How to manage a cheminformatics / bioinformatics project?
On a scale of challenging and demanding industries for software development, science-related projects are most certainly very high on the list. Dealing with cutting-edge technology and heavily regulated pharmaceutical companies make the job challenging.
But you know what? We love it.
How to work with healthcare and cheminformatics companies?
Enterprise-scale projects, pharmaceutical companies
First, let's make a quick distinction. The planning and development process of the chemistry-related software may be drastically different depending on the business scale. Whether it's a start-up with limited funding and a short deadline, or a huge, established enterprise, our management approach needs to change.
The moment we started working with the most prominent enterprises in the industry, we realized it's not a sprint but a marathon, and we have to accept the rules of the race. It applies to the scale and complexity of software, but also the entire process, from pitching to delivery of projects. Sometimes it takes as much as 6-12 months of planning, budgeting and bureaucratic processing before devs write the first line of code.
Smaller businesses, start-ups
Start-ups, on the other hand, require a completely different approach. With a limited budget, smaller companies are usually dealing with much bigger pressure to release a product. Primarily if they're funded by business angels, venture capital firms, or by subsidies. The decision-making process is shorter, and the main focus is on time to market. Instead of months, we’re usually starting the development within a few weeks.
Having finished projects with both types of clients, we can say for sure that there's no golden rule for project management tools and ideal methodology in cheminformatics. Still, it is possible to work out the most effective way to proceed.
The methodology can vary depending on the project's scale
On a management level, enterprises often expect a waterfall approach for business reasons, such as simple cost estimation, time to market evaluation, and profitability forecast. We fully respect that.
However, for software development, we always recommend agile approach, as the value of transparency that it assures is immeasurable. Even if the client has no experience in the methodology, we prefer to teach them the ins and outs rather than choose a different direction.
Yes, it's absolutely worthwhile.
Thanks to regular updates during the process and constant feedbacking, we can make sure the project is heading in the right direction at all times. It also gives the client a clear perspective on how the workforce is distributed. What’s crucial for the smooth development and the final success, the agile methodology allows clients to change the direction of the project at any time, if necessary. It provides flexibility, which is much appreciated in terms of innovative products.
If the project is more straightforward, we still often turn to the waterfall methodology in both development and management, but we've learned that its shortcomings tend to show the bigger the project.
The value of industry experience
Having the talented and skilled team to take responsibility for the project is one thing, but our industry expertise allows us to consult, advise, and steer it in the right direction. Over the last few years, we've worked with some of the biggest pharmaceutical and healthcare companies, such as EMD Millipore Corporation.
Knowing market characteristics is extremely important, especially while dealing with science-related software. With an understanding of the industry, we can provide valuable insights, market analysis and propose much smarter and cost-effective solutions.
In addition to the industry experience we have, there is also a very important academic angle, which we cover as well. Many of our devs are chemistry graduates, even on a PhD level. We can understand our clients’ challenges better, communicate more effectively and suggest smarter solutions.
Industry-specific challenges in cheminformatics and how we approach them
Every innovative company wants to protect its technology, especially when it comes to things like chemical patents. With so much money and sensitive data on the table, healthcare and life-science enterprises demand rigorous safety precautions that go far beyond a simple NDA.
Some of the regulations can be quite tricky to work with for a software house, but there's no way around them but adjust. It's fair to say that there is no room for error or unnecessary risk in processes as complex as drug development. Thus, software houses that work on them must follow stringent legal and confidential regulations and meet a set of requirements.
Our own set of precautions
In addition to the rules that are forced by clients, we implemented our own set of precautions to maximize the safety of strictly classified information and data. For example, all our team members use 2-factor login authentication for every account. Our WiFi network is encrypted and we can do the same for our hard drives if required. Of course, our building is under 24h security and no one can enter without an ID and magnetic card.
Adjust to the rules but stay effective
Some companies also require developers to work only on computers delivered by them and using only software and tools approved by them for safety reasons. Additionally, members of the project have to be connected through a VPN at all times. Unfortunately, it might be troublesome in case of connection or hardware issues. Solving such problems usually requires action from the client's corporate tech support, which may take some time.
Adjusting to those regulations and dealing with them on a daily basis may be challenging, but given the sensitivity of the data, it's completely understandable. Most importantly, we try to never let them delay the development process or at least minimize the repercussions (like missing the deadline). If a few phone calls and emails can move our ticket up on the tech-support priority list, it’s worth making them.
The nature of big projects also requires participants to adjust to different time zones. A lot of projects involve people from even 3 or 4 continents. It's crucial to provide devs as much support as possible to minimize the inconvenience and set meetings at the time that makes most sense for everyone. After all, the well-being of the team should be a priority.
Tools specific for cheminformatics
There are a number of popular tools that are commonly used across the industry. Knowing the way around RDKit or ChemAxon gives the development team a significant advantage for every next project. The devs' familiarity with those tools greatly facilitates cooperation between teams.
We also discovered that thanks to the versatility of Python and its relative accessibility, it's a common go-to choice of the programming language in chemical informatics. One of our developers, Karol Pokomeda elaborates a bit more about that in the article "Why do we use Python in cheminformatics?".
How being a teal organization facilitates the development process?
Having an experienced dev with a chemistry degree is a huge advantage, but our team's structure and philosophy bring more benefits to the table. As a Teal Organization, we operate in a flat hierarchy, and each member of our team has more autonomy and influence on the project. What does it mean for the development process?
Most importantly, it affects decision-making, which is more democratic, and because of it, more informed. We believe that all ideas should be heard, and every insight is valuable.
Why is it necessary to appoint a product owner on the client's side?
Another crucial angle comes from the specific nature of the cheminformatics industry. Every project we've worked on so far assured us that it's essential to assign a product owner on the client's side. While we can provide insights and share experience about the market as a whole, the feedback from chemists and devs that will work with software on a daily basis is invaluable.
Ideally, product owners work directly with our devs on the project. We exchange ideas, develop prototypes and make sure we're always on the same page with the development process. More importantly, we learn from them everything we need to know about the specifics of a given industry or work environment. Science-related software tends to be highly specialized and often trail-blazing. Developing such products is close to impossible without the presence of someone familiar with scientific or technological nuances.
Communication is your and your devs' responsibility
Effective and transparent communication is at the heart of our company culture, and it comes particularly handy with cheminformatics projects that we execute. Working with sophisticated chemistry software requires a deep understanding of the project. It's challenging to achieve that without all participants sharing ideas, asking questions, and, in general, being vocally involved.
Even the most skilled developers need to communicate to be effective. In some cases, their soft-skills are absolutely essential for the project's smooth development and final success. This is why, as an organization, we prioritize soft-skills even in the recruitment process. Being a cheminformatics software company, we learned that having knowledge is as necessary as being able and willing to verbalize it. And it works both ways. Once developers are fluent communicators, it helps them understand clients’ requirements better and direct the project where it’s supposed to. And with the correct approach, project team meetings productivity skyrockets.
Of course, it's not fair to expect everyone to put complicated ideas into words as smoothly as Carl Sagan from the get-go. The development of soft-skills is obviously a never-ending process, but it's necessary for everyone to work on it and continuously grow. It really makes a difference and brings results in well-designed and complex products that really affect people's lives. That's what we love about it and what we're proud of.
Developing life science software is a broad subject with a lot of nuances and unusual challenges. If you’d like to know more about our experience in chem- or bioinformatics, or you actually have a project at hand, feel free to schedule a call with our CEO, Adrian Zamorski.