Bye-Bye, Biotech

January 1, 2010 

I suppose this could be considered to be a sequel to my last post, but this has to do more with work itself than locations thereof.  A good many years that I worked in Sorrento Valley (San Diego) and thereabouts, I was working for biotech or pharmaceutical companies – Agouron, which then became Warner-Lambert, which then became (against their will) Pfizer; Elan, Anadys, Kemia, and HealthCapWest.  All told, a total of almost 12 years.  I knew absolutely nothing about the biotech industry when I started at Agouron back in 1996 as a Clinical Document Specialist – sort of a glorified word processor/desktop publisher position.  I learned in a hurry.  I learned to enter a lot of shortcuts in MS word so I wouldn’t have to type things like “nelfinavir mesylate” or “Kaposi’s sarcoma” over and over again – I could just type a two-letter code I’d made up and viola!  There it was.  I think “patient” was the most common one I had to type, I even had a code for that.  

A pretty valuable little molecule.

I also didn’t know much about AIDS or HIV other than what I heard in the media, and at the time everyone was scrambling to come up with viable treatments as alternatives to the drug cocktail, or to swap out components thereof – given the ability of the virus to mutate, drugs became ineffective too quickly.  Plus the side effects were horrible, but at the time it was better than the alternative, which was death.  I learned all about non-nucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitors, protease inhibitors, and our little molecule known as AG1343.  I was lucky – Agouron at the time was one of the best companies to work for and probably one of the most exciting experiences I’ve had in my career.  Had I been there a few years earlier, I probably could have retired with a fortune from stock options – the longterm employees there had thousands of options priced at pennies per share, and when Viracept (the commercial name for nelfinavir mesylate) was approved by the FDA in March of 1997, the stock hit $100 a share. It even made the news on the BBC – which I watched at a lodge in Kenya, when my then-husband and I were on a three-week safari in East Africa.  We had a nice, good-looking, personable CEO (Peter Johnson) you could actually talk to, and I ended up getting to help with parts of the submission that went into the FDA in December of 1996, a scant six months after starting at the company.  At our first all-hands meeting after the approval (held in the basement of our building at 10350 North Torrey Pines Road), Peter stood up and said that the company would finally get a chance to open up a new department we hadn’t needed prior to then – “Accounts Receivable“.  In its first year of approval, Viracept netted sales of $335 million dollars. 

The old Agouron Admin I Building (now the home of West Wireless Health Institute)

I ended up at Agouron/Warner-Lambert/Pfizer for 7-1/2 years.  Looking back, I’ve realized that an experience like that comes along once in a lifetime, if you’re lucky.  I got to be there before we hit the big time and be a part of it, and I was proud of my efforts for the company back in those days, and proud to say I worked there.  When I saw on the news in Kenya that Viracept had been approved, I stood up and clapped, and told the whole tour group, “that’s my company!”.  Sure, at the time, I was just a glorified secretary, but nonetheless, I worked there.  I eventually changed departments, got promoted a couple times, and ended up with a nice salary, a good title, and an unprecedented 5 weeks of vacation a year.  I was sad to have it all come to an end in 2004, but the company under Pfizer wasn’t what it once was as Agouron – the life had gone out of the place, and more importantly, so had the soul.  I had spent the last two years there trying to keep my staff, both temp and permanent, employed as long as possible, pushing them to learn scanning and indexing when nobody wanted to move out of their comfort zones, defending the necessities of their jobs to my completely unsupportive and often hostile boss.  In the end, I managed to keep them in their jobs longer than I kept myself in mine, I was laid off first.  The two of them acquired skills that later got them into other biotech careers, which, satisfying or not, at least kept them employed.  More than I can say for myself, who had become the manager of “the shit nobody else wants to do” by then – I was great at it, but it was also a role only destined for a rather large and successful pharmaceutical company … of which, San Diego has very few. 

In the years since then, hardly anyone I know from those days works at Pfizer anymore.  They’ve moved on, been downsized (as my department was), retired, and even (unfortunately) passed away.  The folks who hung on the longest were miserable and pretty much begging to be laid off after a fashion.  I’ve worked for four other biotech companies since then, either as a consultant/contractor or as an employee, and worked on several other FDA submissions, but sadly, none of them quite has the magic that Agouron did.  I doubt another will again.  I’ve also changed departments yet again, to regulatory submissions, and in the last few years, have found myself left behind by the technology of the times – most companies now are going to electronic submissions, per FDA mandates –  but I never got the opportunity to learn it myself. My last company never purchased a system because a) we went bankrupt, and b) our primary focus was veterinary medicine, and that division of the FDA  isn’t ready for electronic submissions yet.  The company before that never purchased a system because a) we went bankrupt, and b) the drug failed.  I suppose I could find a way to take training (at my own expense) and learn some of the systems that are out there, but everybody wants on-the-job experience.  And I’ve realized, I just don’t give a shit anymore.  

A few years ago, I was excited to get a job supporting the regulatory (primarily) and clinical departments at a small biotech (Kemia), and I was reporting to a Director of Regulatory Affairs, a woman with years of experience whom I hoped would mentor me, show me the ropes in the field I was hoping to expand into.  She quit the company less than two months later, and I spent the next nearly two years going it alone there, we never did hire a replacement but instead got by with consultants for those critical questions and I muddled through as best I could.  I think we did pretty well, all things considered.  We managed to get two INDs (Investigational New Drug applications) in to start clinical trials for three different clinical indications without any major glitches.  I liked working for Kemia.  It was not without its drama, though, by any means.  This was the same company that I mentioned in my previous post, where I told the CEO that he and other senior staff should resolve their differences by measuring themselves in the men’s room.  Soon after I started there, I began dating one of these same senior staff in secret, something almost nobody at the company knew for well over a year.  Not easy to do in a company of only 36 people.  I became the head of our “events committee” that planned monthly happy hours and the holiday party, and for the most part, I loved it.  I took a couple of online classes toward a Master’s degree in Regulatory Affairs at SDSU and did well in those, too. 

But as Kemia spiraled downward rapidly at the end of 2007, so did my enthusiasm for the industry.  One of my bosses there put me in touch with a friend who offered me a position with his startup company and I took it, knowing it was only a matter of time before layoffs (including mine) were inevitable.  The company let go roughly 2/3rds of the staff on January 4, 2008.  My job after that is still a little too disappointing to even go into, other than that I was decently paid and felt secure enough (a three-year contract!) to buy a new car.  Yet in March of 2009, my salary was cut and at the end of May, I was laid off.  So much for that three years of stability. 

What I slowly have come to learn out of all of these experiences, not just in biotech, but in defense and education and aerospace and telecommunications (all my other jobs!) as well, is that to me, what I do isn’t nearly as satisfying as the how, the who, and the where of that job.  Let me clarify that in a moment.  As you may have already figured out from all my seemingly random career jumping (admittedly, some of it due to layoffs and the economy), I don’t have some one-track CAREER goal in mind for myself.  I never did.  Sounds sad to admit that now, at age 46,  but it’s true.  

I started college at UC Berkeley as an Aerospace Engineering major on a full scholarship.  I choked in it.  I ended up with two bachelor’s degrees from there, one in Psychology, the other in Anthropology.  I can probably tell you how many ways I think you’re crazy and why I think you’re descended from a Neanderthal (and maybe not far off the family tree), but that’s about all either of those degrees are good for, at least at that level, without pursuing a Master’s or Ph.D.  And by the time I finished, still in 4 years, I was burned out enough to not want anything to do with either subject again for quite some time.  

Two of these and $3.90 gets me a White Chocolate Mocha at Starbuck's.

The only other useful skills I had honed during college were a) typing, and b) taking my clothes off.  I was in Playboy’s Girls of the PAC-10 photo shoot in my senior year of college, which at least led to some decent extra spending money down the road by doing modeling work for “glamour” photography classes, back when people still used film and you couldn’t just shoot two thousand photos digitally (and then manipulate them) to get the right one, you had to actually have some idea of what you were doing.  I did that on my weekends and became a secretary on Monday through Friday.  Great to see those degrees being put to such good use, eh?  

(As an odd side note, I recently worked with a delightful woman on my last temp job who also went to UC Berkeley, and she had literally saved up for years to go there to finish her degree and was so enamored of both the school and the experience that I feel guilty for dissing it – Laurie, thank you for making me respect what I obtained.  Apparently UCB is one of the toughest schools to get into, period.  MIT is one of the others, which is what I turned down to go to Berkeley.  Maybe I have a brain after all.) 

First I worked for an insurance company in downtown San Francisco, took the BART train over every morning with my tennis shoes on and my Sony Walkman (oh God, I’m dating myself here) for company, my work pumps in a tote bag, for a job that paid a whopping $9.75 an hour.  Maybe less, I can’t quite remember.  Eventually I found a job on the UC Berkeley campus, in the School of Education, and surprisingly with my at-home Macintosh experience (my boyfriend at the time owned a “Fat Mac” with a whopping 1024 kb of RAM),  I was a hot commodity – the department was planning to switch to Mac-based desktop publishing of all of the School’s brochures, booklets, course listings, and so on – and nobody else knew how to use the thing.  I was there for almost three years, until I moved back to San Diego in the spring of 1989. 

Correction, I was there until I stopped feeling appreciated.  And this is where the how, who, and where starts coming in.  I’ve occasionally said that I could probably collect garbage for a living if I had a good boss and felt appreciated (no offense to garbage collectors everywhere, God bless them, I could never do their job), but hopefully you get my point.  I am a very emotion-based person, much to the annoyance of any man who has ever dated me, I’m sure.  Once when I was at Pfizer, we all had to take one of those bullshit “personality inventory” tests to determine what “type” we were and how to best get along with everyone.  I’ve taken the Meyers-Briggs one at some point, I think it told me I was psychotic.  (No, in all seriousness, I don’t remember- my first letter was an “E” and after that, no clue, I’d  have to take it again).  This particular one was the “DiSC” profile.  It stands for “Dominance”, “Influence”, “Steadiness”, “Conscientious”.  Here’s a link here, scroll down a bit to the definitions of the four types: 

So, as part of some teambuilding exercise, because the same hostile boss I mentioned earlier was wondering why the department didn’t get along (hint:  look in the mirror), we had to all take this test.  Very interesting results.  At the time, we had about 29 or 30 people in Data Management, the department I was in.  I was the Manager of Data Management Operations (the job that translated to “the shit nobody else wants to do” – data entry, case report form design and fulfillment, scanning, indexing, printing, etc.).  So get this, sports fans.  Out of 30 people, we had about 6 who were “high D”, of course, including my boss (personally, I thought it should have been “high B” for “Bitch”, and naturally she used her “high D” result as her new excuse for why she continued to be such a bitch).  Most of the department was data managers, folks who dealt with the distribution of the results from our clinical trials, very analytical types.  We probably had about 12 people with “high S” and another 11 people with “high C”.  And out of that whole crowd, we had only one person (incidentally, also the same one who was in charge of the holiday lunch every year because otherwise it sucked, and not just in my opinion) who was a “high I”.  You guessed it.  Me

The “I” person is:  People Oriented, Optimistic, Recognition Needed, Entertaining, Expressive, Outgoing, Enthusiastic, Energizing.  Note the emphasis on “Recognition Needed”.  It may have taken me some 40-something years to start to figure this out, and I know a big part of it is that there was little or no recognition obtained from the important figures in my life (i.e., mom and dad) ever, but yeah, it holds true.  Treat me right and I am a fucking cheerleader of sunshine. It really doesn’t take much.  So back to the how, who, and where. 

The “how” of the job has to do with what I do.  I need to be busy.  If I’m bored, well, as the saying goes, idle hands are the Devil’s workshop or whatever that is.  Keep me busy and I stay focused and will try to prove myself to be better and better for you every day.  The “who” part is who I report to.  Be a decent person.  Don’t be a dick.  Say “please” and “thank you” to me once in a while and occasionally express some interest in me as a human being.  My boss Carol at Ericsson was THE best at this, she was the nicest person I have ever had for a boss.  When my boyfriend at the time (Mr. Pussy, to the readers of this blog) was being a dick, she would take the time and commiserate with me on what jerks men were.  And as a result, I was more than willing to work until midnight for her if I had to.  

Last of all, the “where”.  The rest of the office matters.  I can’t just have a decent boss if the rest of the office is a bunch of backstabbing pinheads.  Been there, done that.  I’m too old for it now.  I have a work ethic and always have, I’m not sure where the hell it came from, but I do.  I’m there to work.  Yes, I will take the time to chat online and email friends but the beauty of being a really fast typist is that I can get away with it and still be more productive than most people.  I’m not there to shoot the shit, and I’m especially not there to shoot the shit and then work late and charge the company overtime (saw that a lot at Elan, night after night).  

And thus, we FINALLY get back to the subject line of this post.  A friend sent me some job postings the other day, and I glanced them over and then tossed the email.  Biotech, yes, but in the medical device industry vs. the drug industry, and if you don’t have experience in device, they don’t even want to bother talking to you.  Fuck it.  I don’t have any big, burning desire to drag my ego down to the level of sub-zero.  And yeah, I’ve finally realized that it isn’t the WHAT I do that matters.  As far as that goes, for as much and as many times as I’ve been rejected or ignored over these last six months of my job search, biotech can kiss my ass.  The one thing in common that all of the jobs I’ve liked (Carol was at Ericsson, a telecommunications company) was not what I did.  It was how I was regarded there.  Call me shallow, self-absorbed, needy, insecure, whatever – go for it, it probably fits.  But I know that I will bust my butt where I’m going (a Navy contractor job), and if they’re halfway decent to me, I’ll stay there until I retire.  Biotech’s loss – not mine.


About rachelroust

Looking to live a life less ordinary. Join me on the journey if you wish.
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1 Response to Bye-Bye, Biotech

  1. Mike Hart says:

    Well, you pretty much said it all, but it isn’t a biotech problem. In today’s world it is the skill set that companies look to; how can you improve the bottom line. The “shit nobody else wants to do” category has been one of the jobs first to go because now everyone is doing their own portion of the combined shit job you used to do. Focus your resume on action results, not activities or what you were responsible for. Quality regulatory people are hard to find. Perhaps you’ll find success if you focus more on the presentation of your skills. I must say, I do love your candor.

    ps. I have two degrees in Econ and Geography from UCSB and have been in biotech 20 years. Go figure.

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