Alumni Profile – Anna Weber

Tell me about yourself.

I am currently a software engineer. I work at an early-stage biotech startup called MantleBio. I started my career more on the software side, working as a software engineer at Target in Minneapolis. I studied Computer Science and Engineering at Ohio State, but always really was interested in getting to work at the intersection of science and software engineering.

Why did you choose the MSSE program?

Initially, I wasn’t strongly considering going to grad school. I loved what I was doing as a software engineer, but a coworker of mine at Target had recommended looking at grad schools. The MSSE program stood out to me because it wasn’t just centered on becoming a better software engineer, it wasn’t just centered on becoming a better engineering leader, and it wasn’t solely centered on science. It had a great blend of all of those different skill sets, was going to allow me to further refine the engineering expertise that I had developed in my time working in the industry, and better equip me with the tools that I would want if I wanted to work on interdisciplinary teams in the future.

How did the Berkeley MSSE program prepare you for your role at MantleBio?

I would say one of the most beneficial courses I took was data science. The scientists we work with need data science to analyze experimental data that’s coming off of custom pipelines that they’ve written. When we’re implementing the software that they’re going to run these on, we need an understanding of how they’re writing these pipelines, how they’re going through these statistics and workflows to understand their results. That’s one beneficial aspect of the program in terms of courses.

The Capstone helped prepare me for what it’s like to be product-minded in a scientific space. I think, just as an engineer, having a product mindset, being able to approach problems from first principles, and being able to understand your user is already a challenge. It can become increasingly challenging when you have this combination of customers who are computational bio folks and also scientists working in the wet lab, and you have to understand that user a lot. Having the opportunity to work with a Ph.D. student doing computational chemistry gave me that lens into what it’s like to work with someone that has some of the technical expertise broader than the scope that you do, and be able to communicate with them about requirements and understand how to implement solutions that are going to fit their needs.

What was your transition like from graduate school to working full-time in the tech industry? Were there any unexpected challenges or advantages you encountered?

My current role is unique in that I get to pull both from my experience in grad school, as well as my experience working in prior industry roles. My prior roles have been more in software, but I’ve interfaced a lot with application management. After Target, I worked at a company called Upstart that does machine learning for underwriting, personal loans, and a couple of other different loans. I interfaced closely with their machine learning team, in which a lot of the principles that are used in machine learning and data science on that side of things are used in computational workflows across different types of industries. That could be biotech, that could be computational chemistry. I get to pull over some of those skills. I also spent a lot of time while I was at Target building infrastructure, and developer tooling to help engineers get their work done easier. My team at Target was essentially engineering enablement. I feel like what we’re doing at MantleBio is computational science enablement. I get to pull over my expertise and understanding of that type of user but also get to have that fundamental understanding of how these infrastructure-level systems work, and you can apply a lot of that knowledge when you’re building a system that’s meant for scientists.

How do you stay updated with the latest industry trends and technologies?

I think following the leaders in the space is hugely important, keeping tabs on the companies that are doing interesting research, and reading a lot of papers. Sometimes it’s intimidating to read papers, especially for me, since I started from a software engineering background as opposed to a science background. What I look at now is oftentimes published research, which is very intimidating if you’re someone who hasn’t spent a lot of time in academia. Getting comfortable with that has helped me grow, helped me understand where trends are going, and what’s being used to do different things, and has helped me better understand the user that I’m building for, which is so huge. I think the more that you spend time reading those, there are not as many intimidating, big, scary words, and you know what content is critical versus what content is specifically geared towards somebody who’s trying to reproduce it. I just care about the trends. What are the needs of what I’m building? I’m meeting the needs of the people that are working on these kinds of projects. Getting to learn how to pull that insight out of the material is huge.

It’s been a cool realization as I’ve transitioned to this space where I do sit at this intersection where some of the people that I work with are people who have just been in the industry for 30-plus years, whereas some people have spent most of their careers in academia or research. Getting exposure to all of this has helped me learn and pick up the skill of recognizing what knowledge is useful to you from papers. When you are reading a paper, there are different kinds of goals that you could have. It could be that I’m just trying to grow my knowledge. It could be that I’m a scientist, and I’m trying to reproduce results. It could be that I want to understand methodology, because I’m running my experiment, and I want to use something similar. So there are specific sections that are going to matter more to me, and then others that might matter a lot to someone who’s reading it, because they’re trying to do a study around a similar space. So that’s an interesting skill that I’ve had to pick up.

What have been the most significant factors in your professional growth since joining MantleBio?

I’ve been at MantleBio for about four or five months now. I think that the experience that you get when you join an early-stage startup is you have to own a lot of different things. It’s very different from a larger company where people are going to give you very well-defined tasks, and you just have to execute them. You now have to define tasks for yourself, you have this loose goal that is set as a team, but you fill the role of someone who works in product as well as somebody who works in engineering as well as somebody who works in DevOps. Some of your time is allocated towards gathering requirements, and talking to people who have expertise on what the user needs, while some of your time is spent breaking that down into modular tasks that you can execute on. Some of that time is going to be spent on figuring out how to support this, how to maintain it, how to make sure that it’s tested, and easy to deploy. You grow quickly because there are a lot of different aspects that you have to work on. It’s very easy to become overwhelmed, but I think that having the right team around you makes a huge difference. So I would say learning that balance, learning to fill those multiple spaces, and shifting from that mindset of somebody hands me a task, and I complete the task, to somebody has a loosely defined thing that they need, and I have to carry it from requirements gathering to delivery. I love doing that. But I think that that’s been a huge area of growth that I’ve experienced.

Based on your experience, what advice would you give to current MSSE students or professionals considering this program?

I think one of the biggest things that I’ve seen to be impactful for each of us is how much time we have spent honing our craft on areas that we were less familiar with when he came into the program. I think that that has helped us sit better in that niche of working cross-functionally with both scientists and engineering teams. My advice would be to lean into that discomfort of not being familiar with a certain topic. It’s tempting to only focus on what you’re already good at. For me, it was tempting to just focus on being good at writing code, and let my cohort help me in the science part. I am glad I worked on honing that skill set as well because it has made me so much more impactful in my role, working on a cross-functional team, than I would have been able to be if I had only honed in on my engineering skills.

Looking ahead, what are your professional aspirations?

One of the biggest goals that I’m focusing on is the growth and scale of the company that I’ve joined. I’m looking to help set engineering, culture, scientific culture, things like that. I think that’s a really exciting opportunity that comes around when you join a startup. So I think getting to see that growth come to fruition will lead to some excitement for us out on the road. I think longer term, something I’ve always really been interested in is getting to work in this space, as a founder of my own company, getting to start my own venture. That’s part of the reason why I’m doing this start-up in the first place, it’s good training wheels, an exercise to figure out all of the ins and outs of what it looks like to work at something early stage. I’d love to contribute to the industry in that way in the future. That’s my longer-term goal as I gain more expertise. I’m excited to continue being involved and helping drive the way that we leverage technology to do scientific research forward.