The title of this article comes from an Amgen LinkedIn post I was featured in (https://www.linkedin.com/feed/update/urn:li:activity:6890409924724101120/), and I am grateful for the opportunity to expand on why I believe Amgen is a company that cares about people, and a company that listens. The photograph in the LinkedIn post, of me and my son both in costume, reflects that I am a person first (a husband, father, brother etc), and being an Amgen employee comes a long way down the list. Amgen understands this and demonstrated as much during the pandemic. I will revisit this point later.
I would like to tell you a bit of my story, how I came into this industry, and what it is I actually do at Amgen. Mine, like many, is one of those jobs where my friends and family (and some others in my company) don’t really understand what it is that I do – a Chandler job, if you will (if you are if the relevant age to understand a reference to Friends).
I studied mathematics at university, first at the University of Plymouth, and then a PhD in pure mathematics (combinatorics) at Queen Mary, University of London. I had started university saying that I was interested in “maths for maths’ sake”, but towards the end of my PhD it was clear to me that the academic life was not the direction I wanted to go in. I completed my PhD in 2008, which was not a good year to finish university, being the year of a major global financial crash. I applied for a few different things, spent six months or so as an administrator in a British Army museum, then landed my first full time, permanent job in July 2009 at Compassion UK, a Christian child sponsorship charity. Also in the summer of 2009, I met Jennifer, who is now my wife. She was about to start her PhD in Basel, Switzerland, so we were a long-distance couple for about 18 months, taking turns to travel between Basel, Switzerland and Surrey, England. (This is not something either of us would do so willingly now, given the climate emergency). During my visits to Basel I had a few job interviews, including one for a SAS/statistical programming position with a small CRO (Contract Research Organisation – clinical trials outsourcing company) owned by a member of our church. But nothing seemed to be coming of the interviews. Jennifer and I were engaged in April 2010, and we set a wedding date for April 2011. Towards the end of 2010 I took a risk, left Compassion, and moved to Basel in January 2011 with no job to go to. During the couple of months between moving and getting married, the owner of the small CRO suggested to me that I should learn SAS in my own time as it would help me get a start in the industry. He knew I was a mathematician and had a small amount of programming knowledge (I had done a bit of Maple and S-plus during my first degree, and my BSc dissertation and PhD thesis were written in LaTeX), and therefore had the skills to learn a new language. I looked into it and found that a single user licence for SAS was prohibitively expensive, even for an obsolete version, so I asked him for an unpaid internship, saying I believed I could quickly become productive for his company. The answer was positive and the contract for an 8-month paid internship came through a few days before the wedding. This later became my first permanent job in the pharmaceutical industry, and I worked there until August 2013. At this point, Jennifer secured a research fellowship which took us to North Carolina. This time, knowing that the Triangle area was a major hub in the industry, I was confident I would be able to find work. I managed to line up a (truly unpaid) internship at another small CRO for the period while I waited for my work permit, then started a permanent job (for the length of the visa) in January 2014. I gained some good experience, then in March 2015 Jennifer’s fellowship came to an end and it was time to move back to the UK. This time we agreed it was my turn to pick the destination and I managed to do so with a job to go to. An opportunity came up to live by the sea in Swansea, South Wales, and it seemed perfect. A couple of years later, in 2017, I moved to a fully remote position in a CRO, then in August 2019 I had the chance to move to the pharma side of the industry, to Amgen, and I haven’t looked back.
So, what is it I have been doing at all these CROs and now at Amgen?
What is statistical programming? For the uninitiated, there is a large amount of subject-level data that is generated by a clinical trial, and it needs to pass through several different pairs of hands to get from measurements taken at the study site by the investigator. To oversimplify hugely (and this is not the entire role of those mentioned), data is collected from the patient by the investigator, which is then passed to the data managers, who check it for completeness and clean the data (e.g., querying subjects recorded as having discontinued treatment but still with exposure records). The data managers pass the data to the statistical programmers, who, using SAS and other tools, transform the data into the standard formats required by the regulatory authorities, prepare the data for statistical analysis and generate the statistical tables, listings and figures. These are taken up by the biostatisticians, who carry out the analysis and work with the medical writers to prepare a regulatory submission. If successful, the drug is approved and licensed.
And what do I do at Amgen? I mentioned that Amgen was my first job on the pharma side of the industry and away from the CRO world. But in my role as statistical programmer, and lead statistical programmer, I had always had contact with representatives of the client/sponsor companies – the pharma companies whose products were being tested in these clinical trials. Different companies have different setups, but these client contacts were in the oversight manager position I am currently in at Amgen. I am a Biostatistical Programming Manager at Amgen, but more specifically I am a Technical Manager, and I am the client contact, who oversees CRO programmers doing the job I myself used to do. When the opportunity arose to take on this role, I decided I wanted to be the client contact I always wished I had – to model the best of those client contacts I had enjoyed working for the most. I wanted to communicate expectations clearly, to act consistently, and to treat my programmers like people and not just service providers. Essentially, I wanted to act like we are on the same team, which we are. I am not saying I have been perfect in all of these attributes, but I am trying, and I do try to ask questions about the families of those I work with, and I love to hear about the different festivals that come up in India (where many of our outsourcing partners work).
One of the things I have enjoyed most at Amgen has been the chance to get involved in conversations around Diversity, Inclusivity and Belonging (DI&B, as it is referred to here). Like many people around the world, I felt that the death of George Floyd was a watershed moment. I am the picture of privilege – I am straight, white, male. I am well-educated, I have a good job and the only thing that marks me out as any kind of minority (in this secular society) is that I am a practicing Christian. Here was an event that could not be ignored, but how could I go about not ignoring it? I have talked about my privilege and I consider it an imperative duty to use that privilege, to lend it to those who don’t have it and to do something. I started by writing a Facebook post, the thrust of which being “I am listening”.
But a social media post doesn’t really count as doing something. DI&B was already something I was interested in, initially sparked by an observation that there seems to be an assumption, in the UK at least, that the majority of the burden of childcare will be taken on by a mother. For example, even if both parents are working and the child is in nursery, if the child is ill and not able to go to nursery then I noticed an assumption that the mother would pick up the slack. It also occurred to me that, with the mother already likely having taken a career-break for maternity leave, this phenomenon is likely to hold women’s careers back further and thus feed into the national gender pay gap. At Amgen, in early 2020, there had been a departmental meeting in which the leader of the department said “I want this to be a conversation”, and I decided that this was a conversation I wanted to be a part of. There is imbalance in the world and I don’t know what the solution is, but I do feel compelled be part of the effort. So I started conducting a few informal interviews with friends and family of different minority groups. I asked them about their experiences as a woman, a black person, a gay mixed-heritage man, and asked “what is it you would like me (and others like me) to know?” and made some notes of their answers. In particular what I learned about how essential it is to consider the language we use around race, and how important it is to treat role models with sensitivity and respect. Then work became busy and this idea went on the back burner for a few weeks, but with the death of George Floyd it became urgent that I bring my bit of amateur research to the surface. I spoke to my manager and presented my interviews to the department leadership team. It was well received, and the department head asked me to set up a conversation with one of my interviewees – a Nigerian friend who has previously lived in the US and had some very interesting insights.
Through all of this, aside from me trying to do the right thing, I felt listened to. You can’t always assume that this is going to happen. Since then I have been involved in various different parts of the DI&B initiative at Amgen. It is a work in progress, and Amgen is not a perfect company or employer. But it has been my experience that Amgen knows this and listens to criticism. From the outset I have been able to approach and address people many pay grades above me and earning many times my salary, with confidence, and to ask difficult questions. Just recently there was a meeting in the DI&B space and afterwards I felt the need to give some quite pointed feedback to one of the leaders in this group. I sent him an e-mail and he replied with an invitation to a one-to-one call. We spoke a week or so later and came up with a potentially useful way to move forward. He listened to me. I acknowledge that doors open mor easily for me than they do for many others. And I acknowledge that it was likely in part my privilege as a straight, white man that gives me the confidence to make these approaches.
If you have looked at my LinkedIn profile you will see that I have nailed my colours to the mast in proclaiming that “I care about people. I spend a lot of time at work so I care about the people I work with“. I won’t claim to be perfect in always living up to this, but it is something I believe in passionately. And it has been my experience that Amgen aligns with these values. Very early on in my time at Amgen I was on a call with my manager and someone higher up and I was interrupted by my then 3-year-old son, who was off sick from nursery and was upset because BBC iPlayer had stopped playing his episode of Paw Patrol. I was nervous because I didn’t know how the interruption would be received, but it was met with absolute understanding. This understanding cannot be assumed. From the beginning of the pandemic, Amgen in the UK exhibited exemplary understanding for staff doing whatever we needed to do (e.g. working different hours or reducing hours if necessary). We were told to put our families first, and there was an unquestioning trust in all staff. Of course, this care for people doesn’t just extend to staff – we are here to serve patients and patients are people, not just numbers and not just dollar, pound, and euro signs. When I have listened to presentations in larger all-staff meetings, particularly from the scientists who have been hands-on in developing our products in the lab, I have heard a real passion, not just to do battle with the disease, but to do it to make an impact in the life of the patient. This is something I didn’t really have the pleasure of witnessing on the outsourcing side of the industry.
I care about people, and I have been able to at least try to make that passion a real part of my work here at Amgen – in my study work with the programmers in India, in my work in the Diversity, Inclusivity and Belonging Initiatives, and also in other areas I haven’t had the space to go into.
Thank you for reading.
As an appendix for this article (and thank you again for reading thus far), it has been suggested to me that I might like to offer some career advice to undergraduates, graduates or others who might be reading. This is a bit of a lofty request to live up to – am I really qualified to give advice? I don’t feel like my career so far is an example one could follow (although there is very little I would choose to change). But I will mention some things I wish I had known in 2008 when I finished my PhD, and before.
– Firstly, I can’t recommend highly enough that you consider a placement year during your undergraduate course. Amgen runs a few such programs in the UK and elsewhere, they offer invaluable industry and workplace experience, and they give you a chance at breaking the no experience/no job paradox that plagues so many people before a career begins. A placement year can also be relatively well paid, compared with some of the casual work an undergraduate might find.
– Secondly, whether you have taken part in a placement year or not, many companies run graduate schemes that can help you make a start in the industry. Ask your university careers service about these, but also find out about them online.
– Thirdly, use LinkedIn, and build your network. With the exception of my first position in Switzerland, every new role I have found has come via LinkedIn. Make connections with your lecturers, with people you meet at careers fairs, with connections of connections, and find recruiters and agencies to make connections with too. The pharmaceutical industry is rich ground for recruiters – I probably have over 500 on my LinkedIn profile, and they can probably help you find your next role or graduate scheme too.
– Finally, a few interview tips:
…o Make sure you prepare answers to…
……* …the “why have you applied to this company (and industry)?” question:
…….• The real answer is often “I need a job, you’ll do”.
…….• The secret real question is why will “we do”? Please demonstrate you have done some research, and
……….can you show a genuine personal interest?
……* …the teamwork question,
……* …the individual work question,
……* …the competing deadlines question.
…o If you are a student or recent graduate and don’t have a lot of workplace experience, refer to your
……university life or even before. You might not think your (group) coursework and/or Saturday job
……experience is important, but it really is. Some answers that have stood out to in recruiting placement
……students have been:
……* Setting up the online shop for a local Oxfam branch, what the candidate did and their motivation,
……* Football refereeing and the communication skills required,
……* And keeping a team motivated in a large group coursework project when lockdown suddenly hit
…o A little secret: The interviewers want you to do well. They are not there to trip you up – they want to
……find the right candidate for the job, and there’s a good chance they are hoping that candidate is you.
……They are not there to trip you up.
…o Another little secret: If you are stuck, the answer to almost every interview question ever is
……communication. The trick might be to explain how it is the answer to the question you are being asked.
When I started my BSc in mathematics at the University of Plymouth in 2001, I was interested in “maths for maths’ sake”, convinced I wanted to be an academic. This focus continued and I began a PhD in pure mathematics (combinatorics) at Queen Mary, University of London, which I very much enjoyed but towards the end it became apparent that academia wasn’t for me – or I wasn’t for it. When I completed my PhD in 2008 I found a hostile working world in the grip of a banking crisis and global recession. After a couple of years of a couple of different things I moved to Switzerland and fell into the world of clinical trials programming almost by accident. I have since worked in CROs in Switzerland, North Carolina and Swansea, and joined Amgen in 2019. I have never looked back.
I am a statistical programmer, a statistical programming oversight manager, a husband, father of an amazing 6 year-old boy, a Christian and Sunday school helper, a modest runner up to about 16km and an occasional singer-songwriter. I care very deeply about people, whether they look like me or not, and I am extremely privileged to be able to take that passion to work with me.