Computer programmer pivots to bioinformatics

“This is the field I want to be in. This is where we’re
going to make difference in human health. Even
if it’s just a small part, like creating a table
that is used by our researchers, that’s a big deal.”

A software developer by trade, Barry Hicks focused much of his career on computer graphics, writing code to produce complex visuals ranging from Apache helicopter flight simulations to CNN news promos. With the eventual commoditization of graphics software, however, demand for highly trained computer graphics programmers seemed to diminish. After 20 years, Barry started planning his career shift.

“Everybody in this valley, we all worry. How do we extend our careers? How do you survive in an environment where 23-year-olds at Facebook are making $200,000 a year? You update your skills.

Despite having no life sciences background, Barry risked jumping into an entirely new domain: Biotechnology and Bioinformatics. Bioscience skills are in high-demand in Silicon Valley. The certificate programs, which are 19 and 16 units respectively, could be accomplished as a 30-unit package. It was not as daunting as heading back to college for a master’s degree in this specialized area.

“At my age, I didn’t want to go ahead and do that,” Barry says. He also didn’t want to take random courses. “But, I wanted to do something. These certificate programs seemed the right way to do that.” They offered an achievable goal. “I could get it done nights and weekends and still have a life.”

During the three years it took him to complete the certificates while working full-time as a programmer, he got a grasp of microbiology, bioinformatics, and data science. He made friends, found great job connections, and even met an instructor who helped him get a job interview.

“Those personal interactions are very important. There’s something about being in a room and being able to ask questions. It’s just better.”

After a three-month job hunt, he started working at Human Longevity Inc. in 2015, a biotechnology company that works with large amounts of genetic data. In his position on HLI’s Data Science team, Barry developed code to process raw DNA data and find patterns that could be meaningful. One such program could identify genes that duplicate themselves, a potentially medically significant event.

In December, he started a new position as bioinformatician at 23andMe, where he will help make the company’s anonymized customer data accessible to their research scientists.

“This is the field I want to be in. This is where we’re going to make a difference in human health. Even if it’s just a small part, like creating a table that is used by our researchers, that’s a big deal. It all has the potential to impact the lives of others, in terms of scientific discoveries, or even improved outcome for a given patient.”

 

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