"We've gotten an incredibly positive response from doctors,
researchers, and patients alike. Patients want their experiences
to contribute to a cure, and Flatiron's research partners
have been receptive and excited about the real-world
evidence we are uniquely able to produce."
Simone Kalmakis is a Staff Software Engineer and Tech Lead Manager at Flatiron Health, an NYC-based tech company that works with patient data to accelerate cancer research. No stranger to the tech world, prior to her time with Flatiron, Simone founded a roommate-matching app called Symbi that was acquired last year. We asked Simone to tell us about her experience in tech and the steps she took toward building her current career.
What are you working on right now? I am an engineering manager at an awesome company called Flatiron Health, whose mission is to learn from the experience of every cancer patient to dramatically improve patient care and accelerate cancer research. Specifically, I work on a team that turns unstructured data from electronic health records into analyzable, structured data. Often, the most useful medical information (for example, how a patient responded to a treatment, or whether they have a certain genetic mutation that could inform their treatment) is locked away in "unstructured" data - think of a doctor's note or a lab report. Through a combination of machine learning and human abstraction, we are able to provide a complete picture of a patient that, when anonymized and aggregated with millions of others, becomes an extremely useful dataset for oncology researchers.
What impact do you hope to have on your community? The world? I hope that by cleaning, structuring, and unlocking patient data from the real world, we can learn from each patient's experience to improve treatment options for future patients. If our work contributes to a potentially life-saving treatment getting into the hands of even one patient more quickly, nothing would make me more proud.
What kind of response have you gotten to your research? We've gotten an incredibly positive response from doctors, researchers, and patients alike. Patients want their experiences to contribute to a cure, and Flatiron's research partners have been receptive and excited about the real-world evidence (RWE) that we are uniquely able to produce. This is a very important time in cancer research. With the emphasis on combinatorial treatments, personalized medicine, and more treatment options in development than ever before, the demand for RWE is growing exponentially, while traditional methods like clinical trials cannot alone meet this demand for data. That puts us in a great position to make a huge impact on research efficiency. What is your favorite aspect of your job? I came to Flatiron for two reasons. First, I wanted to work on a problem that would actually help people in a real way (which can be surprisingly hard to find as a software engineer). Secondly, I joined for the opportunity to collaborate with the most brilliant engineers around. I feel truly lucky that every day I come into work, both these criteria are so fully satisfied. What business pressures (whether getting funding or taking a product to market) have you felt in your career?
A few years ago I founded a startup called Symbi that matches roommates together. Finding that initial group of users to take a leap of faith, when we had very few features and before the network effect took over, was incredibly difficult. We had to get creative - I have fond/stressful memories of my co-founder and me walking across Cross Campus, asking undergraduates to enter a raffle to help us spread the word, e-mailing people off of Craigslist, etc.
That initial group of early adopters provided us with amazing feedback that helped us shape Symbi. Our most useful user started out by sending us an email titled "This is sh*t!". When I responded asking why she felt our product was sh*t, she had some acute points on areas of improvement. Often your most useful users are the ones who are invested enough to give you negative feedback - that's much more actionable than users telling you everything's working great. To take that one step further, if everything's already working great, you've probably waited too long to put your product in the hands of your users - you could have gotten there faster through iteration. Share a turning point or defining moment in your work. I started out my career as a Product Manager at Microsoft, a role that is focused on determining what our engineering team should be building. A turning point for me was realizing that I wanted to get one step closer to the product by becoming a software engineer. I had loved all my computer science classes at Yale, but I was afraid I didn't have enough experience. Building Symbi provided an opportunity for me to get back into programming and rekindle my love for it. It was definitely the right move and I strive to leverage my product experience to make me an even better engineer and manager.
What is the role of mentors in science/tech? Have you relied on a mentor? My best mentors have been my managers. I can't overstate the value of a great manager. At Microsoft I was fortunate to learn from such amazing leaders - notably Jill Campbell in Office, and Sarthak Shah and Rangan Majumder in Bing. At Flatiron, I joined my team in order to learn from my incredibly talented manager, Dan Eisenberg. They believed in me and gave me opportunities that were beyond my current abilities, but that they knew I would grow into. A great managerial relationship feels more like a partnership. I still keep in touch with and care deeply about them. (And Rangan is always my go-to with any machine learning questions to this day!) At Flatiron, I’ve received great mentorship from Cat Miller, an engineering manager I’ve always admired but never got to work closely with. I also took advantage of a mentorship program created by First Round, our investor - an external mentor can help you generalize your problems and understand how common they are across companies.In short, choose a mentor that represents the next step - or two - of where you want to head in your career. Your hardest struggles are problems they've already tackled, and they can provide you with invaluable advice and perspective.
What is your best advice for recent grads?
Stay in touch with your fellow classmates from Yale. They will not only be great friends to you, but will also provide a useful network when everyone grows up to become insanely impressive experts across a melange of fields (which, believe me, they will).