Name: Imogen Wright
Company: Hyrax Biosciences
What do you do every day? My days are pretty varied. My PhD was in bioinformatics, so sometimes I’ll be lucky enough to spend hours just reading papers and learning about new developments in biology. I also spend time talking to lawyers and potential business partners, and doing some of the other admin associated with co-founding a startup.
Hyrax Biosciences builds online tools that analyse the DNA of viruses and bacteria to look for drug resistance. This means that we can help doctors prescribe the right drugs to patients with HIV, TB and other communicable diseases, at a cost that makes these tests available to all patients, not just the wealthy ones. My co-founders and colleagues are all fantastic people, and we spend a lot of time dreaming together.
Mostly, though, I spend my time writing code that analyses DNA. Because modern DNA sequencing machines produce huge quantities of data, this code has to be really efficient. We use a lot of high-performance computing and cloud computing to get the job done. I have a great excuse to play with new, exciting tech tools all the time, which is so much fun.
How did you get into the tech space? I was one of those kids who liked to press buttons right from the beginning. I started learning to write code at twelve years old or so, because I loved playing open source games online and wanted to contribute to making them.
I was very lucky in that I grew up in a small town, Grahamstown, with a real over-concentration of geeky people and a strong Linux and open source culture. As such, when my teenage years hit and the social pressure to stop messing around with computers was strong, I already had great friendships with guys and girls, mostly older than me, who loved tech. Thus, I could keep learning.
Then I studied computer science and physics at Rhodes, did a masters in physics in Canada and started working as a software developer after that. The passion for biology followed a few years later, and here we are!
What was the best advice anyone ever gave you? One of my favourite lecturers at Rhodes, Pat Terry, gave me a great piece of advice in my first year there. I was dithering about subject choices, and he told me that the real key to success is to pick just one thing – anything – and stick with it, no matter what.
Of course, I jumped around in the science faculty and singularly failed to take his advice (sorry Pat), but the grit, resolve and persistence he was trying to teach have been a powerful guide during the trickier passages of my life.
What advice would you given someone wanting to get into the tech sector? The only thing needed to get into tech is to write good code. The only way to learn to write good code is to practise – I’m talking literally thousands of hours of practise. The best way to practise is to play around with open source software, and eventually to build your own projects. However, I’d advise against trying to learn to code. Try instead to build a piece of software you really want to build, and let learning to code be a means to that end.
Then just start interviewing. There are so many more jobs than developers that if you’ve followed the above steps it’s hard to go wrong. The only caveat is that if you’re anything other than a straight, able-bodied, cisgendered white man, there might still be companies where it’s intrinsically harder to succeed: learn to trust yourself, and learn to avoid those companies – I have, mostly, and I believe their days are numbered, anyway.
What motivates you to get out of bed everyday? The healthcare options available to the middle class in developed nations are so inaccessible to the rest of humanity that the two groups might as well exist on different planets. I get out of bed for the woman in a rural area who feels sick today and doesn’t know why, because she’s resistant to her HIV medication and it was too expensive to do a resistance test at the clinic. That woman shouldn’t be sick when we have the technology to keep her healthy, and it’s my joy and my passion to make that technology accessible.
Who do you want to be when you grow up? I hope I’ll still be myself – I like myself. If I can’t be myself I’d like to be Eddie Vedder, which would admittedly require becoming significantly cooler than I currently am and also being able to sing.