GET EMAIL UPDATES FROM POWERTOFLY
By signing up you accept the Terms of Service and Privacy Policy
BROWSE CATEGORIES
GET EMAIL UPDATES FROM POWERTOFLY
Career Advice

From Chemist to Coder:

Transitioning from Academia to Startups, Learning to Manage Others, and Exploring AI with Primer's Anna Venancio-Marques

Anna Venancio-Marques set out to get her PhD in chemistry because she was curious.

She was curious about how the world worked, about how she could have an impact. She was especially curious about molecular biology and microfluidics—the topic of her dissertation.

Several years of study later, her curiosity had waned in the face of the "publish or perish" pressure that academics of many disciplines face. Anna realized that advancing research on one specific problem probably wouldn't lead to the impact she wanted her career to have.

Now, as the Staff Engineering Manager at machine intelligence startup Primer, Anna has been able to make an impact on future applications of natural language processing, initially as an individual contributor and now as a team lead. "I feel that I have a lot of power when I do data science," she reflects. "Through science, I can have an impact."

And it's not so far off from her academic days. "Chemistry is really close to data science," she notes. "In my current role, I have experiments I need to run. I make hypotheses that I need to validate—and that's very much the approach a chemist would take. The transition has meant being open to more data and different questions outside the realm of chemistry. But the exploration is the same."

Big corporations vs. smaller startups: following the opportunity

Anna enrolled in an MBA program after finishing her PhD to help her transition from academia to the corporate world. When she finished that degree and was entertaining job offers, she was deciding between working for a big company or a more niche data science startup.

She went with the latter. "I was looking for that 'anything is possible' kind of experience in a startup," explains Anna. "I wanted to get wide exposure, including in writing production-level code that you ship out to customers."

She moved to San Francisco from Paris—she's originally from Lyon, France, but says her home country's startup ecosystem is still "developing" and she was drawn to the vibrancy of the Bay Area—and began her career as a data scientist.

Her first role at Primer was the deeply technical, fast-paced, opportunity-packed experience she was looking for. As the company grew, so did Anna's responsibilities. "There were always opportunities to raise your hand and say, 'Well, I'm interested in this, I'm willing to try it,'" she says. She was working on natural language processing projects, and as the company won more and more contracts, she took on more and more projects. "It was a much, much faster pace than I would've gotten in any other setting," she says.

Anna loved the problems she was solving. "It's really exciting to look at data and ask questions of the data to go after the answers. It's really fun to think you're just about to crack something and just about to get an answer," she remembers. But as her responsibilities grew, her time spent getting her hands dirty writing code shrunk. She started working with one other engineer, then took on a team of six, which grew to a team of ten.

She had become a manager—which was something she didn't quite know how to be.

"What got you here won't get you there": advice for new managers

Anna knows now that the skills she developed as an individual contributor weren't the ones she needed as a team lead. But she had to figure out what those new needed skills were—and how to acquire them. "I thought I had proved myself. I was very proud of my skills as an IC," she says. "But I needed to expand on them and be humble enough to realize that there was a whole new set of skills I needed to be developing."

Anna entered what she calls "learning mode," which was enabled by Primer's culture and values, particularly their focus on being "always human." To Anna, this means being actively willing to help, teach, and learn together, keeping in mind each team member's different experience and perspective.

Of all the new skills she's picked up, there are a few Anna would highlight for engineers making the transition to management:

  • Lean on the side of over-communicating. "Make sure you have a shared vocabulary," Anna says, giving the example of hearing a product manager use the phrase "anomaly detection" and not being sure whether that PM was referencing specific machine learning methods or more abstract concepts. "Over-communicate and ensure that you're on the same page and understanding the same things."
  • Assume the best in others. "You've got to assume good intent in other people—that will make them more likely to want to answer your questions and to send questions your way when they feel that they don't understand something."
  • Make connections all over the company. This advice serves two purposes, says Anna: first, as a manager, you'll need to be interfacing with people from other departments, and being friendly with them makes it easier. Second, managers need to "understand the value of the work you're doing as a company and transmit that to the people on your team," she says. Knowing intimately how the sales team is doing or what client service's experiences with users are like enables a manager to help transmit that bigger picture.
  • Have clear expectations when you make assignments. When handing off work to your team, says Anna, you need to get detailed. "You don't want them to have just a very vague idea of what you want to achieve, but rather something much more concrete that will allow you to flag those cases where something is stalling or not working," she says.
  • Know how to spot when people are blocked. "You need to be able to pull people back from going off in one direction, which requires a lot of self-awareness and listening to your team so that you can catch those situations," she says. A good flag that someone's off track and needs managerial intervention? "Listening to an engineer telling you, 'I'm almost there!' for a week straight," she says, smiling.

Though she misses writing code herself, Anna loves that her role allows her to empower others and celebrate their wins with them. "I get so excited when [my team] comes to me and shows me the things they've achieved or the really great ideas they've had. It's really nice to be at that central point," she says.

Driving towards the future

Currently, Anna's team is working on natural language processing—in essence, helping the analysts who use Primer's products make sense of and derive insights from the increasingly high volume of written texts available online.

"We're processing more and more writing, which is a kind of unstructured data. To go after that data, the tools scale very much linearly to the number of analysts you have," she says. "If we allow our computers to do a lot of the heavy lifting, we're allowing analysts to have more time to be curious about the data and to interact with it. We're making sure our software can provide answers for analysts and make sure humans are doing work that humans are good at."

Three years into her career at Primer, Anna still enjoys working with people as interested and curious about the future of data science and machine learning as she is. "It's so nice to see that enthusiasm throughout Primer. People are motivated no matter what their job responsibilities are," she says.

"Even if there are philosophical differences of what's the best way to answer a given problem, people want the best thing to be done for whatever question we're trying to solve for," she says of the collective drive and passion she sees on a daily basis.

Anna says that Primer's focus on being humble and low-ego and investment in continuous learning is what she most enjoys. "You need to be able to say that maybe two years from now, I'll retire code that I wrote because there's a much better solution—and that's perfect," she says.

If Primer's mission and ethos appeal to you, and you're excited by the possibility of continuous learning and teaching, check out their open jobs here or leave a question for Anna in the comments!

popular

How These Companies Are Celebrating Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month

According to a recent study, anti-Asian hate crimes have risen 150% since the pandemic started. But these acts of violence are not new — they are part of a much larger history of anti-Asian racism and violence in the U.S.

That makes celebrating Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month (which was named a month-long celebration in May by Congress in 1992 "to coincide with two important milestones in Asian/Pacific American history: the arrival in the United States of the first Japanese immigrants on May 7, 1843 and contributions of Chinese workers to the building of the transcontinental railroad, completed May 10, 1869") this year all the more important.

READ MORE AND DISCUSS Show less
CSL

The Outlook That Helps CSL’s Paula Manchester Invest in Herself and Her Team

If you told Paula Manchester that you weren't good at math, she wouldn't believe you.

"That's a global indictment," she says. "'I'm not good at math' implies that you don't have the ability to nurture that muscle. And then I'd ask what kind of math? There's a lot to math."

READ MORE AND DISCUSS Show less
LogMeIn Inc.

Behind-the-Scenes: Sales Interview Process at LogMeIn

Get an inside look at the interview process for sales roles at LogMeIn, one of the largest SaaS companies providing remote work technology, from Michael Gagnon, Senior Manager of Corporate Account Executive Sales.

READ MORE AND DISCUSS Show less
Procore Technologies Inc

How Being an Open Member of the LGBTQIA+ Community Has Helped Procore’s Alex Zinik Overcome Imposter Syndrome at Work

Alex Zinik wasn't surprised that she started her career in education—she decided she would become a teacher when she was just in third grade.

She was surprised while working as a paraeducator in the school system and preparing to become a special education teacher, she discovered that it didn't feel quite right. "I didn't know if that's what I really wanted to do," she recalls.

So a friend suggested she take a job during her off summers at construction software company Procore. She thought this would be the perfect opportunity to try out this new challenge, and if she needed to, she could go back to the school district once the summer was over.

"Five summers later, I'm still here!" she says, smiling. "And I see myself here for many more years. I just fell in love with the company, the culture, and with the career growth opportunities I was presented with."

As part of our Pride month celebrations, Alex, currently the Senior Executive Assistant to the CEO at Procore, sat down with us to share how a common fear—the fear of being found out—underlay the imposter syndrome she felt when pivoting to an industry in which she lacked experience, and the anxiety she often felt before coming out to her friends and family about her sexuality.

Read on for her insight on overcoming negative thought patterns, being yourself, and paying it forward.

READ MORE AND DISCUSS Show less
Afterpay

How Afterpay’s Emma Woods Seeks Out Growth for Herself and Her Team

When Emma Woods decided to take her children out of school for six months and homeschool them while traveling around Australia in a caravan, it wasn't the first time she found a way to balance personal and professional growth. It was just a more extreme version of the types of choices she had been making throughout her career.

Emma started her career in the world of telecommunications, moving from IC to team manager, then to contract positions when she had her children and needed flexible scheduling. Now in her current role as an Engineering Manager at payment platform Afterpay, Emma continues to find ways to manage her personal and professional growth, and her family's well-being.

READ MORE AND DISCUSS Show less
© Rebelmouse 2020