From Pre-Med to Mapping Biomedical Research as it Happens: Timmy Huang’s Engineering Journey
Timmy Huang is a Staff Software Engineer at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. Timmy works as a frontend developer on Meta, a research discovery tool that uses machine learning to provide a faster way to understand and explore science. I was curious to learn more about Timmy and the adventures that eventually led him to CZI!
Timmy, thank you so much for agreeing to be interviewed! Can you tell me a little bit about where you’re from and how you came to CZI?
Thank you for having me, Arathi! 🤩
A little bit about myself:
🐣🇹🇼➡ 👶🤠🇺🇸➡ 👦🏻📚🇹🇼➡👨🎓📽️📀🇺🇸➡👨💻🗽💻➡👰🏻🤵💍➡😍🖖💜🌈
Translation: I was born in Taiwan, then we moved to Texas when I was one year old so my dad could get his PhD. Then we went back to Taiwan for 12 years until I graduated from high school. Around that time, our Green Cards came and my whole family moved to Los Angeles. I studied at a community college there, transferred to UCLA, worked in NYC then the Bay Area for several years, married the love of my life, and now work at CZI!
Before CZI, I was at a major tech company that was working on building one of the fastest networks in the US. While I loved working there, I often daydreamed about how amazing the world would be if we could bring similar cutting-edge technologies to fields that are often underserved by the top consumer tech companies — fields like basic science, education, and social justice.
Lo and behold, that’s when I discovered that Priscilla and Mark had already been working on such an idea for two years! I loved that CZI focuses on Science, Education, and Justice & Opportunity because it deeply resonated with me, especially as an immigrant who came to this country to initially pursue an education in medicine.
Given the critical roles that science, education, and justice and opportunity issues play in our society, I believe that when technologists collaborate with these communities, it will bring many exciting and game-changing breakthroughs that will fundamentally alter the course of human history!
Throwing it way back, what initially got you interested in Computer Science? Did you always know that this was your passion or did you go through any sort of journey to realize your interests?
Great question! My first memory of interacting with a computer was probably around 5 years old, when I sat on my dad’s lap and played a game on a Macintosh Plus. I was pretty fascinated by the machine and continued to tinker around with computers as a kid — building and repairing computers for myself and others, optimizing browsers and operating systems, and selling pirated Pokemon games to my elementary classmates 🤦♂️
However, I never warmed up to the idea of majoring in Computer Science, because I wanted to help people in a more direct way. I started out as a pre-med in college, and later changed to get a degree in Business Economics in order to learn how to build self-sustaining systems to help people at scale.
After graduation, I found myself in the fashion industry merchandizing women’s dresses and designing men’s suits. During that time, I was having the most fun tweaking work computers after hours and writing macros to simplify workflows, so it slowly dawned on me that if I could get paid to do the things I’d do for free, to quote the sage Confucius, I’d never have to work a day for the rest of my life.
That was pretty much the turning point of my career when I started to teach myself how to code, spent several months in a coding bootcamp, and then moved to work in the Bay Area!
You’re involved in so many cool things at CZI! Can you tell me about one of your favorite things you’ve been a part of? How about outside of work?
Thank you! CZI’s goal is to build a better future for everyone, so naturally we attract incredible talent and lovely people that make me feel very grateful every day to be part of this wonderful family.
As a result, there are lots of favorite things I enjoy doing at CZI, because of the people I get to do them with! From organizing and giving tech talks, to contributing to open source projects (like Nextstrain, React Tooltip, and Playwright), to representing CZI at recruiting events, I learn so much from my coworkers and share even more laughter with all of them.
One thing that will always have a special place in my heart is participating in CZI’s first-ever Create-a-thon (hackathon). Our team was made up of members of various projects from all across CZI, and together we created a beautiful web application to empower rare disease organizations.
The prototype taps into Meta’s knowledge graph to retrieve all the information needed to help patients identify, connect, and collaborate with researchers around the world. Given that there are 7,000 rare diseases that affect 400 million people globally, our hope is that this tool will save the patients thousands of hours from manually connecting the dots and also also accelerate research to achieve the breakthroughs needed for patient treatments. We won first place and the project was further green-lighted to be an official full-time project!
Outside of the office, CZI sponsors a certified personal trainer to lead workouts twice a week (called Bootcamp), which I’ve grown to enjoy tremendously. I also get constantly inspired by fellow trainees who encourage each other to do better. Ever since I started attending Bootcamp, I feel more energized at work and also have loved the opportunity to connect with coworkers outside of my immediate teams!
Can you tell me a little about the frontend technologies used to build Meta? Are there any emerging technologies you are excited for in the near future?
Meta’s frontend is built with React, React Router, Redux, Express.js, and Webpack 4 at its core. Overall the stack is pretty consistent with many other web applications in the industry, because we want to ensure that the tools we use are battle tested, stable, and familiar to many engineers. That allows us to focus on delivering features that delight our users, instead of blindly chasing the bleeding edge technology.
However, our engineers are also very keen on learning and adopting the latest technologies. For example, we’ve been using ES2020 features for quite some time now, thanks to TypeScript and Babel, which do the heavy lifting to make sure cross browser compatibility. And we also have been migrating our React code to be Concurrent Mode ready, so we get the performance benefits when it becomes available.
I’m very excited and bullish on Web Assembly (Wasm) and Progressive Web Application (PWA). The former enables us to run code written in multiple languages on the web at near-native speed, which greatly extends the features a web application can provide. The latter combines the best of both web and native app features, which allows easy content discovery and sharing via web links, and also makes web applications installable on your phones, tablets, and even laptops, so you can use the app offline like a native app. I believe blending these two technologies in applications will unlock more potential for the web and most importantly, empower our users in many new ways that we cannot even imagine today!
I couldn’t resist bringing this up, since it is probably the most-talked about subject today — COVID-19. We’ve all been quarantined for quite some time; is there any unexpected benefit or joy that being home so much has brought you?
Absolutely! One fun habit that I picked up since the shelter-in place-is “micro-workouts,” essentially filling in small time gaps throughout the day with spontaneous short workout routines.
For example, code is compiling? Do some curls! Waiting for the next meeting to start? Do some squats! Need to lie down and take a quick break? Throw in some sit-ups too! It doesn’t have to be a high number of reps each time you do it, but it does add up over days and weeks. Plus it brings extra bursts of joy to your day and it keeps things different and fun 🤩