The Art of Data Perfectionism

The title of this post includes the word perfectionism. The reasons why are elucidated below. Between when I started drafting this post and now I had some thoughts that I wanted to add as a preamble of sorts. I keep coming back to why I don’t post on the blog regularly. I could of course blame the fact that I work most nights after dinner, have a family, a social life and am currently taking a online course in Jira. But, as I’ve said before, we make time for the things in life that we’re passionate about and want to do. I am really passionate about this blog, so what’s the hold up? This might be the one area that where perfectionism is holding me back.

I’m not a perfectionist by trait. I’ve never used that as the answer to the, “Tell us a weakness” question on interviews. I firmly believe in ruthless prioritization and the 80/20 rule. Also, having been a research scientist I tend toward iterative creation, design, etc. Getting trained as a Scum Master was almost like second nature because of course you would design and produce iteratively, only putting into each development cycle what was really needed. So it’s a hard feeling to reconcile now, this perfectionism with the blog. It’s not like I have tons or even tens of followers so the fear of messing up should be low. Except that it’s not. This goes back to a topic I wrote about in another blog post (Identity Crisis). Having gone through the PhD process in the US and spending the majority of my career thus far in research science, I have this ingrained and ridiculous notion that only people how have studied something for their whole lives (or non-stop for 4 years) have the authority to speak about it. The culture of “elder respect” in research science is strong. I just haven’t gotten my head around the idea that not only am I qualified to talk about a range of topics due to my experience to date but that I am qualified to talk about clinical trials and data since I live that work day-in and day-out. I’m currently reading a book called, “Playing Big” by Tara Mohr which is a study on why women have a harder time “playing big”, so to speak, and what to do about it. I’ll let you know how it goes but hopefully one consequence of the process will be me getting my voice out there more.

Of course, the stakes for me with this blog are pretty low. The only real risk is a reputational one if I something wrong. In the world of clinical trials, the risks for inaccurate data can be much higher. (See what I did there, slick, huh?). The individuals who are on the front lines of keeping data quality high in clinical trials are clinical data managers and clinical data coordinators. These individuals are often certified and are, out of necessity, perfectionists. Every little detail matters when you’re setting and managing the data from a clinical trial, from the initial data entry forms to the dataset creation at the end of the trial and locking the database.

Clinical data management is the “collection, integration and validation of clinical trial data”. Done right, clinical data management can reduce the time to market for important health interventions by ensuring the generation and retention of high-quality, reliable and statistically sound data. (Krishnankutty, 2012). High-quality means that the data conforms to protocol specifications and that it contains little to no errors or missing data.

The process starts with the development of the protocol. For the uninitiated, the protocol is a document (often very lengthy) that describes how the trial will be conducted, and ensures the safety of the patients and the integrity of the data. Depending on the organization, clinical data managers are often involved at this early stage. From there, the clinical data managers are integral to setting up the study and how the data will be collected, including what checks will be done during the course of the trial to make sure that the quality and integrity of the data remains intact.

While the trial is ongoing, clinical data managers use a variety of tools to track the data, try and solve discrepancies in the data or find missing data and help to ensure patient safety. If this sounds like individuals have too much control over the data, rest assured that there are pages of regulations that govern operations of clinical trials and the data associated with them and clinical data managers are often at the front line of meeting those regulations.

So with all this to juggle and the results of a trial hanging in the balance, how do clinical data managers do their job. Having worked with them for over a year, i can tell you that they are very committed and very detail-oriented people. They also have fairly clear guidelines in the regulations for how the data should look, or how to ensure data quality (i.e. audit trails, etc). Additionally, there are several professional societies that offer certification, ongoing education and a community of practice. One such organization, and a good place to find information, is the Society of Clinical Data Management (SCDM). Www.scdm.org.

So why this whole post about first, my insecurities, and second, the briefest of overviews of clinical data management? With this post, I’m straddling the dual purposes of this blog; 1) To share my experiences as they happen and as I grow in my career; 2) To highlight the lab data management portion of clinical trials. This first post is to introduce the concept of data management as it pertains to clinical trials in the traditional sense. As I post more (which I will, I promise), I will contrast this to how lab data is viewed and managed in the context of clinical trials and hopefully how those practices can assist in non-clinical research as well.

What is Lab Data Management Anyway?

I thought that for this post, I would introduce the new subject on the blog, lab data management. The idea is that in addition to providing witty reflection on how I got to where I am in my career, I would talk a little more about what that career looks like.

Before I can get to my career and what I actually do (still trying to figure that one out), I should provide some background. Lab data management is a subset of clinical data management so I’ll start there. I am going to use the Wikipedia definition since I got rid of my encyclopedia set decades ago. Clinical data management is a set of processes and procedures that “ensure collection, integration and of data at appropriate quality and cost”. The goal of clinical data management is to generate high-quality, reliable and statistically sound data to ensure that conclusions drawn from research are well-supported by the data. So, no pressure…right?

In many clinical trial settings, both in-house and contracted out (CROs), lab data management is conducted by clinical data managers along with the management of all the other clinical data. There are only a few institutions that I’m aware of that separate the laboratory data. I should clarify that when I’m talking about lab data, I’m not talking about the safety labs done to monitor the participants during the course of the trial (white blood cell counts, liver enzyme tests, etc). Those are monitored along with the other clinical data, at least in our organization. Lab data for my team consists of the endpoint data (HIV diagnostic data), pharmacokinetic (PK) data for drug trials and a whole host of immunology assays that are being done to assess the immune response to vaccines.

So what do we do with the lab data?  I’m so glad you asked.  Lab data management for us can be grouped into two broad categories, specimen monitoring/specimen data quality control and assay data processing.  Specimen monitoring and specimen data quality control are essentially the same thing.  For the purposes of this post, I’ll call it specimen monitoring.  In all clinical trials, participants have specimens taken.  It’s usually blood draws but it can also include tissue biopsies, etc.  The metadata around these specimens can end up being entered in two different data streams, the clinical data stream (i.e. Case Report Form filled out when a participant comes in for a visit), and a Lab Information Management System (LIMS), which is filled out when the specimen is processed in the lab.  In order for the specimen to be used for HIV diagnostic testing or immunological testing, the metadata has to match in both places.  Let’s take the example of the HIV diagnostic testing.  There are algorithms for testing in HIV to determine not only if someone is infected, but if it is an acute or chronic infection.  HIV testing algorithms are not the same for every study.  If you are performing a HIV vaccine trial where the whole point is to elicit antibodies against HIV, you will have to have a series of tests to determine if the antibody responses that show up positive on a diagnostic test are vaccine-elicited or from actual HIV infection.  If you are testing a HIV prevention intervention, the testing algorithm will be different.  So if the metadata for a specimen at the time of draw says that this blood tube is from visit 4 from protocol 001, then the diagnostic lab knows what testing algorithm to run.  If, somewhere in the process of sending the tube to the lab and the transfer of information from the clinical database, to a specimen label or lab requisition form, to the LIMS, the metadata got changed to visit 4 from protocol 002, then the testing algorithm will be different.  This would render any data from that testing invalid. 

One whole scope of work for my team is to ensure that the metadata from a specimen remains correct throughout the course of the study, no matter what data stream that specimen appears in. We accomplish this by programmatically comparing the different data streams each day and issuing QCs when the data doesn’t match.  We then work with the labs and clinics to find the reason for the data discrepancy, the source documentation to determine the real value and to correct the QC.  This ensures that as many specimens as possible can then be used for testing.  Participants trust that when they donate blood or tissue, that it will be put to good use and we help to ensure that it will be.

The second large scope of work for the team is assay processing.  After clinical specimens have been processed and sent to labs for testing, we receive that assay data back into our group.  We again check to make sure the specimen metadata is clean and we also do additional quality checks to evaluate the data for format consistency, logic (if there is supposed to be a numeric value, we check to make sure the values are numeric), and some range checks and other assay specific checks.  This part of our work is important because not only do we want all specimens to be able to be used for testing, we want all the lab testing data to be used in the statistical analyses.  We provide consistently formatted and clean datasets to the statisticians for their analysis. 

In short, lab data management in SCHARP is a group dedicated to preserving high quality laboratory data for analysis in clinical trials by safeguarding the metadata around clinical specimens and providing consistent and clean laboratory datasets for analysis.  If you’re interested, I can go into more detail about how we do this in subsequent posts.I will definitely be doing more posts about why it’s important to think about data management, even in a research setting and discussing some methods and best practices for how to start implementing lab data management, regardless of the setting.

Dear Lexi

Since I started at the Gates Foundation, I’ve had a fairly steady stream of people asking for advice on how to get into public health or how to move out of the lab. I remember doing easily 50 or 60 informational interviews when I was in graduate school and feeling like I didn’t get a lot of concrete advice, which I now know isn’t really the point of informational interviews, but regardless, I felt a little defeated. I’ve gotten better at collecting advice over the years so here is my advice column so to speak on moving out of the lab or changing career fields.

  1. Develop an elevator pitch – If you are going to do informational interviews or ask anyone for help in your job search then you should be ready to talk briefly about yourself and where you are looking to go next. If you can compare what you want with a position the person is already familiar with, even better. Help them help you.
  2. Do informational interviews – Informational interviews are a great way to find out more about a career that you might be interested in. People love to talk about themselves so I’ve gotten great responses from cold emails to people in my network or in a contact’s network. The key thing with informational interviews is to have a good list of questions for your interviewee and remember the point is to find out about that job and what it’s like and what it takes to get there.
  3. Consider a human voiced resume – This type of resume has been big in the business world for a few years now but oddly hasn’t translated into the sciences. Human voiced resumes are more narrative, which allows for a more thorough explanation of your skills. They are great for career transitions in science since they are still somewhat novel and will stand out and the narrative style means you can provide more context around your skill sets. More information here: https://www.forbes.com/sites/lizryan/2016/01/15/grab-your-hiring-managers-attention-with-your-human-voiced-resume/#1c8d6b2b6738
  4. Write a cover letter – Please, please, please. I have hired three people so far and the resumes without cover letters are just question marks to me, no information about why the individual wants the job or why they think they would be a good candidate. This is especially important if you are switching career tracks because your resume may not immediately reflect why you would be good in the position. Another version is called a pain letter and is equally effective.
  5. Highlight your soft skills – As scientists we get used to sticking our publications and assays we’ve developed, etc. If you are looking to move off the bench then you will have to translate your research experiences into some “soft” skills such as project management, negotiation, team leadership and even budgeting. In doing so, make sure to use active verbs like “implement”, “plan”, “execute”.
  6. Don’t be afraid of fellowships – No one bats an eye about doing a post-doc fellowship but that doesn’t translate as much to moving away from the bench or switching careers. Fellowships can be a great way to gain skills outside of your existing skill set and broaden your network so you can land the perfect next job.
  7. Apply to everything – You may not think you have the qualifications for a position but apply anyway. Make the case for why your unique skills can get the job done. Maybe the hiring manager already tried the usual candidates and it didn’t work out. You never know. This goes doubly so for women. Women are much less likely to apply for jobs if they don’t meet every one of the criteria. Just apply if you really want the job!
  8. Volunteer for opportunities that are a little out of the ordinary – During my graduate school research, I also volunteered for a start-up science policy organization. That opportunity gave me the ability to add things to my resume that were different from the “normal” grad student resume. Always look for opportunities to strengthen your profile.
  9. In interviews be clear about not just what value you bring to the organization but also about how you would take the position and make it something they didn’t envision. – In so many interviews I’ve heard candidate regurgitate their resume and that’s fine but what I’m really interested in is how will you take this position and make it your own?
  10. Do your research! – I know everyone tells candidates this before an interview but I was astounded by how many candidates I interviewed recently who clearly hadn’t done their research on our organization. Make sure you know who is interviewing you (LinkedIn is good for this), what the organization’s goals are, their financial situation, their key partners and then bring good questions to the interview. You can even find good interview questions on-line so no excuses.

Wow, my last post was in May.  I suppose enough time has passed for this to be classified as the re-re-relaunch of the blog.  Here’s to hoping that the third time is the charm.  This is also a re-re-relaunch because I think I will introduce a slight change in scope for this blog.     I can’t believe so much time has passed since my last post.  Of course I always start these sorts of things with the best intentions and then, well, life gets in the way.  At least, that’s what they say right? I was listening to my newest obsession in podcasts. (For those of you who don’t know, I’m totally obsessed with podcasts and listen to them all the time). Anyway, my newest binge listen is Zig Zag (https://zigzagpod.com/) a podcast about women, entrepreneurship, and technology. I’m also making a plea hear for fellow listeners since I need, need, need people to talk to about this podcast since I love it so much. A recent episode got me inspired enough to start writing again. The episode was about the hype cycle. The hype cycle was developed Jackie Fenn at Gartner and it tracks the “cycle” of a new technology from inception through to adoption. This concept applies to new ideas as well. As I listened to the podcast and I listened to the host apply this cycle to everyday challenges and ideas I had a lightbulb moment (or epiphany for all you fancy people out there). Sure, life got complicated and harder than expected recently (more below) but something bigger was at foot with this blog. I was in the TROUGH OF DESPAIR (insert dramatic voice and music here). The trough of despair can be defined as when interest wanes due to failed experiments or implementation. At this point, stakeholders can drop-out and survival only happens if the product improves to the satistifaction of early adopters. So, here I am coming out (hopefully) of the trough of despair with an improved product and hoping that you (my early adopters) will approve of it.

But before I unveil the new and improved (at least content-wise), a bit of background is in order so please bear with me. Back at the beginning of this year, a series of unfortunate/fortunate (yet to be determined) events unfolded such that I ended up leading two teams at work.  Initially I stepped in to be the interim head of another team in the organization.  This team was newly elevated in a re-organization and now needed a senior manager and since those were in short supply at the time, we divided and conquered to cover the new teams that were created.  Since the newly elevated team was lab data management, it made sense for me to take it over with my background in the lab.  The team had been through a lot and was wary of the reorganization and had seen quite a bit of shifting leadership in the past few years.

So now I had two teams, one that needed someone to lean in and provide guidance through change and a clear direction and vision for the team moving forward and one that was expecting me to lead them through the execution of the goals we had set forth at the beginning of the year and there was of course the additional expectations of our partners who now interacted with me in two capacities.   This isn’t said to elicit sympathy or pity but just to say that I found myself getting a crash course in management and setting priorities in order to make sure I stayed on top of the most important things.

As I was treading water, trying to keep afloat learning two new teams, I found a moment to stop and think (yes, just one).  Was this actually an opportunity in disguise?  Could I even think about another opportunity in an organization that I joined only 5 months earlier? Here I was having just gone through a big job transition and I was contemplating another one.  How foolish could one person possibly be?  I was about to find out.

My boss was the one who initially floated the idea of me switching to lead the lab data management team.  I resisted at first and then I started thinking…a dangerous habit of mine…what if?  What if I could draw on all my skills, including my background in the lab?  What if I could take a team that needs direction and guidance and build something truly unique and special?  What if this is a huge mistake?  As the head of a statistical unit, I would be a known quantity.  I could go anywhere from here.  Companies are always looking for leadership for statistical groups.  I would be on a defined career progression for once.  If I took on this new team, there would be no such assurances.  There are very few other teams like it around.  I would have to, again, pave my own way and define not only what this position would look like for me but I would be redefining and building a whole team.   So I was faced with the decision to stay where I was (leading a great team and with a fairly clear path in front of me) or jumping into the unknown. What do you think I did? Of course, I jumped. Part of me really wishes I could be comfortable with the straight and narrow but I’m always one to be enticed by the road less taken.

So here I am, almost a year after taking on an interim team and 7 months after officially switching over to being the Senior Manager of Lab Data Management. I still have some residual duties on the statisical team that I am hoping to be done with this Spring so I can fully focus on one area in the organization and I really think I made the right choice. One unexpected consequence of this move has been that I’m now rethinking my career trajectory. Because, you know, I need more change. My new group is responsible for monitoring and maintaining the quality of the specimen data and assay data for the clinical trials. This taps into my deep-routed love of all things quality related and also has got me thinking about data quality in research in general, especially with data science being the hot new “it” field. Could I potentially become a Chief Data Office instead of a CEO? Was data my new passion or a resurrected passion? What would I have to do to gain some skills to match my new team and my new vision of my career path? That’s what I’m going to explore in the blog more now. How to get out of the lab and into another industry and how to keep thriving and learning and shifting to find what you really love. Also, I will be making informed and educated pleas and pushes for more quality control in research data, along with tips for how to do that. It will be probably my 5th or so re-invention but as I approach my 40th year, there’s nothing I want less than to be stagnant.

The Trough of Disillusionment

Identity Crisis – how to get over not being an expert

I noticed something interesting looking at the analytics for this blog.  (Sue me, I’m a data junkie).  It appears that my posts that ramble on about how I got to this position, or my existential struggles along the way get more hits.  I was initially a little surprised by this since I figured you, my lovely audience, were drawn here for useful tips but I see it’s just to witness my inner turmoil and angst.  Well I guess I should give the people what they want, after all I am an artiste, I mean a scientist, I mean a manager, shoot…what am I?

This is a question I ask myself fairly regularly, and one that several people have asked me in one way or another recently (usually under the guise of asking how I made the switch from a technical role into a managerial role and how I feel about it).  Am I still a scientist?  And if not, does that matter and how do I define myself now?

For so long, through my first job out of undergrad, through all my subsequent schooling and jobs, I’ve always considered myself a scientist.  Getting my first publication was a verification of that identity and it felt SO good.   I had worked so hard to get to that point, the point where I was a published scientist, one with a paper where I was the first author (trust me, this is a big deal).  It felt so validating.  It felt like the fulfillment of the dreams I’d had as a little girl playing with test tubes in the kitchen trying to make invisible ink.

There is also something that resonates with people when you tell them you’re a scientist, a respect that you can see reflected back in their face, and the instant recognition of what you do, or at least what they think you do.  There are many ill-conceived notions of what it means to be a scientist but its still way easier to explain that being a program manager or something of that kind.

Looking back, it was probably too big a part of my identity.  Science became all-encompassing nin an eat, sleep, dream about it kind of way that threatened to drown out other interests that I’ve picked up along the way in life.  However, I’m assured from grad school colleagues that this is quite normal..

Given that I never planned on continuing as a lab researcher when I was done with my PhD, I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that this question has come up. I don’t think I was surprised that the question arose but more surprised about how I felt about the answer. I suppose I always thought I would be allowed to keep the scientist label, or least allowed to think of myself that way, as I progressed in my career.  I’m noticing now that it is not really going to be that way.  Having stepped away from the lab without doing a post-doc (or 3), becoming a professor and publishing even more papers and switching fields to boot, means that I even though I have those 3 letters after my name, I will not be viewed as a scientist by the scientific community.  The question now becomes not so much, how do I feel about stepping away from the technical work but how do I feel about other people’s perception of my scientific identity?  Do I need to be a technical expert to succeed?  I’ve given quite a bit of thought and here’s what I’ve come up with.

Despite the recent shift in thinking that technical expertise is essential for good management (cite HBR article), I now know I can be a good manager without that.  I’m actually a better manager than I ever would have been a lab scientist (see article about why I decided to leave the lab). I also know that individuals with deep technical experience can be great managers. So in thinking of success in terms of my ability to be a good manager, being a scientist doesn’t have any bearing.

The second aspect is my relationships with others in the workplace, especially with external partners.  I have to say that there is some impact here.  This one is harder to tease out though.  Since I switched areas of research some of my inexperience is due to new subject matter. I have come across some resistance to my presence in my position because I’m not a statistician or not an HIV scientist but that has not been the norm and since my last position was in an area I didn’t know well either, I’m used to doing the extra research and asking the right questions to get the information I need.  So I would call this one a draw.

Finally, there’s my own perception of my identity.  Why is it so important to me to say that I’m a scientist?  Is it because it was a dream of mine for so long and I can’t let that go?  Is it because it’s easier to explain to immigration officials in other countries?  Trust me, trying to explain what a program officer does or a senior manager does just results in more time going through the line, especially when you just got off a long flight (“no, I just give away money for other people do the science”, “no it’s a team of statisticians, you know, number crunchers”).  Having done some self-examination for a while, and in my more honest moments, I know this one comes down to ego.  I like the prestige of being a scientist.  I like the response I get from people when I tell them that’s what I do. And it’s time to let that go.  I didn’t get into science to feel good when I told random strangers my profession.  Years of living in Washington DC, where your value is tied to who you work for, have be de-programmed from my brain but I think I’m making progress on that one.

Now, when I’m asked, my response is that I made a conscious decision to step away from the technical lab work.  I did it because it best reflected both where I wanted my career to go and what my strengths are.  Yes, I still miss it sometimes, and I still get to be immersed in science for my job, I still get to interact with brilliant people and talk about the details of antibody binding (insert happy dance).  Also, I’ve done my research, I have contributed to the scientific annuls.  No one can take that away from me.  I will always be proud of that.  However, I also get to have a new kind of pride, the pride of managing a team of driven, dedicated and smart individuals all working to a common goal and that shared pride in a shared goal is even better.

My conclusion is that I may not be technically a scientist anymore and that is OK. So much has changed for me in the past few years and I’ve taken on a number of new identities that have nothing to do with my career (wife and mother, for example) so I think I can let one go.

I’d be really interested to hear what you think.  Do you still consider yourself a scientist?  Do you wrestle with a new identity?  Am I just over-thinking this whole thing? (A distinct possibility)  Will I ever write a post that doesn’t contain too many parentheses?

Razzle Dazzle Them

Wow – it’s been a while, hasn’t it?  I guess my “I’m going to post at least once every two weeks” goal is out the window.  But, in the spirit of self-compassion, I’m going to move on and get to this week’s post.

I’ve been promising this post and I think this is a good time to get to the topic of interviews, not just because it fits where we are in the narrative of my hiring, but also because I’m currently hiring a few positions and so my thoughts on the subject are pretty fresh.

The first interview for my current position was with the senior management team, which consisted of three other people at the time, all men who are well established in their careers.  It was daunting to say the least, however, not as scary as it could have been and if you’ll permit a small (read: large) tangent, I will tell you why.

If you’ll remember WAY back to my first post where I wrote so beautifully and eloquently about how I came upon this job that you were moved to tears, or at least kept reading, you’ll recall that I interviewed for another position in the organization and was directed to this one.  The individual that interviewed me then and thought of me for my current job just happened to be on the senior management team.  I didn’t know that at the time.  What I did know was that he was relatively high up in the organization and that we had some things in common in terms of management styles (e.g. Agile – look it up if you want to geek out on IT management).  I wanted to keep him in my network regardless of how it worked out with the position because I identified in him a kindred spirit in terms of how we thought about organizational strategy, process improvement, etc, and because I found him easy to talk to and a good person with which to brainstorm.  So, I arranged to have coffee with him a few times to pick his brain about a project I was doing in my then and also to ask about this new position.

Now, I know what the more cynical among you might say; “This sounds like you were using this person to get what you wanted”.  And you would be correct.  He was also using me to get what he wanted, a certain type of person in the organization that thinks the way he does and that he thought would be good for the organization.   This mutual and beneficial exchange is how networking often works and I can’t emphasize this enough: DO NOT BE AFRAID TO DO THIS.  DO NOT BE AFRAID TO NETWORK, TO USE CONNECTIONS, TO ASK PEOPLE FOR A FAVOR. It can feel sneaky, it can feel machiavellian, and it also doesn’t have to be bad.  In this particular instance we both got what we wanted and so far it is working out just fine.  I think women in particular have trouble with this.  We feel that the merit of our work alone should mean we advance or get the job, the trouble is that if no one notices that merit, it’s not going to happen.  So, you have to make people notice so get out there and do it.

And that my friends is how you turn a post about interviewing into a post about networking.  Tada!

Back to interviewing:  making that connection with one of the senior management team I was interviewing with and having already had discussions with him about what the organization was looking for, made the interview so much easier.  I knew I already had one person in the room who was in my cheering section, so to speak.

From my perspective, being ready with good interview questions is another important step for high-level interviews (or any interview really).  Now what do I mean by “good” interview questions.  These are questions that show that you’ve done research into the organization and that you are interested in knowing more.  Some of my favorites include:

  1. Where do you see the organization (or team/department/unit) in 5 years? (I like to know what a leader’s vision is because I need to believe in the vision to work for a person).  This was also a good question in my case because others in the room were curious about the answer as well.
  2. What is the biggest challenge facing the organization?
  3. what is the biggest opportunity the organization and what would keep you from grabbing it?
  4. What does success look like in this position?

There are also many good examples of questions online and, as always, asking friends and colleagues is a great way to collect questions.

Fundamentally though, if it comes down to you and another qualified candidate, it’s about impressions. Here are some things to consider when creating an impression:

  1. I personally am a firm believer in being overdressed is better than being under-dressed.  However, doing some research on the company in this regard is a good idea.  You don’t want to necessarily show up in a suit if the company prides itself in it’s “T-shirt and jeans culture” as you might be seen as someone who wouldn’t fit in.
  2. Try and keep your answers to-the-point and succinct.  It’s better for the interviewers to ask follow-on questions than for you to ramble around an answer.  As you can tell, I’m a huge rambler so this is a particular challenge for me.
  3. Don’t be afraid to ask for clarification to a question as a way to pause while you formulate an answer, or simply say, “let me think about that for a second”.
  4. Again we come back to the motif of being clear on what you offer to the organization, especially in terms of perceived gaps in the organization. I’m going to keep talking about this because I think its critical.

For me, the number 1 thing to remember is that you are interviewing them as much as they are interviewing you.  Just keeping this one fact in mind goes along way to help the perceived power differential in the room.

Next time in this space – interviewing people you are going to be managing.

 

 

To Do:

To_Do_List

I live by my To Do lists.  During the craziest times in my Ph.D. I had my To Do list broken down not only by day but also by time of day.  It sounds a little, or a lot, hyper-Type A, but it kept me calm in the swirl that was getting my dissertation research done.  I’ve always relied on actual written lists.  A recent article in the New York Times (https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/22/business/laptops-not-during-lecture-or-meeting.html) highlighted the advantage of writing over typing in terms of retention in our memories.  To me, there’s something about the tactile pleasure of checking an item off my To Do list (always with a different color) that is motivating.

Recently though, my tried and true strategy has been failing me.  I think that there are two reasons for this.  One is that I haven’t had time in the past few weeks to update my To Do list which means I definitely haven’t had time to get through the list.  Secondly, which is a consequence of the first problem, is that I constantly feel as though I’m just fighting fires instead of having time to sit and think about the larger items that need to get done or review my notes from meetings or piece together various bits of information I’ve gotten throughout the day.  Compounding this issue is that I’m still trying to learn both what the organization does and how to be a manager.  I know, I know, waa, waa, waa, complain, complain, complain.

We’re all super busy.  Every manager has days that are packed with meetings and less and less time for reflection and to gather thoughts. Everyone feels underwater as they adjust to a new job.  None of this is front page news.  I have felt some of this before in the many transitions I’ve made over the years.  I feel that the magnitude of this transition is what is overwhelming for me.  Currently, there are two main pain points for me in the transition, learning and time management.

I’ll tackle the learning component first.  I’ve heard the first six months to a year at an organization described as “drinking from a fire house” and it can definitely feel that way.  My current struggle is trying to find the line between how much I need to learn about the technical details of what my team is doing and how much I need to learn general management skills.  Now, I know the answer to this question.  I need to focus way more on learning general management skills.  I have a team of middle management that are very skilled technically that I can rely on and others in the organization that I can go to with questions.  It is much more important that I learn how to manage and lead. While I know that is true, every single scientific bone in my body is saying “you have to be a technical expert.  That is the only way people will respect you”.  That message was driven into me so many times throughout my career so far that it’s a hard one to silence now. It is a message that I still get.  Even though I have a PhD, the fact that I don’t know all the ins and outs of this particular field still results in some skepticism that I can feel and that sometimes is voiced.  The result is me feeling pushed and pulled in different directions and spinning my wheels instead of focusing my energy into the activities that will most likely result in my success. Aside from talking to mentors, my boss, etc to get feedback on what I should be focusing on (something I do regularly), one item that has helped as been “The First 90 Days”.  I really can’t say enough about this book and since this is a new blog, you can rest assured that I’m not getting paid to promote it.  Even if you have been in your current job forever, you should read this book.  It is a super practical guide to how to set yourself up for success coming into a management position, what to focus on, how to go about learning, etc.  I read the whole thing through and now I’m going back through to implement certain parts……if only I had the time.  It does advocate for learning only what you absolutely need to know to effectively manage your team, and contribute to the organization.  This has been and will continue to be a difficult lesson for me as a battle my inner scientist screaming to be the smartest person in the room.  Swallowing the ego would be so much easier if it wasn’t quite so big.

Which brings me to the second struggle, time management.  I used to watch the managers and leaders I worked for flit from meeting to meeting, the better ones always being on top of what the meeting was for, always having germane and insightful input, and never seeming to have time to do anything else. And, I still wonder about that only now I’m locked in that cycle too. My days are packed with meetings.  I filled my office with things I like to make it a nice work space and I’m rarely there.  There are several solutions to this such as blocking out time on my calendar, answering emails before bed, etc that are fairly easy.  I think what I’m struggling with more is how to time manage my brain.  How to be able to shift gears relatively quickly.  How do I go from meetings, to down time, to meetings again and retain everything, synthesize everything, pull it all back up together into an overall vision for my team?  These are skills and strategies that good leaders learn along the way and I’m at a loss for how to learn them. I’ve been toying with the idea of hiring an executive coach for some time now and I’m thinking more and more that that is the way to go.  I will of course continue reading books and articles (Harvard Business Review is a fav) and attending courses at work but I think I need individual coaching from someone outside my organization, someone who has worked with other professionals before and can provide an objective opinion.  I will of course continue to use my tried and true strategy of To Do lists but I know now that, as with much of what I carried into this job with me, they are not enough.  That is one of the chief lessons of “The First 90 Days”, the skills and qualities that got you to this new management position are not enough to allow you to succeed in it.  It’s more than a bit sobering and I’m hoping it will also be motivational for me soon too.

So no snappy things I’ve learned bullet points to end this post.  Just a plea for help/suggestions.  If you have any tried and true organization/time management/how to restructure your brain tips you use, I would love to hear them.

 

You want what?!?

We left our heroine (not the drug) on the phone in a state of disbelief at what she was hearing.  Based on an interview for a less senior position, someone thought she would be a good candidate for a senior management spot.  I think my jaw is still on the floor somewhere.  Throughout my job hunting experience this time around, I took the rather undignified stance of complaining about the process.  I wanted the fairy tale job experience where someone sees me from across a crowded networking event and says “You, you are the right person to lead my team!” Then the clock strikes midnight and I have to run for a Lyft, and I leave my beautiful, sequined Louboutin shoe behind as the only clue that I was there.  Hmmm…I might be conflating day dreams.  My feet are far too big to fit into Louboutins. Regardless, I thought that I was at the point in my career where I could reasonably expect to be recruited. I had grown so weary of feeling like I was begging for a job, all the resume tailoring, all the cover letter writing, all the interviewing.  It really takes a hit on your self-esteem.

Little did I realize that like all good fairy tales, the myth of a the perfect job just dropping into your lap is untrue.  You can indeed have a job find you, but it takes work and sometimes it takes some time before the work pays off.  I alluded to that work at the end of my last post.  Being clear about what you want, and don’t want, and about what you can bring to an organization.  I found it also helps to be deliberate about your career and to try and position yourself in the best way possible for future success. I’ll elaborate on how my seemingly erratic career path was actually deliberate in another post.

Back to our story.  That phone call resulted in several rounds of interviews with other senior members of the organization, the individuals who would become my direct reports, and key partners to the organization.  It was a fairly lengthy process and I can discuss interview techniques elsewhere to avoid making this post roughly the size of a Dostoevsky novel.  Then came the moment….the offer, or should I say the negotiation of the offer.  I was beyond nervous about this part of the process.  I had read “Lean In” and all the articles about how women (and everyone) needs to negotiate, I was committed to the process, and I was petrified.  What if my salary demands were too high, what if my other requests were unreasonable, what if they withdrew their interest?  Fortunately, I a great resource on-hand, “Five Minutes to a Higher Salary”.  This slim book has useful tips and actual scripts for all sorts of scenarios for negotiations.  Using tips from this book and the qualifying language expected of women (“Do you think it would be possible?”, etc), I emailed the recruiter my response to their salary offer and some additional requests.  Something to keep in mind is that salary is not the sum total of compensation.  Things like vacation time, flexible schedule, professional development, and others can all be negotiated.

Much to my surprise, much of what I asked for was not a problem.  We came to a good agreement and I had a new job!  I set my starting date to make sure I had a few weeks off in between, something I always do.  Then, the panic set in.  What in the world was I doing?  I was going to manage a team of 50?!?!  A team of 50 statisticians when I have no deep technical knowledge in this area?!?  What was I thinking?  I’ll talk about my still on-going adjustment in the next post.  For now, here’s some thoughts to leave you with:

  1. You can set yourself up to be recruited, even without the sparkly Louboutins, by:
    1. being confident and relaxed in your interactions
    2. going after opportunities that you might not initially see as “good”
    3. speaking about the value you bring to an organization and backing it up with concrete examples
  2. Have a little faith, in yourself and other people.
  3. NEGOTIATE!!!  It’s beyond uncomfortable for most people but it’s so worth it.  Don’t forget to include things like a work laptop/cell phone, flexible schedule, the ability to renegotiate salary/title at six months pending a performance review, other benefits.
  4. Be yourself.  I was my slightly over-the-top, expressive and outgoing self at most of the interviews and I still am for the most part at my job and I think it’s working out for me.

Round and round she goes, where she stops, nobody knows.

Long Post Ahead:  Towards the end of my fellowship at the Gates Foundation, I wasn’t exactly sure where I was going to end up.  I had had a series of unhelpful conversations with people in various organizations and internally.  I had interviewed places and not gotten any offers.  It was really disheartening.  In the round about way that these things often happen, a conversation with a colleague led to a lead.  I ended up transferring to a temporary assignment on another team that I thought would be good to buy more time to find something more permanent.

This new assignment had me coordinating a new model of working for data scientists and content experts such as nutritionists and pediatricians.  It was very interesting and very rewarding work.  The model took off quickly and soon the requests were pouring in for data scientist time using this new way of working.  I probably could have stayed on that team and expanded and refined the process and really built something great.  It would have allowed me to stay at an organization that I believed in and in a group that was supportive.  I wouldn’t have to navigate new relationships and a new work place and all the newness that comes with big career changes.  I could be comfortable and stable and all those good things.  And yet…..I knew deep down that I needed something different and I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to find it at the organization I was in.

My long-term career goal is to hit the C suite.  I’m still waffling on CEO vs COO but I definitely want to be up there.  At this point in my career that means I NEED management experience.  I don’t have any management experience, at least not in the direct report sense, so I gotta start climbing that ladder.  For me, I didn’t see that path where I was so while I was happy, and supported, and all those goods things, I also knew I wasn’t going to move up, at least not with any sort of speed.

While I was still applying for jobs I came across one on a job website.  It was for a project and portfolio manager for the Statistical Center for HIV/AIDS Research and Prevention (SCHARP).  I went back and forth on this one.  The job seemed interesting, however, I wasn’t sure that I was fully qualified, never having had any formal project management training.  I eventually applied after the post had been up for awhile.  To make a long story even longer, by the time I got called in for an interview I had switched teams at the foundation and so was not in immediate need of a job and they had already identified a candidate.  The result was the most honest interview I have ever had.  At the end, the interviewer said there was an open position that I might be good for.  Of course, I thought that was just a line.

Much to my surprise, I got an email shortly after asking to introduce me to the director of SCHARP.  And thus began a series of interviews that would culminate with me in my current position, one that I would have never envisioned for myself, yet one that I think is very well-suited for this stage of my career.   I have to admit, when the director said he wanted to talk with me about interviewing for the head of a team of statisticians, I thought he was out of his mind.  From the beginning, I was very honest about the fact that I had did not have any “traditional” management experience and that I was not a statistician myself.  I know that is not what we’re taught about interviews.  We’re supposed to highlight our strengths and turn conversations about our weaknesses into conversations about our strengths and all that good stuff.  At this point, I was just so tired of all the conversations, all the informational interviews, the actual interviews, the get-to-know you interviews that I just wanted to be really candid about what I wanted in my next position and what I could offer.  The feeling of being that open was refreshing and, much to my surprise, it worked!

Since this post is already verging on way too long, I’ll save the details of the interview process and negotiations for further posts.  What I took away from the spinning top that was my job search was:

  1. The more you can define where you want to go and what you do and do not want to do, the better off you are and the more people can help.
  2. Know your value – what can you contribute to an organization.  Make sure you can communicate that and provide concrete examples.
  3. Don’t get too comfortable.  If you have a big dream, make sure you don’t get stuck somewhere because it feels nice and cozy and comfy.

New Year, New Me?

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One of my good friends is excellent at setting yearly goals.  She just kills it.  Me, I’m more of a long-term goal person.  I can see where I want to be in 3-5 years and roughly how to get there but breaking it down into yearly goals is definitely not my strong suit.  In that same vein, I’ve never made New Year’s resolutions because I know they would evaporate about a month, if sooner.  This year though, I really want it to be different.  So I crowd-sourced one goal for 2018 and created one of my own.   The crowd-sourced goal is to get back to dancing (check out my Instagram to see if I meet that goal) and my own goal is to get FINALLY get this blog thing going.  I don’t want to completely psychoanalyze my reasons for not keeping up with the blog (just a little bit of fear of exposing myself), nor do I want to go down the path of blaming being a busy mom, etc, etc.  What I do want to do is acknowledge that I do have something to say as a women in data science and as a PhD working outside the “traditional” career path and that there are, hopefully, people who want to hear it.  So, here we go.

I think the best place to start is with an update on where I am now and a little bit of how I got to this new job.  I can then go into looking further back into my career if that is of interest.

Update: I am currently working at SCHARP, the Statistical Center for HIV/AIDS Research and Prevention.  I lead a crack team of statisticians and programmers that support clinical trials for HIV/AIDS prevention and vaccine trials.  It truly is an amazing organization to work with.  I talk about it more later if people want to know how it’s structured, what exactly we do, etc.  But for now the key points are:

  1. I went from never having a direct report in my entire career to managing a team of 50 people (eek!)
  2. I switched fields yet again to clinical trials and HIV and more importantly, statistics. Which means that yet again, I am not an expert in anything I have to do for my job. This explains the header image of this post.
  3. I am even further removed from the ground work that to defined my image of what global health work involves and this is something that I am still struggling with.
  4. This may actually be the most important and impactful work of my career.

I think I’ll leave it there for now.  Next time I’ll start the story of how I got this position because it’s definitely an interesting one.