CTO interview: Meri Williams, the legend helping to cure rare diseases
Meri Williams has left Monzo bank to become a CTO at Healx- the start-up on a mission to help find treatment for rare diseases with the help of AI.
How do you innovate in a highly-regulated space? How do you use deep learning to educate technology to find a cure for rare diseases? How do you make a workplace a more inclusive environment? These and many other valuable insights in the latest “Tech Captains”.
Why did you decide to move from Monzo to Healx? What attracted you to Healx?
Healx is a fascinating business and space. There are 7,000 rare diseases in the world. And 95% of them don’t have an approved treatment. I have one of these diseases: I have a disease called Ehlers-Danlos, it is essentially an inherited collagen defect.
It’s not that my body doesn’t produce enough collagen, it’s the blueprint it has for it that is pretty crap. It basically makes collagen structurally unsound, and because it is in so many parts of the body, the disease can affect internal organs. It affects the skin, it affects tendons and ligaments. I have to deal with dislocation pretty much every day.
Having worked at Monzo and experienced first-hand what is a highly-regulated industry, and how technology could make a difference to people, was also what attracted me at Healx. It’s a similarly very regulated industry.
Regulations mean that you must make sure that you do the right thing, that you’re not against the spirit or the letter of the law. The problem is that a lot of those regulations were created and written at a very different time, and crucially when technology was very different.
How do you reflect on your journey at Monzo?
I was there when we grew the business from 1 million customers to over 4 million. The tech team tripled during that period. I figured it was the right time for me to hand the reins over to Jonas, who is the original CTO and a co-founder. He’s brilliant and he’s doing very well.
Can you give a quick overview of your work at Healx?
We use modern artificial intelligence techniques, mostly deep learning and natural language processing. We bring in lots of structured data from various curated sources, to educate the technology on what drugs and diseases there are, and we use NLP, unstructured information to find connections with drugs. We have a big knowledge graph to find connections between drugs and diseases.
Sometimes there is a drug that exists and can be adapted for other diseases, but nobody knows it. We’ll figure out what drugs to use in combination if needed.
We work on several rare diseases in parallel. There are two or three rare diseases we’re actively working on every quarter. We then do pre-clinical trials up to the commercialisation of the treatments. We recently started our first clinical trial for ‘Fragile X’.
One of our founders is Dr Dave Brown, co-inventor of Viagra, an example of a drug invented for something different than to what it’s used for.
What about your tech stack?
I love that you use Python, it’s my go-to language.
I come from a Python background too. It was already very popular for AI and it’s such a nice language to work with, and it has a great community. It’s a community that cares about things like backwards compatibility and all those kinds of things. I enjoy being part of that community.
You are one of the most active CTOs on Twitter. How did that happen? Was it planned to build your brand and attract talent? Or it “just happened”?
Not any kind of Machiavelli’s plan. The account you see is not even the first one. I have had a private Twitter since the very beginning of Twitter’s existence. @Geek_manager is more external. It wasn’t deliberate at all. It is beneficial for me seeing what the debates are, what conversations are about, what people are worried about.
I get a lot of value from it. Especially as someone who is a minority in a number of ways: women in tech, queer in tech, immigrant.
Twitter helped me get my original diagnosis. I had 180 shoulder dislocations in 18 months, and it was a really tough time. I couldn’t work out what was wrong, which is one of the weird things with Ehlers-Danos disease, which happens to one in 50,000 people.
A&E and rheumatology departments couldn’t understand what was wrong with me until someone online reached out to me and suggested what it could be. It turns out she was right.
Part of being on Twitter is helping other people, being able to pay it forward. I would be in a much worse state if she hadn’t reached out.
Bouncing back on what you said regarding minority groups, why do you think computer science is still a male-dominated industry?
A lot of people say “nothing is stopping them from applying or studying computer science”, but a lot is stopping them. Girls in high school have been told they turned up to the wrong class when they go to physics lessons. The reality is, we’re in a society that has some prejudice built into it.
Women leave the tech industry at twice the rate that men do, and that’s not because we don’t like tech or we’re not suited for it. It’s because people have bad behaviour. If there are 10% of women and non-binary in a tech department, and among the 90 guys just 1 or 2 of them are being sexist, then the 10 women will suffer from these interactions and end up leaving.
Unless people have a reason to believe that your team or your workplace is safe, the default will be to assume it’s not safe. You need to project the image that you are open.
But how do you attract minorities to get interested in these topics in the first place?
What is fascinating is that there are equal levels of interest until a certain point. If you look at computer clubs that run in primary schools, there are often more girls than boys. And then something changes. We need to stop telling people they don’t belong, and then actively telling them they do belong. Make it obvious that you expect all different types of people to apply to your company. It can be as simple as mentioning it in the job spec.
And then in the workplace, people’s differences have to be treated as features, not bugs! Equal opportunities don’t mean treating everybody the same. It’s recognising that people are treated differently in the world and you have to do slightly different things to make up for that.
Offer to host a meetup for Women in Tech, LGBTQ, or Black Girls in Tech. They are the same as everybody else, so reach out to them.
What should be the separation between private life and work? Work becoming more and more remote, the line is now blurry. Both regarding the job itself and personal relations with colleagues. I remember when at Monzo you tried to find a word different from ‘remote’ and favoured the expression ‘distributed teams’.
I think it’s very difficult and I think the right way to handle it is different for different people. Some people need quite a firm separation like my wife prefers to work in the office and, when she can’t work in the office, she puts her stuff away at the end of the day and even changes her clothes. Making a clear physical difference. I’m actually happy with quite a lot of melding, it gives me flexibility.
That said, leisure time matters. I’m a bit of a workaholic too. Make sure to close down the laptop at the end of the day. At Monzo, we didn’t have Slack on our phones. If something really required you, pager duty would call you. If they don’t call you, you don’t need to check Slack every 5 minutes to see what’s going on.
The other point is that when working in an office, you can build organic relations with people, bump into each other. When working in a distributed way, take a few minutes at the beginning of every meeting to chat about random stuff not necessarily work-related. You need to make time to make it happen.
And at Healx? What kind of team are you building?
We have an office in Cambridge that we closed during the pandemic because we have a lot of employees or relatives with rare diseases. We’ve done yoga sessions together during the pandemic, pub quizzes, and drawing competitions. We even did a team-building activity where everybody was cooking together. We also use the Slack integration Donuts so people can meet others easily.
Everybody wants to be working from home, at least some of the time. But very few people want to be working from home all the time, so some people will probably be coming either to the office or a central location for a meetup type thing once a quarter or so. And some people will go back to two or three days in the office. We’re now starting to think about whether we have just the office in Cambridge, or whether we have some small hubs in other parts of the UK as well.
If you have 5 people meeting physically and 2 in the video, the meeting needs to be fully video for everyone, otherwise, it doesn’t work. That’s why I think cubicles are coming back: people will need to be able to do a call or video conference at any time.
Have you had any event in your career that seemed really bad when it happened, but ultimately brought a lot of positive consequences?
The roll-out of a new phone system to a 1,000 person office over two buildings. They dealt with essential functions such as the payments of suppliers for a manufacturing company (Procter & Gamble).
The weekend it had to go live, the company that was doing the cut-over had widely under-estimated the work to do. We needed to switch over and deploy all of the one thousand phone handsets. It was Sunday at 2 am and I suddenly realised that there was no way we were going back running by Monday morning when a thousand people were coming to work.
I literally put a message on Facebook telling people I need help and I will buy them a cake! I will owe them a favour. I just needed as many people as possible to come and help me reprogram and deploy the phones. Eventually, 20 people turned up on Sunday morning, having heard there was a problem.
It was a terrible project, but truly heartwarming to have people who didn’t even work for the company anymore, but came to help. It was a tough situation, they identified it, and they came to help.
Please note this interview was done while Meri was still CTO at Healx. She is now serving as a technology advisor.
If you want to connect with Meri, click here.
To learn more about Healx, visit their website: healx.io
FROM THE AUTHOR