Incyte and Celera showed that changing directions can leave employees in the lurch. Insiders share lessons on how to cope with instability — and when to bail.
By Meredith W. Salisbury
For more than a year now, hordes of genomics companies have been wooing investors by saying they’re shifting gears to drug discovery. At first it was just a way to keep the funds coming in. But recently, we’re seeing companies putting their mouth where the money is — and it’s led to numerous layoffs and much soul-searching for industry folk.
Take Celera, for instance. No doubt Craig Venter and Peter Barrett thought their jobs were safe, but the change in company direction seemed to prove otherwise. “The industry is in transition right now,” says Molly Ryan, president of Double-Helix, a biopharmaceutical and genomics executive recruitment firm. “It isn’t just one company, one change.”
Even companies that aren’t moving to discovery are still reworking their mission statements, like Incyte. That means in addition to regular career concerns, you’ve got something new to worry about: what happens if your company follows suit?
Meet the Makeover
Outsiders have to wonder if the people on Celera’s sequencing and bioinformatics teams considered what would happen to their jobs once the human genome was done. Gene Myers, who left academia to become Celera’s vice president of informatics research because he “felt the odds were stacked in my favor,” acknowledges, “I didn’t even think beyond that.”
But Myers isn’t worried about his company’s shifting direction. “In some sense, a good computational scientist should be able to go from one domain to the next. You should never find yourself stuck in a particular box,” he says. When Celera moved its attention to proteomics, Myers’ team spent six months learning all they could about the new challenges and started working on algorithms for interpreting mass spec data. Now with the Axys acquisition, he and his group are getting their feet wet in computational chemistry and algorithms for screening and lead optimization.
“When things change there’s a tendency to be scared,” Myers says. “But a time like this represents opportunity, as far as I’m concerned. … It’s just a question of keeping your eye on the ball from a career perspective.”
“The first thing is not to panic,” says Linda Kirsch, vice president of business development for Double-Helix, noting that “people can waste a lot of energy overspeculating.” Take some time “to really absorb what the change is and see how you can fit within that change.”
Head for the Hills
The other option, of course, is to get out. A former Millennium Pharmaceuticals employee who worked in sequencing and gene discovery did just that when he realized the company would be going elsewhere. “I saw that the human genome would be in the public domain, and in a year or two it would not be the fundamental focus of the company,” he says, wishing to remain anonymous. “In advance of them making a direction change for my career, I made a move” — he left for another business opportunity that suited his interests more than the morphing Millennium.
He adds that even if you are willing to change for your company, there’s no guarantee that you’ll fit with the new plan. Companies like Celera “need to clear the bench,” he says. “You just can’t … have a fundamental shift of focus without there being quite a bit of turnover.” It can be even worse in smaller companies, where staffs tend to be more specialized and that much more difficult to squeeze into a new model. With the industry as fast-paced and evolving as it is, “one year you can be the hero and the next year you can be on the out,” he says.
Ryan of Double-Helix adds, “From a recruitment standpoint, it’s always better to be prepared to go.”
Don’t Be That Guy
No matter which avenue you take if the time comes, one of the most important things you can do in the meantime is make sure you’re versatile. Even if you’re working on a very specific technique, you want to keep your knowledge as broad as possible. As the former Millennium employee puts it in an example, you want to be the “gene discovery guy, [not] the ABI 3700 guy.” He explains, “If you’re not able to position yourself as the expert for those steps and you get pigeonholed [with the technology], then you’re vulnerable to the whims of industry, which will inevitably come up with a better way to do those steps.” It doesn’t matter if you’re the best ABI 3700 guy on the planet; when the next advance comes, you’ll be as useful as the obsolete instrument.
Myers agrees that it’s important to focus on your role in the company. “Consistently look at how you contribute,” he advises.
Tricks of the Trade
How to safeguard your career in case your company changes direction
Dust off the resumé.
“If you’re starting from scratch or from a very old resumé, it can take a month or two to get a new resumé,” says Linda Kirsch, vice president of business development at recruitment firm Double-Helix.
That goes even if you’re planning to stay with the company: “Even in the same organization, sometimes you’re selling yourself for how you fit into the new company,” says Molly Ryan of Double-Helix.
Train, train, train.
Howard Cash, CEO of bioinformatics company GeneCodes, makes sure his employees spend 10 percent of their time in training. Sure, it means recruiters are constantly after his staff, but without it, he couldn’t imagine how his people would drive the company forward.
Even without that kind of policy at your company, it’s a valuable concept. “You have to take time to learn the most current methods,” says a former Millennium employee. Keep up with new technologies through literature and posters at conferences to make yourself essential to your firm.
Schmooze like a champion.
“It’s good to go out to conferences and talk to people,” Kirsch says. It’s not only a way to meet people and stay connected to the industry, but it could give you a better sense of what’s going on in your own company.
“When you’re inside, it’s kind of hard to see [whether] the company is doing badly,” Cash says.
Adds the former Millennium employee, “Networking’s probably more important than anything you can do. … I get more job offers from people I’ve met at conferences who’ve heard what I’m doing than from any other source.”
If you know you’re leaving, do it early.
“You’re actually more attractive to the next company if you’re gainfully employed,” Double-Helix’s Ryan says. So if you know that the company’s moving away from where you want to be, don’t wait for the blade to fall before you get in gear.
Watch for signs.
Your company may or may not make a major shift, but inner changes can often affect other employees’ jobs. Keep an eye out for changes in management or customer or product focus, says Ryan. If you’re concerned, she adds, try talking to your supervisor to re-evaluate your role.