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How I Got Here: 5 Philly technologists on what led them to this exact moment in their careers

What drew them to a tech career, and what advice would they give to those starting out? For one: "Just start."

(Clockwise from top left) Christian Heinzmann, Martin Snyder, Stanley Griggs, Salas Saraiya and Alice Walsh. (Image by Paige Gross)
What twists and turns occurred in your career to lead you to the current moment?

Throughout the month of November, explored the technologist career trajectory via How I Got Here Month. We learned that some come to the industry fresh out of college, others learn from a bootcamp after working in a different career, and others are self-taught. While some folks will work a decade at established tech giants, others will find new roles and companies every year or so. There’s no one-size-fits-all as a technologist.

It prompted us to want to ask some of the impactful technologists we’ve reported on this year, including several 2022 RealLIST Engineers honorees, how their tech career journeys brought them to where they are right now.

One represents biotech, another is a cofounding CTO. Another technologist was self taught while a fourth tells us about being drawn to enterprise software. Our fifth technologist says he sees engineering as a “craft.” Responses came via phone call, email and Slack, and were lightly edited for clarity or style.


Why did you choose the sector of tech you’re currently working in? What was interesting to you about it? And how did you gain the skills you have now?

Salas Saraiya, cofounder and CTO, Employee Cycle: I think of myself as equal parts community builder and technologist. As a CTO, I’m comfortable digging in to a lot of different areas — from web development to product management to data analysis — but where I’m most at home is finding and recruiting people and setting them up to succeed as a team.

Stanley Griggs, automation engineer, Wizehive: I came through an apprenticeship that I got from a company that I met at one of the career fairs. And my first role in tech was as a quality store assurance analysts, so no coding or anything. We were doing manual testing, and a lot of learning on the side. And then I think over the years — I’m about seven years in — the industry has changed where companies are spending on quality assurance. It’s really growing into its own practice.

As for the initial interest [in the industry], you always hear there’s a job shortage in tech and the salaries are pretty good. They can get you to middle class or above middle class. But I did not go back to school,  and I think at that point coding bootcamps were relatively new. I was using my money online to [learn] and I got lucky and met a company that had their own hidden apprenticeship program.

Alice Walsh, VP of translational research, Pathos: Like many people in biotech, I come from more of a traditional sciences background than a “tech” background. I did a Ph.D. in bioengineering and joined a big pharma company as a scientist. Working in drug development, we get to analyze some of the most exciting data ever generated, and something we do might change someone’s life. That is what has kept me in the field. The opportunities initially attracted me, but I have stayed because I found the work and the people I work with inspiring.

Martin Snyder, VP of Engineering, Pinnacle 21: I’ve been drawn to enterprise software because I enjoy the challenge of working closely with a smaller number of clients where you are required to have a big impact. It’s not better, but it’s certainly different from consumer software in terms of the structures of the business and the day-to-day issues that you face.

Christian Heinzmann, senior director of data, Indigo: Less of a choice, more of an evolution. I graduated Drexel with a computer science degree looking to get any “software engineering job.” Once I had a job, I dove in and started loving the craft of software engineering. I did this by reading books, articles and blogs. I did code challenges, like code golf. I looked for opportunities to work in multiple languages. For a good decade, my career was really all about the craft of software engineering.

From there, my views shifted less to the craft (although I still love it) and more about using the toolset to solve problems. This is really what led me into data engineering and data warehousing. I was able to use my software skills that I honed in the early parts of my career to help data scientists and business folks get the data they needed to make decisions.

What advice would you give to someone who’s just starting out and looking to get into the same line or work?

Saraiya: Don’t shy away from the challenges that you are facing as you are building your product and team. If you see something falling through the cracks, lean on your community to find the right person who loves that challenge and add them to the squad when the budget allows. Something that is painful for one person will be squarely in someone else’s wheelhouse.

Griggs: Just keep showing up and be honest. And you’ve got to go to the events. Especially if you’re going the 100% self-taught route. You have to talk to people. There’s meetup groups that get you to talk to others, especially if you have no one else in your circle that codes. When you go to these events, you see the Philly tech scene and not just the programers, but project mangers, engineering managers, all the other roles around tech. We know about someone writing code, but there’s other support roles around the coders, and that might be another way in.

Walsh: I will answer from the perspective of advice that I found helpful when considering my career options as an undergraduate engineering student. I was interested in many things, which made it difficult to know what I was “meant to do.” However, this also meant I could “say yes” to opportunities without overthinking if I would be happy. The other advice to people in the pharma/biotech industry is to actively build your network within and outside your current company or institution. The most successful people I know have a rich network they can look to to advance their projects at any career stage.

Martin: The life sciences space is a great one to be in because it will never go away. Tier 1 pharmaceutical companies are massive and their business processes is complex enough that there is space for dozens of software categories throughout the drug pipeline. Multiple lifetimes of business challenges exist in the space, so there is the opportunity for growth and stability at the same time.

Heinzmann: First and foremost, be curious. Data is super interesting and multifaceted. If something interests you (and it can be anything, could be the piece of data, or the techniques used to get it, or the technology tool change, anything!) it’s OK to learn more, go down a little bit of a rabbit hole and peel back the layers. You’ll learn so much.

Next, if you have a nonlinear background to getting into data and software, that’s OK. While my own path has been more of the traditional path, I’ve hired and worked with so many amazing people that got into the career from all over the place.

Lastly — just start. There are tons of free, downloadable data sets to play with, and tons of free ways to start coding. Try and figure out how to solve the problems you care about, and have fun!

Companies: Employee Cycle / Certara / WizeHive
Series: How I Got Here Month 2022

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