This month, we (virtually) sat down with Meri Williams, Chief Technology Officer at Healx and all round diversity-in-tech-mega-queen to talk about how AI is being used to help rare disease research, diversity in tech and oodles of other random and insightful goodness. READ ON FRIENDS!
You’ve moved to Healx in June to be their CTO. What is Healx and why did you want to join them?
Healx is an AI-powered, patient-inspired tech company, accelerating the discovery and development of rare disease treatments at scale. I joined because of the fantastic mission and the fantastic team. The founders are Dr Tim Guilliams, a Biochemical Engineer and tech entrepreneur, and Dr David Brown, co-inventor of Viagra and former Global Head of Drug Discovery at Roche.
I also felt I could bring a lot of experience in scaling tech teams and platforms to a company about to go through a big challenging growth spurt, whilst also getting back to my academic roots, which are in artificial intelligence.
The mission is also very personal to me, as I have a rare disease myself: Ehlers Danlos Syndrome. It’s severe enough that I’m classed as disabled.
Why does drug discovery, particularly in rare diseases, need AI’s help? What makes it a technically and scientifically interesting question to work on?
There are over 7,000 different rare diseases, affecting over 400 million people across the globe. To put that in perspective, that’s more than the population of the whole of the USA. But mind-blowingly, only 5% of those conditions have approved treatment which means many patients and their families have to wait many years before they get the help they need. Healx’s mission is to use AI to identify and progress novel therapies for the 95% of rare diseases currently without approved treatment.
To do this, we match our AI platform Healnet with drug discovery expertise and patient insight to identify existing drugs that may be repurposed and combined to treat rare diseases. It’s an especially interesting problem to use AI on, as modern NLP (Natural Language Processing), ML (Machine Learning) and other techniques are now able to process data at a volume and rate that is simply impossible for humans to match. So we have a new capability that we can bring to bear to really accelerate getting to insight and, from there, to workable treatments.
You have Ehlers-Danlos syndrome (EDS): what is it, and how does it affect you, your life and your approach to working on tech for rare diseases?
Ehlers Danlos Syndrome is a genetic collagen defect, so the most obvious symptoms I experience are fragile skin which tears & bruises easily, poor healing and frequent subluxations and dislocations. What folks don’t always expect though, is because collagen is a tissue type in almost every part of the body, there are a bunch of other common symptoms as a result, many of them dysautonomic (where the autonomic nervous system doesn’t work right). So my heart will suddenly jump to 150 bpm for no real reason; if I stand for any length of time, I get shaky and can faint; I get random nausea, sometimes gastroparesis (where your stomach is basically paralysed) and various other joyful symptoms.
I wake up every day with dislocated joints, so before my morning coffee I’ll usually have to relocate at least a couple of ribs, most of my fingers, ankles & wrists.
On a bad day, a major joint like knee, elbow, pelvis or hip will be out too. I’m doing a bit better these days (interestingly largely due to a low dose of a drug that’s been repurposed for conditions with widespread inflammation) and seldom have to use crutches or a wheelchair anymore, but I used to sometimes be immobile for days or weeks at a time.
Beyond the pain and fatigue and dealing with the various acute symptoms, the main impact on my life is I have to reserve a lot of my non-working time for rest and recovery. I’m still not very good at moderation, so I frequently will borrow “spoons” from future days and by the time the weekend rolls around I am in spoon-debt and have to just sleep / sit on the coach for a day or two. Luckily my closest friends are pretty great about understanding that often all I will be able to do is go with them to the movies (or in our current COVID situation, watch a movie at home but synchronised in our respective houses, snarking about it on WhatsApp since we aren’t there in person) or perhaps out to dinner, and they usually forgive me if I am just too knackered to make it out.
My wife is also the most understanding woman on the planet and puts up with me getting frustrated with being unable to do things we wish we could, and also nudges me to go do fun stuff when I am well enough, which I need sometimes. She’s the best. She’s also been working in healthcare much longer than me. She’s an architect who specialises in designing hospitals.
In terms of how it affects my work, I think it gives me some extra insight and empathy for how terribly frustrating it is to often take years and years to get a definitive diagnosis which often feels like an immense relief, only to find out that there is no treatment - let alone a cure - for the condition you now have a label for. So it makes me extra motivated to scale out our brilliant team at Healx and invest more in our tech so that we can help more people get to that point of having a diagnosis and then ALSO have a viable treatment to go with it.
Healthcare technology isn’t exactly known for its amazing user experience, modern systems and latest tools. What are some of the biggest engineering challenges holding back healthcare right now?
I think all the past failures and dreadful experiences are one of the biggest barriers to improving - it’s hard to believe things can be different. I’m delighted to see the work pioneered by the Government Digital Service over the last 8 years or so now extending out to NHSX, NHS Digital and the Department of Health though. As soon as the government-created services are beating those built by the private sector, it sets a precedent and raises the bar significantly. In pure engineering terms, the challenges are largely about lack of adoption of open standards; a tendency to use old-fashioned waterfall methods where everything becomes super risky because you’re trying to switch from an old system to a new all at once (with literal lives on the line); and the number of different siloes. In an ideal world, we’d be able to get well-structured meaningful data and put it to good use, but in reality almost everyone is spending a lot of time just trying to get hold of and clean up data, which is a sad inefficiency which really doesn’t benefit anyone.
You’ve had an amazing varied path applying technology to different areas, joining in June from Monzo - how easily can you move between these seemingly vastly different sectors? What’s the same, and what’s different?
I’m autistic and one benefit I get from my neurodiversity is I tend to see the whole world a certain way: as a series of systems and patterns. I’m particularly good at spotting what are called performative effects (inadvertent complex impacts that an interconnected / overlapping set of rules or systems can have) and this helps me to get my head around and traverse complex domains faster than average. I also just love understanding how things work. My mother will tell you how frustrating I was as a child, always taking things apart to understand them...apparently it was NOT safe to leave me unattended even as a baby! And I’m generally happiest when I’m learning and getting things done. So though from the outside my career looks quite eclectic, having moved from 10 years at Procter & Gamble (the world’s largest consumer goods company) to the Government Digital Service (which in the early years was referred to as “the coolest startup in London” by Tim O’Reilly, even though technically we were part of the Cabinet Office) to M&S (retail) to MOO (online design & print) to Monzo (modern app-only banking), really all the way through I’ve been understanding how things work, spotting problems and figuring out systemic ways to fix them. And there’s an extra similarity between Monzo and Healx, in that there is (completely rightly!) a great deal of regulation to protect people, but also a lot of those regulations were put in place in a very different setting before much of our modern technology existed. So at both companies, we need to find ways through that respect and honour the intent of the regulation, whilst potentially operating in a different way to get to the same positive outcome required.
Being a “Geek Manager” seems to be an important part of your identity. Why and how is managing geeks important, and how can other geek managers do better?
I think, early on, the Geek Manager thing was a way of signalling “I can be a geek AND a manager. I can still be one of you whilst being good at this”.
It was trying to reject the prevailing view at the time that the only kind of boss that existed was the pointy-haired boss from Dilbert (who is terrible, for sure). Since then, I’ve been lucky enough to become part of Lead Dev, a conference series & community aimed at levelling up technical leaders of all varieties (not just managers!) and trying to get the tech industry to stop wilfully sucking at supporting, coaching, mentoring and developing people. In reality, a great manager is a force multiplier. A really great developer of people can help 10-12 people at a time (which adds up to HUNDREDS if not thousands over the course of a career) stretch, develop and reach their potential. The particularly good ones can help not only individuals but build high performing teams too, and in the modern working world the team is really the unit of delivery, so this is seriously a superpower. So I hope that other geek managers can invest in building those skills and have immense impact by enabling others to reach new heights.
We try to think about how different disadvantages may intersect. How do you experience challenges of intersectionality and engage in this conversation?
I actually do a talk called Practical Diversity, focused on specific things I have found to work to make teams more diverse and inclusive.
Talking about privilege makes people uncomfortable, so I break the ice by explaining “Hi! I’m afraid I’m the one the Daily Mail warned you about: I’m a genderqueer woman, working in tech, I’m an immigrant with a job (which I think is worse than living off the state, but I have to check the headlines regularly to be sure), I’m disabled, neurodiverse, queer and godless. And my wife is British, so I’m literally over here stealing your women AND your jobs”
Once people have laughed a bit and relaxed, I go on to explain that though I’m certainly intersectionally diverse by any measure, I also grew up white in Apartheid South Africa, which was an object lesson in unearned and undeserved privilege. So I can understand the people so accustomed to privilege that equality feels like a threat and can help them understand that whilst they didn’t necessarily do anything wrong by being born with that privilege, nor did the people who have a much tougher set of circumstances to combat just because of the colour of their skin, religion they follow, disability they experience, or person they love.
My approach to intersectionality in my work and life is to aspire to be more than an ally. My friend Duretti Hirpa says she isn’t looking for allies anymore - she wants accomplices. And so that’s the standard I aspire to - to be a partner in crime to other underrepresented folks, and to speak truth to power, especially to those who are already overrepresented. I obviously know a lot about the underrepresented groups that I am a part of, but I work hard to understand other groups too and to do my damndest to be an accomplice. So you’re just as likely to hear me highlighting that an office lacks a prayer room suitable for Muslim colleagues or that we lack essential benefits for parents or those with other caring responsibilities, even though those aren’t challenges I personally experience.
And since I’ve been in leadership roles for a long time now, I decided long ago I wasn’t going to be a leader who decided to play it safe once they got a seat at the table. I figure it’s arguably lower risk for me to speak up than someone more junior, and so my responsibility is to be a bulletproof vest, to step up and into the line of fire, to be the one raising the concerns and trying to get things fixed, not just sitting back and feeling comfortable because my own needs are met. Anjuan Simmons calls this lending privilege and has a brilliant talk all about it that I highly recommend.
Quick fire questions!
Is Jaffa cake a biscuit or cake (qualify your answer)?
I’m going to be boring and echo the reasoning behind the famous legal ruling (which, incidentally, was all about avoiding Jaffa cakes being seen as a “luxury item” and so subject to VAT!) and say it’s a cake. That’s because if you leave them open they get hard and gross, whereas biscuits left out get soft and gross. Also, dipping Jaffa Cakes in tea would be a travesty, and obviously a biscuit’s most important feature is its dippability. In case you’re interested, my top biscuit pick is the Coffee Caramel Chocolate Digestive - the chocolate melts when dipped, but the caramel provides unrivalled structural integrity, meaning much lower incidence of “me biscuit’s fallen in me brew!” as Peter Kay would say.
If you had to sell yourself in six words or less, what would you say?
A creative, effective, pragmatic technology leader.
If you won the lottery, what would you do with the money?
Buy a house where I could snorkel in the sea every day. Also invest enough to live off the interest (and buy every Lego set ever!!!!), and then put the rest towards supercharging the micro-charity my wife and I run. It’s called One Goes Up and it supports young women and non-binary folks in South Africa in high school so they can achieve their potential and go on to successful further study and careers, typically in STEM.
And as we have you here, anything else you want to add?
Hell yes! Healx is recruitng across a number of technology roles including Product Management, Software Engineering, NLP and ML Scientists and Engineers, Engineering Managers, Engineering Directors and a VP of Research & Development (AI + Bioinformatics). We’re also hiring across Pharmacology, Business Development, Clinical, Regulatory and more! Head over to our Careers page if you’re interested at healx.io/careers
You can find Meri on the Twittersphere at (unsurprisingly) @Geek_Manager