Front End Development at the Biology-Technology Interface


Synthace Team Interview with Front End Engineer Adam Murray.

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(Synthace): So could you start by telling me a little bit more about yourself?

(Adam): Oh, that’s a broad question! Education-wise I studied Physics at Glasgow Uni for 4 years because once upon a time I thought I wanted to be a scientist. I soon realised that whilst fascinating, being a scientist wasn’t really for me.! In my third year, I met some Computer Scientists and they showed me what programming was, and how computers worked and I thought it was really cool. So I started learning to programme, teaching myself from when I was 20/21. After my degree, I went on to start a conversion Masters in Computer Science. I ended up completing a diploma, I didn’t stay on to do the thesis. At that stage, I had enough skills/knowledge to work in programming.

I went to London and worked for 2 years as an developer. It was during this time that I got into front end and started teaching myself what I could. When my contract there came to an end I moved back up to Scotland and worked as front end dev at a small start-up in Edinburgh. After a couple of months, I became the front-end lead for a year before coming back to London and starting at Synthace.

What made you decide to go into Front End specifically?

When I was a kid I wanted to be an artist. I’m not bad at creative stuff, in fact, I’m probably better at that than technical stuff. I always wanted to work on stuff that was more creative. My grandmother was always very keen for me to have a ‘proper job’ so I was gently nudged away from creative roles towards more technical jobs. At school, I was drawn to Physics and Maths and was reasonably good at it and enjoyed them. I also did Art and Music, my top grade at school was from Music. When I got into programming and finally discovered front end I realised I could make beautifully crafted front ends that people love using. I could make things that look nice and have instant feedback for my artistic creative side and I could also use the problem-solving aspect of my brain and work with intelligent people. It was the best of both worlds for me. It made more sense to me. I enjoy the instant user-feedback nature of front end work.

So what brought you to Synthace?

I was looking to come back to London from Scotland and knew I wanted a start-up environment and wanted something much more interesting and meaningful than I had been doing before.

The chance to work in Synthetic Biology really interested me– as stated above, I do like science. I like the mentality of it. I really enjoy talking with scientists and the idea of working with them without having to do the science work itself. I was super excited from the start about the idea of the company – being able to ply my craft in an interesting scientific field. And if we succeed with what we say we are going to do, it’s going to be huge, we are going to change the world! A revolution within biology is going to change the world as much as the industrial revolution or the information age of the last 100 years. The aspiration of the company is very high and plausible and something I think about a lot. It’s great to have something to reach towards and this is cool because it’s a proper big goal to aim at.

And so when you came for the interview… where you looking for anything specific?

For me, the most important thing is the people I’m working with more than anything. I was keen to find out if I could learn anything from them. I was looking for value in the work, but more so in what I could learn from the people.

Front end is pretty similar wherever you work, even on a complex project most of the work you’ll be doing is handling UX, handling UI, architecture, etc so I was more interested in the people I would be working with, I was trying to see how smart people were and what I could learn from them. When I was in the interview it was pretty obvious from the people I met that I could learn a lot. The fact that greater than 50% of the company is made up of scientists, that people were highly qualified in their field, that they were really nice and obviously driven too. It’s important for me to be surrounded by driven people.

I still believe that is what I found.

What does your average day look like working at Synthace?

Get in, clean my Star Trek mug which gives me a lot of confidence as I get to see William Shatner’s face, have a coffee, check what everyone else has been up to who started before me. We have flexi-time so some people start earlier than me. We have our stand-up at 10 am. We discuss what we’re doing that day, plan out who to work with if they have any blockers etc. Then get to my laptop, select some choice tunes (currently some Berlin Techno) and then bash out some work. I have lunch around 1 pm, and then keep working.

Some days I have a feature I’ve been working on the previous day that I just pick up and run with, sometimes I have to review lots of pull requests. I might have to review a larger pull request and be back and forth discussing changes. Or I could be doing bug fixes etc. It depends on where we are in the sprint. Sometimes I’ll be writing tests, or testing the platform, or researching something new about the web platform or javascript or some new technology that could be useful for some feature. No two days are the same.

What sort of technologies do you work with at Synthace?

As I’m front end, it’s mainly Javascript, HTML, CSS, and Google’s polymer which is essentially a framework which allows you to write web components even in browsers that don’t support them. I suppose it’s not really a framework, more a bunch of libraries which let you write web components.

We use raw CSS, we don’t use any pre- or post-processors. In terms of HTML we use raw HTML, as we’re using Polymer.

In terms of architecture on top of that, we use some specific ways of writing CSS, we use BEM. The web technologies are pretty standard. We use GULP to handle specific parts of the build. We use NPM scripts but everything’s quite standard.

You didn’t use Polymer before working here, so what was it like to pick up?

It’s actually pretty good. I used to use Angular before. Polymer is much easier to pick up and understand than Angular and much more useful afterwards too. And I would say potentially more useful than React. It’s not a framework in itself so you don’t have to adhere to patterns within the framework. Working in Polymer, because it’s built-in native web technologies, you pick up a lot of stuff that’s useful as it’s just native stuff. You get a lot more value from learning Polymer. It does have some Polymer specific stuff but they are never completely obscure. In terms of learning it, it’s nothing surprising if you know native web technologies. The templating is standard. It’s pretty easy for doing things like looping and conditionals. The learning curve is not too hard. I was doubtful about it before I used it, purely because it’s not got the adoption rate, but I have found it very valuable. The build process for Polymer is much less complicated than React. I do like React but Polymer has taught me a lot more about the web than I learned from Angular/React. I’m a much better front-end developer in general from using Polymer, I believe.

So Synthace is roughly a 50:50 split between software engineers and biologists. What’s that like to work in?

It’s interesting. It has a lot of positive effects. First one being culture – it’s socially more organised and conservative than any software office I’ve worked in before. Software offices are often white-male dominated and are quite rowdy places to work whereas the environment and culture here is calmer. It’s pretty useful to have that balance and for things not to be so insane. S0 the culture is a lot more balanced and nice to work in.

Having ideas coming from biologists and software engineers, those different attitudes is also fascinating. There’s an interesting cultural difference between the scientists and software. Lab scientists have a different approach to their work – maybe more serious as the consequences for things going wrong in the lab can be serious, can actually hurt people, whereas software engineers never have to think about that as most of the time our work doesn’t have those consequences.

How it actually works is great. It’s great to have in-house users working with the product – in-house testers if you like. You need to have that opportunity to ask someone – ‘Is this working how you expected it?” or “How would you want that to work?” and have that instant feedback from within the team rather than dealing with an external unit. It’s completely different than anywhere I’ve ever worked. The idea of having 2 completely separate walks of life, two different cultures working together, bringing different approaches is great. The cross-disciplinary approach is what we need and means it’s a good way to get out of your own echo chamber and your own way of working. I can only see the environment becoming even more interesting as we grow and there’s even more interaction between science and software.

Are you working on anything particularly interesting at the minute?

We had a big sprint to release a big new version of the product recently so there’s been a lot of bug-hunting, making sure things are working and no nasty surprises appear. In this particular week we’ve been given some time to work on our own ideas and hack on our own thing. So I’ve been working on an idea I’ve had around having some off-line functionality for Antha which is something I’ve been interested in for a while – doing some work around progressive web apps.

So what’s your favourite thing about working at Synthace?

It’s challenging in a lot of ways and that’s good for me.  I think I’m the 2nd youngest in the company and it’s challenging intellectually to be around a lot of people who are older, more experienced, and intelligent than me. There’s a constant challenge to my intellect and way of working. It’s great to be around people who are not afraid to say what they think about something. That’s part of the culture, i.e. to challenge yourself. The product is a complete change in life sciences. The people who work here reflect that, challenging the status quo.

I like working with really good people. Yes, definitely the people are the best thing about working here. It’s what I like the most about working here. Oh and yes, it’s very transparent here. It’s very open. Everyone knows they can ask what’s going on. There’s nothing hidden which is something that’s lacking in a lot of companies.

And if you had to send one message to someone who was thinking “Should I work at Synthace or not?”, what would that be?

You can’t come here as a follower, to be a drone or worker bee. You have to work out the path for yourself. It’s a supportive environment but you are expected to pull your own weight and be resourceful. Things don’t always run like clockwork, so you need to know how to go with the flow. If you can innovate well and deal with change well, then this is the place for you.

And if you are looking to work at a place that is actually trying to massively change the world – this is it! If we do what we are planning to do, we will bring about a revolution. Nobody’s doing what we are doing at the moment. Synthetic biology is the future. The ability to unlock biology is just ridiculous! It’s massively exciting!

About the author

I'm a Front End Engineer at Synthace. I was raised in East Kilbride, near Glasgow, and then studied physics at the University of Glasgow. After some postgraduate study in computer science, I moved to London. I am a self-taught software engineer and taught myself everything I know about front end. 
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