How I got here: 5 Philly technologists on what brought them to this precise moment in their careers

What twists and turns have you had in your career that have brought you to this moment?

Throughout November, Technical.ly explored the career path of a technologist in How I Got Here Month. We’ve learned that some come into the industry fresh out of college, others learn in a boot camp after working in another career, and others are self-taught. While some people work a decade at established tech giants, others will find new roles and companies every year or so. As a technologist, there is no one-size-fits-all solution.

This prompted us to ask some of the influential technologists we’ve covered this year, including several RealLIST engineers who received awards in 2022, how their engineering careers have gotten them to where they are now.

One represents biotech, another is a co-founder of the CTO. Another technologist is self-taught, while a fourth tells us how he is drawn to enterprise software. Our fifth technologist says he sees engineering as a “craft.” Responses came via phone call, email, and Slack, and were edited slightly for clarity or style.

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Why did you choose the technology sector you are currently working in? What interested you? And how did you acquire the skills you have now?

Salas Saraiya, Co-Founder and CTO, Employee Cycle: I see myself as equal parts community builder and technologist. As a CTO, I’m happy to delve into many different areas – from web development to product management to data analysis – but most of the time I’m at home finding and recruiting people and putting them together to be successful as a team.

Stanley Griggs, Automation Engineer, Wizehive: I came through an apprenticeship at a company I met at a Technical.ly careers fair. And my first role in tech was as a business quality assurance analyst, so no coding or anything. We carried out manual tests and learned a lot along the way. And then I think the industry has changed over the years – I’m about seven – where companies spend on quality assurance. It really grows into its own practice.

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As for the initial interest [in the industry], you always hear that there is a shortage of jobs in engineering and the salaries are pretty good. They can put you in mid-range or above mid-range. But I didn’t go back to school, and I think coding boot camps were relatively new at the time. I used my money online [learn] and I got lucky and met a company that had their own hidden training program.

Alice Walsh, Vice President of Translational Research, Pathos: Like many people in biotechnology, I come from a traditional scientific background rather than a “technical” background. I have a Ph.D. in bioengineering and joined a large pharmaceutical company as a scientist. When we work in drug development, we can analyze some of the most exciting data ever generated, and something we do could change someone’s life. That kept me on the field. The opportunities initially attracted me, but I stayed because I found the work and the people I work with inspiring.

Martin Snyder, VP of Engineering, Pinnacle 21: I’m drawn to enterprise software because I enjoy the challenge of working closely with a smaller number of clients where you need to make a big impact. It’s no better, but it certainly differs from consumer software in terms of business structures and the day-to-day problems you face.

Christian Heimmann, Senior Director of Data, Indigo: Less choice, more evolution. I graduated from Drexel with a degree in Computer Science to get a “software engineering job”. As soon as I got a job, I dived in and started loving the craft of software engineering. I did this by reading books, articles and blogs. I’ve done code challenges, like code golf. I was looking for opportunities to work in multiple languages. For a good decade my career really revolved around the craft of software engineering.

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From there my focus shifted less to crafting (although I still love it) and more to using the toolset to solve problems. That really got me into data engineering and data warehousing. I was able to use my software skills, honed in the early stages of my career, to help data scientists and business people get the data they need to make decisions.

What advice would you give to someone who is just starting out and wants to break into the same industry or job?

Saraija: Don’t be afraid of the challenges you face in building your product and team. If you see something fall through the cracks, rely on your community to find the right person who loves this challenge and add them to the roster if budget allows. Something painful to one person will be right in another person’s wheelhouse.

Griggs: Just keep showing up and be honest. And you have to go to the events. Especially if you go the 100% self-taught route. You have to talk to people. There are meetup groups that will get you talking to others, especially if you don’t have anyone in your circle to code. When you go to these events, you see the Philly tech scene and not just the programmers, but also project managers, engineering managers and all the other tech-related roles. We know of someone writing code, but there are other support roles surrounding the programmers and this could be another avenue.

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

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Martin: The life sciences field is great because it will never go away. Tier 1 pharmaceutical companies are huge and their business processes are so complex that there is room for dozens of software categories throughout the drug pipeline. There are multiple lifetimes of business challenges in this space, so there is an 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 okay to learn more Go down a bit of a rabbit hole and peel off the layers. You will learn so much.

Next, if you have a nonlinear background to dabble with data and software, that’s fine. While my own path has been more of the traditional path, I have hired and worked with so many great people who have entered the career from all over.

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

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