David, what's the deal with your Ph.D.?

I get the question here and there, not often but on a fairly regular interval. Yes, I did get my Ph.D. in Pharmaceutical Chemistry from the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF). Folks ask me, "What's up with that? What're you doing working as a software engineer, shouldn't you be designing drugs?". Yep, seems like an odd transition and yet it was a pretty easy and a somewhat obvious one at the time.

First off, in graduate school I spent my time studying the relationship between protein structure and function using mostly computational techniques. In laymen's terms that added up to spending about 5 straight years writing computer programs and scripts that looked for structural similarities between different proteins. In the process I learned C, C++ and Perl and got to be a bit of sysadmin for Macs and Unix systems.

Also, when I was wrapping up my studies, there were only limited positions that were interesting and a good match for the skills I'd developed. It was fairly early in the days of using computational approaches to design drugs. Sure, there were jobs, but only a few of them in the Bay Area at the time, and it become clear that I wasn't a first choice for any of them. I could have moved elsewhere in the country but Nancy and I both have family in the Bay Area that we're close to and at the time felt strongly about staying nearby.

Now, it's time to remember that my first love (without question) is music. It's the one thing that's fundamentally "me". There are other things I do well but only one that is at the heart of who I am. It's also important to understand that during my time at G.I.T. in Hollywood about a decade before, I had become fascinated by multi-track recording (in those early days using a 4-track Fostex cassette recorder). During my years in graduate school, I had become an early adopter of a promising but at the time somewhat fickle new computer-based recording system, namely Pro Tools. From the first day I saw it demoed, I felt sure that it was going to change everything about recording, it was only a matter of time. So I started with a 4-track Pro Tools system and then eventually expanded it to 16-tracks. We used to cross our fingers, take a deep breath and very gingerly click the onscreen UI in fear that we would trigger the relatively common crashes that resulted from using Pro Tools in those days. But despite that, it really was a game changer and I was infatuated.

So when I realized I was having a tough go trying to find suitable work in pharmaceutical chemistry that I was excited about, I figured "what the heck?", I'll see if I can get work in the music software world. I sent my resume to Digidesign (now Avid) and waited. Then I followed up with a phone call and after a brief game of phone tag was able to speak to the vice president of software development. He explained that my background wasn't right for their needs (typically they hired DSP engineers out of a handful of strong programs around the country). However, he said that he'd passed my information on to the QA manager at "Digi".

Shortly thereafter, I got a call from the QA manager, and his response was quite different. He was eager to have me come in and interview for a testing position that would include both black box and white box QA. The rest transpired pretty quickly. I came in, went through the interview process, was offered the job and took it. Nancy and I agreed that we'd stay in San Francisco long enough for me to finish off my thesis (roughly 6 months), working during the day and writing at night. Once the thesis was done we hightailed it out of the foggy Sunset District in San Francisco and just far enough down the Peninsula to get out of the fog (Redwood City).

At Digidesign my responsibilities shifted a bit over time, eventually leading me into release engineering and configuration management but what I really wanted was to write code. It was clear after about 3 years at Digidesign that my path into software development would be a slow slog in that organization. Fortunately, around that time I was cold-called by Adobe about a white box QA position. I interviewed for that gig, but the hiring manager and I agreed it wasn't the best fit for me. However, within a few months I got a second chance, this time to join a previous manager of mine and take on the white QA responsibilities for a new web-related app. It was the opportunity I'd been waiting for. Adobe was positioned well in the market and in the industry and was hiring people like crazy.

Oddly enough, that project was cancelled less than a year after I started. We came in a day after a team building event where we'd all gotten T-shirts and were told that we no longer had jobs. We were also told that we had a few days to look around Adobe for other work, and otherwise move on. After a soul-searching weekend, I came in bright and early on a Monday morning, ready to look for another job. I had 2 or 3 leads, and planned to talk to each of those managers before making a decision. It was a busy time and hard to coordinate meetings, but I managed to meet with one of the managers on Monday and had a promising conversation with him and the rest of the team. We agreed that it made sense for me to talk to the other teams before making a final decision. On Tuesday, I came in first-thing, prepared to explore my other options and gather info to support whatever decision was imminent. Then I checked my voicemail. The manager from the previous day's conversation had left me a message. I had until noon to make a decision or else I'd be out of work. I never completely figured out how the timeline changed but at the time it was clear I needed to make decision immediately.

I managed to squeeze in a mid-morning conversation with the manager of a second team, but not enough to get a clear picture of my alternatives. Under the circumstances, the only obvious choice I saw was to take the position offered by the first team. I let both managers know about my decision and began what proved to be the next chapter in my life. My new manager quickly saw something in my that others had not, within a year I was given a software engineer position and eventually ended up as the lead engineer and manager of my team. I ended up working at Adobe for about 6 years and it was a great place to work and very supportive of family life. My daughter was born near the end of my stay at Adobe, and I have fond memories of bringing her to work with me every so often. She played and napped in her stroller while I wrote code.

Eventually, Silicon Valley took its first economic hit and I lost the job at Adobe. My team was eliminated and I had to tell all of my direct reports. One of them was on vacation in Disneyland with his family. He wasn't due to return until after his mandatory last day. I wanted desperately to save the bad news until after his trip was over, but I had to call him mid-vacation to deliver the news. The two weeks before I walked out of the building were two of the hardest weeks I'd ever had. Adobe had been a home for me; it had been the key transition point for my career and I had many close friends that I would leave behind.

Still, I look back on the time at Adobe with mostly good thoughts. There were a lot of tough times in that six-year period; it was emotionally and sometimes physically stressful trying to keep up the pace. But despite all that, it was a springboard for the rest of my career. I've had the opportunity now to work as a software engineer, not just for a great company like Adobe, but also for Apple. I've also had the chance to work for a number of audio-related software companies, finally closing the book on my struggle to become an audio developer at Digidesign.

I don't often think about pharmaceutical chemistry. Graduate school taught me skills that facilitated my transition into Silicon Valley. The part of my graduate studies I enjoyed the most is still part of my day to day activities as a software engineer. Still, I will always know the effort that went into my thesis and I keep copies on various shelves so I can look up and be reminded.

How many of you have planned to do one thing and ended up with something completely different?

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Reader Comments (5)

I really enjoyed reading about your experience.

I've got a PhD in astrophysics, focused on optics. For my graduate work, I developed some of the algorithms and wrote some of the software being used to fabricate the mirror segments for the European Extremely Large Telescope project. I had a pretty solid path laid out for me, but ended up moving to Bozeman two years ago to be near family. I have a little boy who was about to start school and the constant travel my husband and I were doing just wasn't going to be good for him during his elementary school years.

I have a software developer job right now that pays the bills, but I'm eventually going to need to move to something more creative. I'm studying data visualization on my own right now. I'm at a junction point between being a scientist/engineer and a scientist/artist (I hope)

In the meantime, I'm learning to play the electric cello so I can play some heavy music.

April 17, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterChristy

Hi Christy,

It sure sounds like we've had similar experiences. Software really isn't in the same category as music for me. Still trying to figure out how to squeeze more music in somehow. Your mention of (heavy) electric cello has piqued my interest. I'd love to hear you play! The closest I've been to electric cello is either hot pink electric dulcimer (in Pledge Drive) or electric upright bass (my good friend and former bandmate, Amir Zitro, plays one).


April 17, 2012 | Registered CommenterDavid Hearst

Hi David,

I'm still a total beginner on the cello - luckily I can play with headphones so no one else has to listen to me practice. I'm working on learning Apocalyptica's 'Beautiful' right now. I'm hoping in a year to be decent enough to find some folks to play with. Electric dulcimer sounds pretty cool.

And now I'm going to download some Amaranthe on your suggestion to listen to while programming some SAS.


April 19, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterChristy

Apocalyptica...excellent! I played "Not Strong Enough" on my radio show right at the end of last year. "Beautiful" sounds like a great goal. I'm guessing you've played some other instrument(s) before, is that right?


April 19, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDavid Hearst

I'm actually a first time music student - I'm learning to read music for the first time at age 37. Luckily I have a cello instructor who is completely on board with the style of music I want to learn to play and we've been focusing on that along side building up some foundation skills.

Sorry to be taking up your blog comments - I input my email into the form, so feel free to shoot me an email. My husband Jim is also a software developer (telecommutes from home) and an actual musician - he plays saxophone. If for some reason you ever need a horn player, he'd love to find some folks to play with. We're still newish in town and haven't really gotten out and met a lot of people.

April 20, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterChristy

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