Transforming product expertise into leadership
When Anjali Suresh joined Datavant in January 2019, it was her first job out of college. She has since transitioned from an Individual Contributor working on configuration products to an Engineering Manager of the Switchboard Activation Team, a role that is a direct extension of her initial work at Datavant. Below, Anjali discusses the growth of her projects and some of the challenges she has faced along the way.
At Datavant, engineers are given a great deal of responsibility and autonomy from Day 1. What was your “Day 1 Project” at Datavant?
My first project at Datavant, which was my first job after graduating from UC Berkeley, started me on my journey to owning our latest configuration product. I started out working on our command-line apps and related features. Back in the day, we had an internal tool called the “Configurator” that supported a manual process: a customer sent Datavant their data layout, our Product Success team used that information to fill out an Excel template, and an internal, on-premise executable turned that template into a cloud-based software configuration file. The MVP of this tool was built and finished in the week before I joined Datavant, so my first project was to take immediate ownership of it.
My ownership ranged from creating feature enhancements to working with the Product Success team on debugging and triaging all bugs. I learned a lot through that experience. For example, developing the tool without taking the time to refactor got us into a not-so-fun situation where I found myself the only person with in-depth knowledge of the code, which meant I was the only person who could properly review the code when a new bug arose. This was challenging, but developing the in-depth knowledge of the tool and our customer use cases demanded by that situation put me in a great position to advocate for building a new UX tool designed for direct customer use. I remain involved with that project to this day, and it’s pretty cool that the first project I worked on as a new employee is one of the flagship products owned by the team I lead.
One Datavant priority is to grow leaders. How did your early responsibility with the “Configurator” shape the work you continue to do?
Very concretely, my role at Datavant has changed from an individual contributor role to a managerial role. Working on configurations gave me a sense for internal tooling and a desire to build self-service tools to improve the customer UX. Working on our initial trials and desktop GUI applications gave me the skills for solid full-stack development. Working on our initial self-service configuration POC taught me React from scratch, a project that happened to include Datavant’s first-ever React application. All of this hands-on experience put me in a strong position to become a lead for tools focused on customer onboarding. During a reorganization a few months later, my team took ownership over the entire customer portal because of our prior front-end focus. That’s how my pod (Datavant’s term for an engineering subteam), the Switchboard Activation Pod, was born. I have led the Switchboard Activation Pod for the past year.
The only way to work on bigger, harder problems is to pass the baton.
Has it been challenging being a relatively young engineer moving into a leadership role so quickly?
Recent grads don’t have many opportunities to lead people, and I think my position at Datavant is unique in that way. I’ve discovered that it’s both very important and very difficult to learn to delegate well, and for me this feeling was deepened by my early experience of becoming the go-to Configurator expert. As a young woman in tech, the imposter syndrome I sometimes feel translates to a constant need to prove my abilities, which can equate to a mindset of “do more things.” But of course, continuously doing more things is not sustainable. The only way to work on bigger, harder problems, and the only way to lead effectively is to let go of some of the responsibilities of being an IC and pass that baton. But how exactly do you pass the baton? The hardest transition is in your own mind: accepting that the people around you have recognized that you have already proven yourself enough to be in this role.
As a manager, I have been able to take on a lot of stretch goals. In addition to technical projects, I unofficially provided advice and coaching for our first intern cohort, and because of this I ended up leading the 2020 intern program mentoring new grads. Personally, this helped me feel more comfortable leading a full team of my own.
What is a piece of advice you give to younger engineers and recent grads?
I often tell new grads to question all code and take nothing for granted.
Tell us more about the Switchboard Activation Pod.
We work on maintaining and updating features that allow customers to interact with and visualize Datavant’s De-identified Switchboard. In the simplest terms, I like to say that my engineers and I own the bulk of our web portal, a really cool job with a lot of responsibility.
Our recent work includes building and adding functionality to self-service configuration and segmentation tools. The former allows our customers to define their data layout and remediation operations for data they want to de-identify and upload to our portal. The latter allows customers to define slices of their data by row or column for their specific projects and use cases.
Recently, my team developed a new self-serve UI for customers to segment data. Given a dataset, our users may want to pull specific rows and columns from that dataset, sometime in relation to other datasets. Pulling a segment might mean, for example, pulling only the columns that contain Datavant tokens from a dataset, specifically for the rows where the patient is male and from California.
Our existing segment UI is an internal tool — customers give our Product Success team the specifications for their segments, and our PS team creates them. With the launch of our new Assess Toolkit, we want to put this functionality directly into the hands of our customers, which means building a very different UI, one that is more self-explanatory and clearer for end users. In addition, we are making this new UI work with the existing backend, which means a non-negligible amount of ramping up on a tool my team did not initially build and so were not familiar with.
I wanted to be at a company where I knew what our goals were, and where I felt like I had the power and autonomy to shape those goals while fulfilling the broader mission.
Looking back, how did you decide to join Datavant in the first place?
I left college not really knowing what I wanted to do. I was not specifically focused on any type of software role or sector of industry. I had prior internship experience in healthcare and HIPAA compliance, and was generally interested in human-computer interaction. What I did know was that I wanted to work at a startup, and I wanted my work to mean something. Also, transparency in a work environment was extremely important to me. After spending half of my college career studying philosophy, I didn’t just want to be at a company that was mission-driven, I wanted to be at a company where I knew what our goals were, and where I felt like I had the power and autonomy to shape those goals while fulfilling the broader mission.
When I interviewed at Datavant, two things struck me. The people I talked to were extremely kind and seemed really on top of things. And when I asked the engineers on my interview panel about the business and their projects, they weren’t just answering questions about the tactical aspects of their work, they were also offering insights about where they saw their work going in 3–5 years, and where they saw the company in 3–5 years. That told me that Datavant gave engineers the kind of autonomy and operated with the degree of transparency that I was looking for.
How do you find Datavant’s mission (to connect the world’s health data to improve patient outcomes) translating to your day to day work?
We have an extreme focus on privacy and data security. Being on a team that is so strongly UX-focused, we often throw around the buzzwords “easy to use” and “frictionless.” But when the tools we create touch customer data, something that’s frictionless and easy to use can also mean that it’s easy to mess up. Something we have to think very consciously about is when to add in friction. We don’t want things to feel difficult for end users, but we want to make it as hard as possible to do something you don’t actually want to do with your data. It’s a hard problem and one that you can only really solve on a case-by-case basis, but it’s a pretty intriguing area where our mission statement really does affect my team and how we operate.
I still think this company is the right place for my growth even after three years. The problems we’re solving are increasingly impactful, and it’s been really amazing to see our scope shift with our mergers and new hires, all while we try to maintain the cultural tenets we’ve had from the start. Our collaborative nature is very important to me. This team genuinely feels like a place where the success of one is the success of many. I’ve had so many peers and mentors take a huge amount of time and energy to help me succeed here, and I feel like a lot of what I do as a manager and mentor is just paying it forward.
We’re at a really special intersection: solving a really important problem with some really cool people — people who aren’t just smart, but have a lot of vision, and are in an environment where everyone around them has that same urge to think big and think deeply. We’re cultivating something pretty cool here, and I feel really lucky to be a part of it.
Anjali Suresh has a background in Electrical Engineering, Computer Science, and Classical Civilizations (ancient Greek literature and philosophy in translation). She joined Datavant in January 2019. Connect with Anjali via Linkedin.
Many thanks to Anjali for taking the time for this interview.
Interview compiled/edited by Nicholas DeMaison.