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Biotechnology and Bioinformatics Open Source Software
Why To Go Into Bioinformatics
by Mark Johnson
April 17, 2003
Summary
Why be interested in bioinformatics as a career path?

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This post describes why I think bioinformatics is an interesting field to be in. I also go over why I think it's a good strategic career move. But I could be wrong! So please post a followup if anything I say here gets your attention.

Bioinformatics is not the easiest of computer-related careers. To do real bioinformatics work requires some understanding of biology. It also often requires a great deal of math. The math required differs depending on what area you're in (phylogenetics, 3-d modeling or visualization, sequence analysis, image processing, etc.) So you can't just pick up an O'Reilly book, install Linux, hack on the book for two weeks and then go out and pick up a job. It requires some understanding of the domain; that is, "domain knowledge".

I actually see the requirement of domain knowledge as a career benefit. Primarily, biology is the most interesting thing I can imagine to study. But strategically, I think scientific programming jobs will be more difficult to outsource than general-purpose programming work. Anybody can write a program that stuffs data in a database or presents query results. But not everybody has the knowledge of biology to support a research group in its computational needs. This means both a smaller potential job pool (bad), and a better fit to what jobs there are (good).

I think the days of the high-paid programmer are coming to an end. Bill Gates recently dumped $400M into India, investing in software and business development. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has also invested millions to fight malaria, an endemic disease in India. The business investment move has been controversial, even in India. I think Gates know that there's a lot of good, cheap labor to be had in India. If I were a software engineer in Bangalore, I'd think it was great. But if I were a self-trained, garden-variety Perl hacker in Silicon Valley, I'd think otherwise. Indians are damn good programmers and engineers. The speak English, they compete very well technically, and they're much cheaper than Americans.

I've chosen bioinformatics primarily because I think the genomics and biology revolution is going to make the so-called "computer revolution" into an historical footnote. It's the renassiance science of our age, and I can't bear not to be involved. And programmers and science and technology writers (I'm both) need to communicate directly and regularly with scientists, and understand the research as it is happening. So I'm betting that I'll have more job stability in bioinformatics than I would have in a more general software development career.

If you have thoughts on this (especially if you think I'm wrong!) Please follow up and tell me why!

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About the Blogger

Mark Johnson is a software developer, trainer, writer, and speaker living in Silver Spring, MD. He works at the National Center for Biotechnology Information, writing documentation and tools for open-source bioinformatics software. He is also president of Elucify Technical Communications (www.elucify.com). He has published dozens of articles on Java component technology, enterprise software development, and XML, and is co-author of the book "Designing Enterprise Applications for the J2EE Platform, Second Edition" (Addison-Wesley 2002). He is currently the author of the monthly Enterprise Java Tech Tips newsletter for Sun Microsystems. Mark has been interviewed on CNN, ITworld.com, and JavaWorld.com, and is a member of the National Association of Science Writers.

This weblog entry is Copyright © 2003 Mark Johnson. All rights reserved.

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