Reflections after 1 year at a Start Up

It’s been about a year since I replied to an email from the founders of Mass Dynamics, with the subject “We can't wait for you to join the MD team!”. I had signed it off with; “May the 4th be with you”. Geeky, I know but for the company that coined #massgeek, I felt it was safe to go with it. 

On May the 4th 2020, I joined Mass Dynamics, as a Senior Software Engineer and Employee #1. 

Joining a super early start start-up is not the easiest or safest thing to do mid-career and the last 12 months certainly presented some interesting challenges and learnings which I want to share with you.

1. The Risk Assessment

Many people would rightly consider joining a small start-up daunting, risky even “Why would anyone want to join a start-up when you could join a huge tech company with potentially more pay, more people to receive mentoring from and more promotion opportunities to name a few pro-tech-company reasons.”

2. No hiding in a cubicle, working with people doing their life work

One of the long list of reasons to join a start-up is you’ll be stretched and exposed to other functions you wouldn’t normally interact with, get a solid understanding of how other parts of the business work, you’ll 100% get to speak directly with customers (which is unusual for software engineers who are used to working behind the scenes) and you’ll need to be or get good quickly at what you do as there are no passengers and no hiding in a cubicle. The best part of working in a start-up is the work you do will more often than not have an immediate and meaningful impact on the company, customers and the world (cliche). And of course, the fact that you will work closely with highly motivated, focused and talented people who thrive on delivery and performance is the biggest benefit. 

3. Contributing to a big hairy mission

When I was evaluating the prospect of working at  Mass Dynamics, I quickly realized we had an opportunity to make a positive difference, a real genuine positive difference in the world. I have worked with many other startups in the field of Big-data analytics, Ad-Tech, EduTech which  were all wonderful career experiences but none sought to:

“ humanity and society from the burden of disease”
“Cool, when do we start?! “
4. Enabling super smart human beings to create exponential impact
 “... so much human potential being wasted..."

I vividly recall an early interaction with one of our customers. During an immersion session, I had the opportunity to observe which software was being used and how it was being used. I watched in horror as he fumbled around with spreadsheets on a network drive and used “nostalgic” looking desktop software to cobble together a workflow process that left a high margin of room for errors. This person is incredibly intelligent and trying to do important impactful work yet was wasting time and energy on routine mundane computing tasks leaving little time for him to do the more important work of insight and analysis! I felt that there was so much human potential being wasted here. Knowing Mass Dynamics and I had the ability and skills to significantly improve how scientists do their important work became a personal key motivator for me from the start and still is today.

5. Pulling every last trick out of your hat to help progress solutions 
“...naming stuff well.”

I consider myself a good software engineer, capable of understanding complex domains; more than enough to get the job done anyway. “How hard can this be?” I asked myself.  Well, turns out Science is hard! In particular, Mass spectrometry and proteomics are complicated. More complicated than any domain I have ever worked in. I found that applying some of the techniques from DDD (Domain Driven Design) has been very helpful (mostly the concept of ubiquitous language). Although there is a lot to this topic, it boils down to; essentially naming stuff well. It sounds simple to the uninitiated but for those on the inside,  we all know naming stuff well is one of the hardest things about computer science. For example, I recently noticed a component called “PeptideMappingPtms.vue”.  “PeptideMapping” invokes a context of one of our products and PTM (Post-Translational Modification) is a domain-specific term. This would make sense to domain experts.

Despite the earlier feelings of risk and the complexity of the domain, I feel extremely lucky and privileged to be a part of Mass Dynamics. As Employee #1 and therefore first to reach the 1 year tenure milestone, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed being the “veteran” and stepping up to help shape the company which I may not have had the opportunity to do at a “big corporate company”.  In the next year and beyond, I’m looking forward to helping grow the company and continuously aspire to play my part in freeing humanity and society from the burden of disease.

May the 4th be you!

by Sean Brady, Senior Software Engineer, Employee #1, #massgeek

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