By Justin Farris

Inside Phosphorus: Meet Paul, Chief Technology Officer!

Hey Paul, tell us a little bit about yourself!

Hey everyone! I was born in Springfield, MA and got my undergraduate degree at Johns Hopkins, where I initially considered becoming a writer, destined to only ever wear black jeans and T-shirts and live my life ironically. During my sophomore year, I interned at Rolling Stone magazine, where I became the very first Rolling Stone Online intern. This was so long ago that Rolling Stone Online didn’t yet have an actual website; all of the content was published solely to CompuServe — one of the first major online service providers (even before AOL). I was the only intern in the Online department, so I learned a lot and even got to interview some bands, like The Black Crowes and SpaceHog. But it was also a catalyst for reawakening my interest in computers and software development.

I continued into graduate school at Johns Hopkins, partly to keep working on a software project I had started during my senior year, and also to start developing a distance learning platform, which was being trialed to teach neuroscience to undergraduates. After grad school, I founded a software company called SmartPants Media, which developed educational software and interactive kiosks. My favorite project was an interactive, virtual-reality-based edutainment title we created for the Smithsonian Institution that showcased ancient artifacts from China, called Chi’s Adventure in Ancient China. It featured an animated chimera (a monster of Greek mythology) named Chi and won a Muse award.

Next, I wanted to gain more experience working in a larger company, so I joined Conde Nast, where I ran the technology department for Wired Digital. I joined right around the time that Conde Nast acquired Wired.com, which had waning traffic due to neglect by its previous owners. I led the effort to replatform the entire Wired.com site and build a new commenting system that leveraged an API from a newly-acquired five-person company, called reddit.

After Wired, I joined LimeWire, a peer-to-peer file sharing platform, as Director of Engineering, and then joined mobile-focused venture fund K2 Media Labs as CTO, where I was soon joined by Ben Kempe (our Director of Engineering at Phosphorus), whom I first met at LimeWire. I eventually joined one of K2’s profile companies, Sonar (the first mobile-based social discovery platform) to help scale the platform.

After Sonar, I joined Onswipe, a mobile publishing/advertising platform, as CTO. Shortly after Onswipe was acquired by an adtech company called Beanstock Media, I left to join Recombine, and now I’m here at Phosphorus, leading Engineering efforts!

What is your title at Phosphorus? What do you do for the company?

I am the Chief Technology Officer, which means that I oversee engineering efforts for the company.

Our platform is both flexible and scalable, so many different skillsets and disciplines go into the development of new features, modules, and plugins. Some of the required considerations include:

  • Defining workflows and implementing the UX across different modules that comprise our platform
  • Creating pipelines to process raw genomic data
  • Deploying releases and managing our cloud-based infrastructure
  • Analyzing and persisting data, as well as evolving our data model
  • Adhering to best practices for security and privacy
  • Interfacing with Electronic Medical Record (EMR) systems
  • Implementing visualizations of genomic data for Bio Quality Control
  • Extending our Reporting Module to render patient reports

What do you enjoy most about your job?

The Phosphorus team is an amazing group of very smart people. And because we’re a genomics company, there are plenty of non-engineers here who embrace geeky interests, so our Engineering division can feel right at home. We work on very interesting engineering problems, and we solve them for a great reason, which is to leverage genomics to improve people’s lives through personalized medicine.

What have you learned from working at Phosphorus?

I’ve learned a lot about genomics! A lot of the Phosphorus culture is steeped in learning. Every week we have a Lunch and Learn, during which a Phosphorus employee is given the opportunity to present a topic to the company. There have been a broad range of topics presented, from variant curation and medical billing to the history of avocados and WWII assassination plots. One interesting titbit I’ve learned is that there are ICD-10 codes (ways to classify how insurance should understand a condition being tested) for all sorts of random things. For instance, there’s an ICD-10 code specifically for being pecked by a chicken!

A year ago, we also started the Big Data Genomics NYC meetup, which brings a diverse set of speakers to present on topics at the intersection of Big Data and Genomics. We recently had lecturers from the Broad Institute, Edico Genome, and the ADAM project, all of which have been very educational.

What has been your favorite project so far?

One rewarding project was working on our Script Pipeline, which is the component of our platform responsible for processing raw genomic data and generating “observations.” Previously, our system for processing and analyzing this data had been much more ad-hoc. In implementing this new Script Pipeline, we now have a system that is more flexible and generified. This means that defining new pipelines is now significantly easier.

What is your typical workday like?

At Phosphorus, we subscribe to an agile development philosophy. This means we approach the development of new features in an iterative way, which emphasizes getting fully functional, end-to-end features live sooner, as opposed to the development of large, complex features over the course of months. The classic analogy that I’ve used a lot is: if the goal is to build something like a car, you first build a skateboard, then you build a bike, then a motorcycle, and you eventually iterate until you get to the “ideal car.” The point here is that at every step, you have a fully functional transportation tool. This allows you to test, learn, and adapt the requirements to best fit the use-case and end-user. The alternative approach (which might seem more intuitive at first) is to build the car chassis, then add on the frame, then add the engine, the gas tank, etc. You may eventually get to a completed car, but you have to wait a lot longer before you have anything that you can test and learn from. But in the iterative approach, you might realize early on that maybe a skateboard or a bike is sufficient to meet the current requirements. Or maybe you figure out that you don’t need a car, but you actually need something more like a bus. Breaking down features into smaller, releasable “user-stories” allows us to get new functionality live sooner so that we can learn and adapt.

Our agile method translates to our work schedule in a few ways. We have a stand-up meeting every morning, where all engineers gather to give a quick overview of what they worked on yesterday and what they plan to work on today. This keeps everyone on the same page. Every two weeks, the Product team re-evaluates the priorities, and we start a new sprint — which defines the most important user-stories (or features) on which the team is going to focus over the course of the next two weeks. Every week, we release all of the user-stories that have been completed and send out a detailed update of all the new features and fixes that are now live. At the end of every sprint we do a sprint demo, where developers present to the rest of the company all of the key initiatives completed over the last two weeks. These demos give everyone on the team a chance to share the things they’ve worked on and give their coworkers a glimpse of what the team has been up to.

Do you have a personal mantra?

I don’t really have a personal mantra, other than the things that I regularly tell my four-year-old daughter: Be nice to other people. Listen to what people are saying. Share.

What is one thing you are looking forward to in your free time this year?

I’m looking forward to building a helicopter with my four-year-old daughter (out of cardboard boxes). I’m also excited for the upcoming Phosphorus Talent Show. Last year, the Engineering Team was one of three winning acts — we played The Muppets Rainbow Connection, featuring interpretive dance. This year, we are working on a new act that we hope will be even weirder and crazier than last year.

Do you have any hobbies?

I play guitar (and was in a band back in college). I used to obsessively skateboard, but stopped after I broke my arm a week before my wedding. I’m in a full elbow cast in all my wedding pictures. I’ve started to learn how to surf, so that I have a safer alternative to the skateboard.

Which ice cream flavor best describes you?

Lactose-free ice cream, for unspecified reasons.

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