do I do now?”

As I was pondering my future, I decided to pursue other interests. I’m a people person and people have told me that I am good at teaching and leading teams. I did really enjoy working on teams and leading others, so I took an engineering leadership course at MIT, called the Gordon Engineering Leadership Program.

Through this program, I was introduced to my current manager and she gave me a brand new perspective. We talked about my interests, and my current struggles with thinking about what I wanted to do with my future. She explained that given my interests, Product Management might be a good fit for me.

I had previously thought that Product Management was only for Computer Scientists that didn’t want to code. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ (As this was the experience for many of my MIT friends.)

But my manager quickly dispelled my thought and told me that my communication skills, leadership, and interest in working with biology would be a great foundation for product management and that I could learn the specific Product Management Skills. My biological background could bring a different perspective on the projects.

How Biological Engineering Helps Me Today

And that brings me to where I am today. I’ve learned so much along the way, and while I’m learning and practicing the PM Process, my unique combination of skills, talents and personality have allowed me to be successful on my projects thus far. For example, my combination of bio-familiarity and software-unfamiliarity really helped in the software documentation projects. I could learn our in-house software from a blank slate and then find a relatable and understandable way for non-software Ginkgo members to quickly learn the software themselves. I could put myself in their shoes about “how would I like to learn brand new software” and because I wasn’t so deep in the development of our software, I could abstract it enough to be meaningful, yet easy to learn.

Furthermore, my biological background was an asset during the research project for a potential software migration. Briefly, the project involved understanding the uses, features, and workflow of an older piece of software that we had acquired a few years ago so that we could decide whether we should add updates to the software or migrate and integrate it with one of our newer pieces of software. To make that decision, I was tasked with shadowing the team that used the software to learn about what they used the software for and how they used it and then create workflow diagrams to communicate back to the product and software team what I learned. Because of my familiarity with biology, it was easy for me to form a relationship with the science team and also follow along with the scientists in the lab and on their computers. They didn’t have to spend time explaining the science behind their process; they could just walk me through how they use the software to help them.

Lastly, my biological expertise is coming in handy for my latest project. I am currently sifting through and trying to make sense of thousands of pieces of data related to our COVID diagnostic testing efforts. Valuable data can seem like rows and rows of random letters and numbers if you don’t know how to string them together into a story. But, because I am looking at it through a biological lens and understand how the data is created through the lab process and how it should fit together, I have a head start in understanding how to create a digital story through the data to match that of the science and operations in the lab. Context is valuable in data science, and my context is serving me well.

I enjoy my work, but that’s not to say I haven’t had some struggles. (Oops my lowest grade in college was in my sole Python course). Sometimes conversations and presentations go over my head in our software meeting and I need to ask someone else to explain simple topics and terms. Admittedly, during my first few months, I scheduled plenty of meetings with software engineers on the team to ask questions about how code works that is probably trivial to those people with more software knowledge. In addition, I’m currently trying to learn how to use SQL and Tableau for a new project that I assume would be easier to do for people with a software background. Although these experiences put me outside my comfort zone, I’m excited about the challenge and to grow my skill set.

All in all, I am fortunate to be at Ginkgo, and working on the Product Management Team is the dream job I never knew I wanted. It allowed me to combine my interest in biology with my desire to work with people and practice my leadership skills. Ginkgo is a special place where biology meets technology and allows a bioengineer such as myself to flourish in a digital role in ways that a typical Silicon Valley tech company couldn’t provide. So, if you have a non-CS background and are interested in Product Management, don’t be afraid to look into product job openings – there are many ways to make your skills valuable in the product role.

(Feature photo by Jess Bailey on Unsplash)

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