From Ad Tech To Synthetic Biology


A couple months ago I came across this post on why young people seem to prefer working in ad tech than biotech. Given that I spent 10 years at a couple ad tech companies, and the past 5 years at a synthetic biology company, I have some opinions on the subject, and wanted to share them. Consider this my attempt at addressing two of the points raised in the post: Educating people about the opportunities in synthetic biology, and giving my own example of an outsider who has found some success in this field.

In this post, I have two audiences in mind. The first is people in synthetic biology who want to understand how we can bring over people in ad tech. The second is people currently working in, or destined for, ad tech, who might be interested in synthetic biology instead.

My Story

In 2004, I was three years into a computer science grad program and decided to drop out, so I started looking for a job. At that time, biotech was not on my radar, and to be honest, I don’t think someone like me was on biotech’s radar. I applied to some of the companies you might expect, and was lucky enough to land a job at Google. I don’t know how most people think of Google, but it is primarily funded by advertising, so I would definitely count it as ad tech. I worked there for four years, and learned a lot about how the company works internally.

I then worked at a startup ad tech company called Fiksu for six years. The company brokered ads to encourage people to download customers’ apps. I was an early employee and watched as the company grew like crazy, but near the end of my time there it started to shrink like crazy. The short version is Facebook ate our lunch. I learned a lot about Ruby on Rails and Postgres while I was there, which helped me to land my current job at Ginkgo.

At this point, you’re probably wondering why I started looking for a job in biotech. One reason is that when you live in the Boston area, you can’t avoid running into biotech. In 2009 I moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, and noticed a company in my neighborhood called Codon Devices, an early DNA synthesis company. This was my first hint that people were trying to engineer biology. Many employees at Codon Devices would go on to found another company called Gen9, which eventually became the DNA synthesis team at Ginkgo.

Another reason is that I read a book by Eric Drexler called Radical Abundance, which described how nanotechnology could be used to manufacture pretty much anything. I think eventually Drexler’s vision could be achieved, but I agree more with Tom Knight when he says “Biology is nanotechnology that actually works,” meaning it’s probably easier to adapt something that is already working at nanoscale instead of building something from scratch. But Radical Abundance opened my eyes to how things can be engineered at the molecular level, something that Ginkgo is very much interested in.

The final reason is that, to me, synthetic biology can be the basis for a lot of fundamental change. Ad tech companies are concerned with pushing electrons around, often at great scale. In biology you’re pushing molecules around, something a million times more massive than electrons. Molecules are the building blocks for things that people use every day, like food, clothes, and buildings. If we can grow more of these things instead of making them from synthetic materials, I think the world will be in a much better place.

Anyway, I joined Ginkgo in 2016, and I’ve been here ever since. So I’ve had a few years to compare what it’s like to work as a software engineer here with working in ad tech. There are a few differences I’d like to highlight, and there are tradeoffs, so if you are currently working at an ad tech company, synthetic biology might not be your thing. But there are a lot of people working in ad tech, and I suspect synthetic biology might be interesting to some of them.

Synthetic Biology Compared With Ad Tech

With synthetic biology, there are far worse outcomes than a user misclicking an ad, which is one reason why Ginkgo and Concentric have worked to build up a Covid testing network across the U.S. which has the potential to be used for testing for other diseases. More importantly, there are some really amazing outcomes of synthetic biology too, and I feel Ginkgo is playing a major role in delivering them. I sometimes worry that my friends find me insufferable for talking about how Ginkgo is working on ways to help with climate change and disease. But, in terms of helping humanity, I’d much rather be working on synthetic biology than advertising.

You know I'm something of a scientist myself.

One tradeoff for software engineers is that in ad tech, you are basically at the top of the heap. Sure, there are deep learning researchers and certain other skilled people who probably make more in ad tech, but software engineering there is pretty central. Software provides the product that customers are paying for. In synthetic biology, software engineering helps to support many of the other teams, which are the ones actually involved in producing the end product. If Ginkgo’s mission is to make biology easier to engineer, I think of my role as making it easier to make biology easier to engineer. It’s a somewhat humbling experience to join such a company, but I like being surrounded by people who have diverse knowledge and expertise.

As for the nature of the work, it’s quite different. In ad tech, there’s a need for scale in terms of pure information. I’ve worked on systems that processed thousands of events per second. At Ginkgo, we process tens of thousands of samples a day, so in pure information terms, it’s not nearly as much. (I would add that this number is growing exponentially, so I expect it to get quite large fairly soon, but it’s starting from a low base.) But synbio is much more complex in terms of domain knowledge. Ad tech is a relatively young field, and typically people there want to store, aggregate and filter the data using relatively simple operations at great scale. Biology is an older discipline than computer science. In the lab, there are many different patterns of sample transfers that users want to do. There are bioinformatic operations on DNA sequences we compute, like PCR and homologous recombination. And sometimes we do need to help scale our systems and even implement better algorithms, like when we optimize database queries for circDNA lookup. I feel as intellectually challenged at Ginkgo as I was at ad tech companies, but the nature of the challenge is different, and it helps a lot to be genuinely curious about molecular biology. Not everyone on the outside is, but I think a lot of outsiders to synthetic biology aren’t aware of the interesting challenges of writing software in this domain.

The Migration to Synthetic Biology

So if synthetic biology is exciting and intellectually challenging (and to me, it definitely is), why aren’t more people moving to it from ad tech? It’s been over ten years since one Silicon Valley engineer noted that “The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads.” But I don’t think all that much has changed yet. From the perspective of someone starting in ad tech today, Google, Facebook, and Amazon (yes, they do ads too) are big companies that are well known both to pay well and to be continually hiring for people with CS degrees. Generally, biotech companies aren’t yet well known in this regard.

Also, if you’ve been at a big tech company for a while, maybe you have a family, or you look at a field like biology and realize there’s a lot to learn, and it’s hard to picture changing jobs. And I can confirm that there is a lot to learn, and it takes time to get the big picture as well as lots of specific details about how things work in the lab. That said, I’ve found it to be very rewarding as a learning experience. There are a lot of software engineers at Ginkgo who don’t have a formal background in biology, so we are continually working on ways to share biological knowledge with people on the Software team.

Additionally, I’m aware of both software veterans and people just starting their careers who are interested in synthetic biology, so based on my own sample set of people, it’s not clear to me that ad tech people will automatically be uninterested in synbio or believe it’s not something they’re capable of learning.

Finally, I think it’s still early days. In the 1960s and 1970s people knew about computers, but most didn’t have direct experience with them. Tech companies existed, but they weren’t nearly as big in the economy as they are today, and working as a computer programmer wasn’t a conventional career path. I think working in cell programming is in a similar place today. It isn’t a standard career path right now, and it will take time for it to become one. I think if Ginkgo and other synthetic biology companies build on their successes, synthetic biology will be on the radar of more people. Give it time.

All that said, if synthetic biology is interesting to you and you’d like to be a part of a future where we program cells in addition to computers, Ginkgo is hiring!

(Feature photo by James Harrison on Unsplash)

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