How IT collaborates at the cutting edge of biomedicine

Broad Institute CIO Bill Mayo explains how his team is rethinking process and ownership – to help scientists and researchers move faster
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There was a time when I wanted to be in finance because that was the real “business.”  Back then, a clear line existed between people who understood technology and those who used it. Today, tech has become embedded in every job. It’s not clear IT ever fully figured out how to get closer to the business, but the business has certainly embraced technology.  

The Broad Institute, which pursues biomedical and genomic research, is special in many ways. In particular I am thinking about the technical sophistication of our employees. I have been repeatedly struck by the degree to which the life sciences and computer science have merged. And as one who studied computer science, I like to think that computer science won. Today it is possible to be a computer scientist and not be a biologist, but it is difficult to be a biologist and not also a computer scientist.

[ Are you wasting collaoration time in needless meetings? See our related story: Stand-up meetings: 5 reasons to kiss traditional meetings goodbye. ]

This merging has created an environment where my job as CIO is very different than I envisioned 20, 10, or even five years ago, and much of it comes down to how we collaborate.

How collaboration has changed

In a model where technical skill was separate from business understanding, we were forced to compensate.

One way to think about this is to look at the waterfall vs. agile debate. We always knew things could be better: But in a model where technical skill was separate from business understanding, we were forced to compensate. Business specifications and business analysts both were created as a result of that model. Along the way we created endless certifications, methodologies, and more to compensate for this inability to collaborate.

I think what happened is that technology changed the world in a way that exposed, but couldn’t initially fix, the specialization problem. 

The internal combustion engine is a tempting analogy.  Modern cars are engineering marvels, but significant effort is just about mitigating inherent inefficiencies in engine design. The purpose of the engine is to make the car move. To do this it burns gasoline. The resulting explosion drives the pistons (requiring oil), and generates lots of heat. To dissipate the heat, we use coolant and store it in a radiator. That gets too hot, so we put it up front behind a grill and put a fan behind it. To drive the fan we need fan belts. And so on, with each new mitigation adding complexity.

Similarly, I contend that much of the infrastructure that built up around IT projects was a function of the problems inherent in the division of technology and business skills and the way that impeded collaboration.

Finding a better way

What things that we take for granted are really just holdovers from a different way of working?

At the Broad Institute, we have dozens of teams conducting research and designing software at the cutting edge of biomedicine. In IT we’ve been thinking about how best to help them advance these goals. The challenge is how to flow to the need with the design lightness of an electric car, or an Agile process. Is the annual performance review the equivalent of a fan belt? Do team meetings somehow equal exhaust systems? What things that we take for granted are really just holdovers from a different way of working?

Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) solutions are one way to dramatically change the way we collaborate for systems projects. We have seen this in major efforts like our Workday implementation last year. By cutting out all the obvious stuff (picking hardware, installing software, etc.), we were able to collaborate more deeply with the HR teams to rethink business processes that impact employees everyday.

We haven’t yet figured out all the parallels in our operating processes. Maybe it’s in the hierarchies we build: one-on-one meetings with your manager, who needs to have a team meeting, then the director needs to have a meeting with the managers, and CIO directs, followed by an all-hands meeting. Are these genuinely necessary constructs – or are they the equivalent of configuring that server for the on-prem HR system?

Two successful examples

This is where we can seize the opportunity offered by a world where Agile, public cloud infrastructure, and SaaS solutions have taken so much off IT’s plate, and pursue a new level of collaboration with our technologically savvy business partners.

For example, we have worked with one major cloud partner to build a comprehensive training plan to allow scientists across the institute to enhance their expertise building scientific pipelines in the cloud. I still have a team that can help with specialized issues, but by collaborating instead of competing for “ownership” of technology, we are embracing the technical fluency in the organization and the institute is able to accelerate significantly.

In another case, we are working closely with a long time technology partner to build an entirely new level of relationship. We are crafting a solution that will not only solve one of the biggest cost drivers of computing in large scale biology, but also could turn out to be a commercial offering for the partner. Along the way we are encouraging the adoption of new computer science breakthroughs to help accelerate the treatment of human disease. In this case the scientific need had been identified, IT initiated the partnership discussion, and together we are making it a reality.

Collaboration has always been at the heart of how we advance as individuals, teams, companies, and even as a species. As with everything else, technology is creating new opportunities to collaborate in new ways. But technology only creates the opportunity. It is on us to continually return to first principles in order to realize that opportunity.

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William (Bill) Mayo is the Chief Information Officer of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard in Cambridge Massachusetts. He also serves as the Chairman of the Board of Directors for Ascentria Care Alliance, and as an advisor to a private silicon valley technology company.