Monday, June 9, 2014

In business for life

When I asked Eduard how he likes working at Genentech, he told me that he loves working and being here, with a big smile on his face. He was sincerely bound to his workplace. What makes this story special is that Edison was not the one of the highest paid employees at top management level, in contrast, he was probably at the bottom scale in the company, cleaning dirty cages of the animals.

When my interest in working in the US was combined with my curiosity to learn more about how the brain functions in health and disease, I contacted to Dr. Morgan Sheng at MIT. During our phone interview, he told me that he was moving to Genentech soon, if I were to come to his lab, I could join him at Genentech. I must admit that I did not know much about Genentech before that phone conversation. He briefly mentioned that it is a great place, and I should just check it out. I immediately googled Genentech and started reading about it on the Wikipedia page…Besides numerous achievements in research, Genentech was number 1 employer in Forbes Magazine “100 places to work in the US” in 2006 and 2nd after Google in 2007. Neither in Turkey or Germany, I was aware of the ‘best places to work for’ concept. As science scholars, we normally don’t really think about how we are treated at work anyway. While being at the top of list sounded only good, it did not have much impact on me, first, because I was not really aware of what it means, and second, I cared more about resources as a scientist that would be given to me to do great research.
As soon as I singed the contract with Genentech, I started receiving calls/emails from various people regarding my needs to live in the US: my visa, driver’s license, bank account, finding an apartment etc. Various professional services hired by the company were responsible for the relocation of new employees, and they take literally care of everything. When I arrived to the US, I was given a rental car and hotel. Next day Kelly from the relocation company picked me up and showed me neighborhoods in San Francisco and explained why they are good or not. Then when I told her that I liked the Pacific Heights neighborhood, she made appointments at the same evening, and picked me up the next day to visit the apartments. With her help, I could find a great place on the same day. San Francisco has probably one of the toughest rental markets in the world but with such a professional help, it went smoothly. An additional problem for me as someone just moving to the US, was not having a credit history (meaning that a person needs to have various transactions with banks/credit cards over months/years to prove that they are financially trustable). This makes it difficult for foreigners to rent a place with regular market price. After hearing that I just started working at Genentech, the landlady did not requested my non-exciting credit history and rented me our lovely place at the most beautiful part of the city:). All these sequels of events, even before I stepped into the company, did prove the care that they give to employees and further showed me the existence of high quality work environment.


There are probably many details and stories how Genentech –and similarly succesfull companies in the US– treats employees at different levels. I would like to give examples from my experiences and my friends at Genentech are of course welcome to add their experiences and thoughts at the comment section.

First of all, what I really like about Genentech was the quality of the food :) I love food, as all of you do I am sure :) and I have never been to a work environment that has better food quality. In various cafeterias at Genentech, there is a variety of cuisines including Japanese, Mexican, Italian, Asian etc. I particularly loved Rotisserie, Sushi and Pasta. My pasta chef was from Spain and we always had chats about football, life in America compared to Europe and so forth while he prepared my special whole-wheat fettuccini with fresh sea food (muscles, salmon, tuna, shrimps or even sometimes with halibut and scallops), which were not on the regular menu. That was special for me:). Overall, I loved the options of having whole wheat bread, pasta, even brown rice for the sushi. In addition, the food at Genentech is relatively cheap and very high quality as being organic, fresh and also with many local selections.

The quality of food with tons of healthy selections is not the only way to keep people healthy and fit. Genentech has a great gym within campus, with a SPA and all kinds of machines and courses. In addition, we could use a larger gym close by for free, which has a swimming pool and tennis courts. I visited the gym about 4-5 times per week. In addition to keeping myself fit and relaxing my mind, I loved chatting with people from different divisions, which otherwise I would have probably never met in a company with 12000 employees. I also played at the Genentech soccer team. We went to RIFT (Roche International Football Tournament), which took place in different countries in Europe every year, for which the company paid all costs of the team :).

Some additional amazing services that I benefited are in campus car wash, dry clean, medical unit and concierge. For example, I could leave the car more or less where I park everyday, and they would wash it while I work. If you want to book a table at French Laundry –which was chosen the best restaurant in the world 2 times in a row– you call the concierge, they will do it for you. Otherwise, one has to try calling several days until finding a table –probably some time earliest 2-3 months later.

Genentech is also a green company that cares and courageous employee to care of the environment. Already many electrical vehicles are used on campus. There are also several shuttles (with Wi-Fi) from city to work and back (even though I preferred to drive:)) to reduce the individual driving, and on campus bikes that everyone can use. Fascinatingly, the company pays you additionally every time you take the shuttle, bike to work or carpool :). 

The company would also make regular happy hours (parties) with food and music, and organize large events during special days like Halloween or Christmas with entertainment, music, delicious food for thousands of employees and their families. Once in a year, there is a Giveback event that goes for a week. During this week, the company and the employees make donations, and involve in charitable activities, for example, going to neighborhoods in the city and helping people to build their houses, schools etc., which fills up our contentment tank. After all, we become most happy when we give to others (sounds like another article topic here:)). “Do you have any idea who is coming”…”I heard that Lady Gaga is in town” are regular talks every year to guess who will take the stage at Genentech’s annual AT&T park concert, where famous artists/bands like Black Eye Peas, Pitbull and Bruno Mars appeared. In addition, during the concert, all food and drinks are free as much as you can eat:). Everyone is allowed to bring one additional person and their kids, which at the end probably becomes something like 20-25 thousand people. Imagine the cost of such an event, which is organized solely to make the employee and their family happy.

There are regular surveys to evaluate the company, where employees can give their feedback regarding the company’s policies and culture. Indeed, Fortune Magazine’s "100 Best Companies To Work For" is based on such anonymous employee responses to the survey. There is also a regular evaluation of the individual employee from the people they work with. This helps to identify how the individuals can fit to the company’s work environment, whether they contribute or not. For example, if there is a bad manager you and some others suffer from; you have a good chance to make a change with your feedbacks contrary to most of the other work places where one usually does not have any power to criticize upper management.

In academia, it is mostly individuals who are responsible for themselves and their efficiency, however, in a company like Genentech, individuals are pieces of a whole unit, and need to learn how to communicate and work together with others to make great discoveries that could change the world. I really enjoyed learning this aspect of work ethics. I believe that I improved over years from being a rather individual researcher, to someone who could see and value collective team efforts. The more I learnt about Genentech and the Bay Area culture, the easier it got for me to communicate with others and follow some regulations –which were originally against my rebellious personality :)- that are needed for the protection of the entire system.

Because of such great benefits and work environment, Genentech can hire the best scientists and conduct the most cutting-edge research. Hence, Genentech has become a top-notch biotech firm with world-renowned researchers. It has a great postdoctoral program (where I worked) that aims to generate excellent basic research and publications like a university. Many people asked me why Genentech invests so much on basic research, where the money is spent for not producing drugs but rather to explore basic principles of science. I believe there are two main motivations behind this: first, Genentech can hire great scientists from academic environments by saying, look, you can come to us and still continue doing basic research that you love, while you can contribute to finding treatments for devastating diseases to make a substantial impact. Secondly, Genentech still can benefit from the basic research in long-term for drug development even though it may cost more effort and money. For example, one of the most famous drugs of the company for breast cancer treatment called Herceptin was the result of a postdoctoral fellow exploring the basic biology behind the HER2 gene. Almost every basic research topic even if they look so far from it, has a therapeutical value. The capacity to translate such knowledge into a treatment that the human being can benefit needs time, large investments and cooperation of many divisions to develop the idea. Genentech has these valuable assets.

Besides of all good aspects, naturally there is always room to grow and get better. Sometimes people in such great companies may think that there is already a lot of achievements accomplished and not much to learn and improve. Therefore, they might be more closed to feedbacks and critics. Expression of our thoughts to people with a predetermined mind needs extra skills in communication. Overall, I learnt that being “politically correct” is a safer and more effective way to express my opinions rather than directly putting a finger on the issue, which is not very welcomed in the American culture. I am not going into details of this topic but I can recommend a few books, which can help to improve your communication skills and be more effective when the stakes are high: “Crucial Conversations” by Kerry Patterson and “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change” by Stephen R. Covey. Finally, there will be always some people who are not happy with the company regardless of the quality and improvements even if well majority of the employee is very content. This could be simply due to incompatibility between these individuals and work ethics/environment of the company. In such cases, one may need to take more concrete steps and move on to a better fitting environment instead of accumulating negative feelings/thoughts over time. 

Finally I would like to talk a bit about research at Genentech in simple words. Genentech is famous with its antibody-based drugs for cancer treatments. A typical Pharmaceutical company, which aims to develop drugs, makes screens with thousands maybe millions of chemicals. For example, if they want to find out a drug that kills the cancer cells, the different chemicals are dropped onto isolated cancer cell lines in laboratory conditions to find out which chemical can kill the cancer cells. The main advantage of this approach is that it is fast and cost effective. The downside of this approach is that it is very hard to know what other effects would these chemicals have when they are given to humans. For example, the chemicals that can kill the cancer cells may also kill healthy cells in the body. In a metaphor, this can be considered as a zombie hunt in a large city. Let’s assume that we want to develop a drop of toxin that can eliminate some zombies hidden in the city before they expand more and further harm the city and people. If we were to mix our potential toxin medicine into raindrops, this toxin would affect almost every individual in the city, and besides zombies many people would also die. Because of the same reason, people who receive chemotherapy for cancer treatment may loose their hair and partially destroy various other tissues, hence they have serious side effects. As the first biotech company in the world, Genentech started with a different approach to develop drugs and bring treatment to people. The mission had been, first, to understand the biology behind the disease and later target the cancer cells or pathogens more specifically by employing biological substances. This is also the base of the personalized medicine, which you probably started to hear more and more. For example, in cancer studies, Genentech tries to discover specific features of cancer cells and subsequently targets them with antibodies that can kill only cancer cells. This can be considered as guided-toxins in the zombie hunt. The aim is to release the toxins only when a real zombie (real zombie? :)) is on target. To this end of course, one has to figure out unmistakably what a zombie is and what not and how to deliver the toxin specifically to an individual zombie. While a typical chemotherapy is designed to kill anyone, for example, it is delivered as raindrops and would kill anyone walking regardless being a human or zombie, an antibody can be more targeted, for example, it can be carried by trained soldiers and delivered onto creatures that walk with an awkward shamble posture unlike a typical human who stands straight (for more info read Physical Characteristics of Zombies :)).  Therefore, only when we could find out what makes cancer cells (zombies) different to normal healthy cells (human being), then we could specifically find and eliminate the bad guys to protect the healthy ones.


Overall, I had a great experience at Genentech and strongly suggest it to anyone who would like to work in such an environment (there were no zombies :)). Apart from  the basic neuroscience projects that I performed aiming to understand how our brain functions, I also learnt a great deal about the translational research, that aims to discover new drugs and treatments for devastating diseases. In a next article, I would like to talk more about what my research more in detail. I know that there is a clear communication problem between scientists and the rest of the society :), which is mostly due to the complicated nature of science and our inability to simplify it correctly for non-scientist. I am down to give it a try :), which might be helpful for many people around me finally to understand what actually I am doing.

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