Aug 1st 2021 | Career Development Strategies E063 A Lucky Escape From Academia Towards Movement and Internal Metrics from Humans
James Heathers, PhD is a chief scientific officer at Cipher Skin Inc., a company focused on capturing Movement and Internal Metrics from Humans and Objects to Deliver Meaningful, Visualized Insights for healthcare.
He has a long record in academia, where he first completed a PhD in Psychophysiology at the University of Sydney in 2014, and then worked as a an Endeavour Research Fellow at Poznań University of Medical Sciences and Postdoctoral Researcher at Northeastern University.
In his career, James got familiar with a number of disciplines related to physiological measurements from people, such as physiology, data acquisition, hardware, software, signal analysis, building databases and user interfaces, testing, quality management, stakeholder management, grant acquisition, and others.
He also advocates for reproducibility and transparency in science.
James’ LinkedIn profile: https://www.linkedin.com/in/james-heathers-phd-63a70240/
James’ Twitter profile: https://twitter.com/jamesheathers
The episode was recorded on July 31st, 2021. This material represents the speaker’s personal views and not the views of their current or former employer(s).
Natalia 00:11 Hello, everyone. This’s yet another episode of career talks. And if you guys would like to support this channel, please leave a thumbs up. That’s always appreciated. And of course, I would like to welcome all your comments and questions. I commit myself to answer all of them. Please comment below. Today, I have the great pleasure to introduce James Heathers PhD, who is the Chief Scientific Officer at Cypher Skin Inc, a company focused on capturing movement and internal metrics from humans and object objects to deliver meaningful, visualized insights for healthcare.
He has a long record in academia where he first completed a PhD psychophysiology at the University of Sydney in 2014. And then worked as an endeavor research fellow at the Boston University of Medical Sciences and postdoctoral research at Northeastern University. In his career, James got familiar with a number of disciplines related to physiological measurements from people, such as physiology, data acquisition, hardware, software, signal analysis, building databases, and user interfaces, testing quality management, stakeholder management, grand acquisition, and others.
He also advocates for reproducibility and transparency in science. Thank you so much, James, for attending and for accepting the invitation. Great to meet you. And I’m very curious to hear your story from your own perspective, especially the parts that we cannot really see on LinkedIn and everything that hides behind your impeccable LinkedIn profile.
James Heathers 01:39 As I suppose this whole vodcast is about the kind of trajectory that happens here, I might put a little bit more detail into this than I normally would. Let’s go right back to the start. And we’ll do some really convoluted stuff just in the sort of trajectory through higher education. I went to university in 2000 when I was 17, the precocious young man that I was. My first degree, which is the first four years was this very strange, flexible undergraduate program. That was called economics. Economics is a social science.
That basically meant was, if you took two years of political economy, you could study literally anything else you want and it’s the most flexible degree at the University. I got an economics degree without ever having to take macroeconomics or microeconomics at all which was good because the Political Economy part was extremely interesting. After that, I always had a particular interest in some research areas of psychology which was certainly more true at the time.
I took a graduate diploma for a fourth year in the additional year that has to be tacked on to Australian Psychology Majors as an undergraduate. That was my official fourth year. At the end of that, I knew I liked research and had absolutely no intention whatsoever of becoming a therapist, certain deficits in the paying attention department, and the empathy department. I wasn’t amazed at other people’s problems in my 20s.
Natalia 03:51 It was, you don’t know that you miss empathy and people like that.
James Heathers 04:01 It’s not that I don’t have it. It’s the fact that the continual exercise of it the first 90 minutes of any given day, something like well, who cares what you think would come flying out of my mouth and I’d have to sit there on a couch and think another ethics complaint is coming in like I couldn’t maintain. Now, I don’t think I’ve ever told anyone this in public before. I was accepted into medical school. It was very hot in Australia. And I knew when I was 17, I didn’t want to be an MD.
I didn’t go. I went to do a normal degree. There are not a lot of programs in Australia that have for me. There’re not a lot of medical schools. And it was a big deal to get a place at the time. But I knew I didn’t want to do it when I was 17. And then I knew I didn’t want to be a therapist when I suppose on now I’m 23, 24 maybe. I feel like being able to characterize what you don’t want to do is not given anywhere near enough credit. Because what I’m going to describe next is I became more interested in exercise physiology. I was training very hard at the time.
I was a nationally ranked strongman for a while and I like picking up boulders and pulling trucks and things like that, you know, healthy outdoor hobbies. I went to do graduate units in a Master’s of exercise science. And I knew in the first six weeks that I did not want to be an exercise physiologist or a research nurse in that context. Either I wanted to run the place, or I didn’t want to be there. I learned that it’s a great deal. I didn’t like the people who got into fights with the lecturers a lot because I maintained my own body of knowledge.
That was a combination of both training and sort of curiosity about physiology so for like bagged cats, with everyone who taught it for the entire year and then decided that finishing that subjecting myself to another year of that was a terrible idea. It worked for a while, I went to get a research Master’s, that was in cognitive psychology more than anything else which was a disaster for reasons that will slow us down a lot. Because after finishing my Master, I finally got a Graduate Scholarship in Australia.
And my PhD started to become something where I was genuinely committed to the idea. Now this entire time, I mean, it sounds like the sort of last academic story. And that’s only a little true. During this entire time, I was working. They call them trust funds in America. I didn’t have one of those. I had a job, teaching mathematics at a coaching college. I taught many 1000s of hours of high school mathematics which is something that came really very much in handy for everything immediately afterward.
It’s really strange what you derive from old experiences. During meetings, the ability to work something out is in your head simply because you spent such a very long time on numerical and computational basics that it has really come in handy far more in business than it did in any academic context, which is one of those funny skills that kind of bubbled up again to the surface and occasionally people care. It just helps me sort of stay grounded as we’re making decisions about what happens with the said algorithm. My PhD was a mixture of signal analysis, little pieces of engineering and physiology, and some social sciences. And I also ran a lab. I was paid for segments of it. That was the official part.
Because the equipment was just sort of abandoned at the university. All the physiological measurement suite was just sort of left in a corner, off to the departure of a staff member. By virtue of being there, I became the person who ran the lab and that’s how people started to treat me that was a really odd experience of being and not being at the right place at the right time as being the only person close enough was breathing in and out.
But I spent a lot of energy learning everything I possibly could about all of the measurement devices that I had which turned out to be a very good decision for how everything else started to play out. That’s my PhD. I finished writing that after I’ve come to America. I was writing it on the plane while we packed the house up because I came with my then-girlfriend, now wife to Boston, because I got a job at Harvard which is a good thing if you’re a biologist. I came to the US as well. We finished writing my PhD here. I found the writing process of my PhD to be extremely trivial. I planned it all out.
I finished four days early and then I sort of shrugged and emailed it. And the actual document preparation was nothing compared to the work which is a very different experience in the humanities, as anyone whose story one will probably be aware we can compress what happens next. Now, I got an endeavor Research Fellowship, which is deliberately for traveling overseas from Australia to go to a place and I got one to go to a public hospital in Poland, which I thought was far more interesting than going to the University of Nottingham or something.
But also, there were some researchers. I really liked that they were interested in cool stuff. They had a very rigid attitude towards collecting data and had a massive database with super clean signals. I had great fun and I was really lonely because I was in Poland and my mom was a Boston but I had great fun playing around with this signal database.
Natalia 11:59 Could they ask what was this Poznan?
James Heathers 12:04 This was a Poznan University of Medical Sciences, for people who are unaware. It’s a few hours from Germany, in the western bit of Poland. The region, I believe, is vehicle postgame. And I don’t even know if I’m saying that right. I haven’t had to speak Polish for about a decade now. It was brilliant. I very much enjoyed Poland. I think Poland is deeply underrated as a place. And I had a great time. I really did. It was a very positive research experience, simply because I was capable of directing my own stuff.
And part of the mindset was like, well, we’re capable of leaving him alone. He’s foreign and slightly audit and we’re not sure what he’s doing here. But he’s going to do great stuff. All we need to do is leave him alone. And tell him he’s doing a good job, pat him on the head from time to time. That was great. I came back after that to Boston, got a job at Northeastern as a postdoc now doing more wearable device stuff. So, previously aligning what is this signal? Where does it come from? How does it work?
What do we need it for talking to device manufacturers when we need to fix it, talking to manufacturers, and looking at the signal analytic platform, etc, that started to move more into wearables at the lab at Northeastern, which I’d always liked and had used for many years? It was one of the first things that we had. Because obviously, they’re inexpensive and they allow you to not be tethered to masses of cables.
And if you know the tricks and how they work, a lot of the time we characterize the accuracy as good enough. And on the basis of good enough from the right environments, the signals are much more useful than they are anywhere else. That was my postdoc there. I graduated into a research scientist position and throughout this entire kind of trajectory, I’m doing metascience work.
I just invented a whole sort of parallel second career for myself of the things which are obviously apparent in my formal research which are being analytical and being difficult about other people’s analysis decisions. You know, try to be a difficult person and then add graduates into statistical techniques and think about policies and have high-level discussions with people about how should we run an area or a journal or whatever else in order to manage the processes of inaccuracy or worse.
The academic world right now is historically very difficult to navigate. And the worst part about it is generally you find out that fact, and how it applies to your circumstances, and your particular research area, far later than you should. One of the best ways to get a PhD, in my opinion, is to have a time machine and go back and need to get a somewhat different PhD. Many people find themselves in a circumstance like, I’m here now, I don’t know anything about the formal workplace, I don’t know anything about markets, I don’t know anything about what areas of commercial activity is related to my work.
I never wanted to be that person. But I always had a plan B. Always, I strongly believe everyone should always be pre-committed to even if they have the best job in the whole world that they like the most. And a lot of academics will tell you that or something like that, or just I could never countenance the idea of leaving this. Always have a plan. I always had a real plan, but now it changed over time to some degree.
And that is expected. We’d like what’s possible, what’s available, someone says you should come and won’t work for me on this particular day, someone that you talk to should come and work for me in this particular context. And you think, yeah, that’s not bad until you meet them. And you talk about the context on what’s available and what they’d like to set up and then you check in on them and make sure like, would that still be available, if I did this, etc. You just make sure that the option remains open because you’re trying to help them and yourself.
They’re trying to help you and themselves and gravitate towards an environment like that. And when someone says this, this remains a possibility over time. Make sure that the door is always open. Always have a backdoor. Think of it as a fire code for your whole life. You always need a second point. Now, I’ve always had that. And when the plague came, my academic cynicism is a lot bigger than other people simply because I’ve spent probably six or seven years directly dealing with detecting fraud and misconduct and mistakes and the singular worst parts of the kind of research world and how difficult it is to actually make progress on broader environments.
How do we maintain academic achievement and talk about it a lot, but it’s hard. There are a lot of vested interests who have absolutely no interest in listening to you or helping you. I have a tremendous amount of deep-seated cynicism about that simply because I’ve been dragged through it by my nose for years. Other people who don’t have to deal with it, I’m sure will not have that same response. I am this cynical. And then I started looking very early on in the plague times.
For that, it was perfectly obvious right from the start that in the first quarter of the last year 2020 that there was going to be a tremendous amount of disruption to campus. You know, a small group of people closely packed in together. They immediately leave and then form another cluster of people. It’s as if a very clever person had designed a system to make a disease spread as quickly as possible. And buildings that were built in 1970, even at a good university, it’s not like the construction is top-notch.
We’re not talking about the new Bain Capital Building downtown. And looking at that it was really obvious that everything was going to take a beating. And the catalyzing factor is knowing that at the very start because I had other opportunities. This is related to visa stuff as well but I had other opportunities to do other work. And I’ve obviously worked on developing them over time. But the real catalyzing force behind that was sort of one.
I don’t have the 30 patents, big lab, an academic trajectory that you’re supposed to have to go and do it the faculty jobs somewhere where there’s a kind of a trajectory that they accept. I’m a Foreign weirdo. I’m five to 10 years older than other people who might do the same job, as might be expected. I’ve had some odd careers that involves going from Australia to the US to Poland and back here. It’s not a straightforward research trajectory. And all these other experiences mashed in together.
But the sum total of all of it means that I’m moving into a leadership position within a small organization where the job is to make decisions about the scientific trajectory of the whole company. You shake everything up together and that was the most appropriate position that was available. We could have called it something else. I could have had a different amount of responsibility. But that was the last thing that was in the cupboard, that was appropriate to call me. I mean, people think about jobs in terms of titles a lot.
And the truth is that in a small organization, it doesn’t matter, you come up with something that’s close enough to the role that you want to do and this was the name that fit. That means I get to see things in a title but I’ve seen four-person companies where everyone is the chief of something. It’s a signifier. For other people, it’s not going to change anything about your wife. Cipher Skin who I work for now, I hadn’t known the guys who started the company. Before I was thinking about leaving, it was weird.
The first time I ever talk to him. I was at an academic conference. I was at the SBIR Conference in Atlanta. I can actually figure out how long I’ve known the guy because he called on the second day of the conference and I got so excited talking to the guy. I forgot to go to a conference social. It formed a nice historical market. I like the CEO of the company. Now, I know exactly how long I’ve met him because it just happened to call on that particular day.
I’ve talked to them on and off about their work and a check-in every sort of a couple of months and how they were doing. We had a sort of just one of these relationships that are maintained over time that I was describing before, the plan B kind of relationship. Now, when my visa situation changed, there were a lot of different options. I could have stayed in academia and done some consulting for them, they could have been on their scientific advisory board.
I could have done contract-based work on specific tasks. And I probably could have chosen from all of the above, at some point. And that would have been okay because the door was open. But I had to push that button the whole way to the bottom, all the way up, and all the way in. And it had to be that way. I tried to get people interested in the hollowing out of global research infrastructure. That’s more interesting to me than other people.
And we’ve really found out the weaknesses within the publication and information dissemination systems during the last 18 months, where there have obviously been some tremendous wins. A lot of them have frankly been bypassed. I’ve had organizations that whatever, genuinely excellent biological research by dedicated teams of people who know what they’re doing and a huge pile of total crap in different areas of public health and the social sciences are just huge chunks of undifferentiated garbage.
And I have made some attempts to mitigate that. And it seems very obvious that it should be a paid role that exists formally somewhere but no one can figure out a way to make that real. And I don’t have the time left in my life to hang around and find out. That’s a very long, rambling discussion of narrative, but let’s pull some sort of principles out that I think are really super important. The first one, as I said, more than once now is always having a back door not just a backdoor, but one way, you know, the lock would stick.
One way, you know, you can turn the handle and the door will actually come open and you can walk through it. You want it thinking sort of 85, 90% probability that will work out. If everything goes down, not a vague promise from a friend, you want to get as much certainty as possible on that and maintain it over time. It can be a balancing act. The second thing is that it’s very difficult to say what experience will come in handy as you move forward.
Without being weirdly over-committed to a whole series of different roles and different experiences and exposures that I’ve had, without being committed to those at the time, I don’t think I would have learned anything that would have stuck and become useful later on. It’s often odd how it all falls together to make a sort of sum total of experience. Now, that’s a pretty facile thing to say. But here’s the context. A lot of academics really don’t realize doing that. They really don’t realize.
They don’t have experience in externalizing the skills they’ve got. They don’t know how to explain it to other people who don’t even really know what it is. And I’ve always been surprised by that. Because I’ve had a certain appreciation for, why any individual given experience will be valuable and how it would be described outside an academic context. The best thing I’ve said this publicly before it several times, the best thing I ever did for this was going to see someone who was a resume consultant, actually, one here in Boston, who’s absolutely brilliant.
She actually specializes in helping people make the precise transition that we’re talking about right now. And I sold everything that I had ever done. And she helped me reframe it in terms of well, okay, you call this with academic language, what that amounts to, is that and to have your own experience. That is simultaneously true but also sounds so much better if you’d written it out yourself. If you want a very sort of career-affirming experience, talk to someone who’s on your side about how to recast your own resume.
It isn’t free but you’ll leave the room getting good at this science business. Anyone who needs to pick me up, I strongly recommend that instead of the fourth cup of coffee, go and see your resume consultant and have them describe your own work back to you. And you will feel like a genius underpinning the whole thing. There are diffuse skills that are core anywhere. And they’re the most basic things and so basically a lot of people never think of working on.
Now, we can get coding out of the way early on because everyone appreciates it. If you have a technical job, you need to be able to master and apply some technical language and I strongly recommend I’m not one of those. Everyone needs to learn to code people. But if you do, it’s not necessarily the language that you’ll learn. It’s how to think and structure what needs to happen in digital space. And that will 100% help you be a better manager of people who is building your digital space.
It makes your life a lot easier when it comes to different things that you want. But the other two as might be expected, are writing and reading. And people leave these on the table. The amount of people who cannot write well, but read quickly, is astonishing. And get emails from people long, well written, allegedly discursive emails and you look at it and you think, where you are when your command of the English language as a native English language speaking person is this poor.
Now, it may feel like it doesn’t matter. Like, that’s all window dressing. And it’s a brave new world where people can communicate wherever the hell they want. That’s fine until you have to write an update to your investors. Until you have to write a form, send it to the government that explicates something. They want to come around and be your special best friend and that’s going to help you structure your thoughts when it comes to trying to raise money, you just want to be in command of the language that you use.
Reading obviously goes both ways. But being able to quickly pass the important parts of technical documents starting with things that are very challenging and scientific. Scientists don’t know they have the ability to synthesize large amounts of complicated information quickly. I made this easy on myself without realizing it by being interested in such a broad swath of research in the first place.
Digital signal processing, different areas of engineering, software design, anything in the social sciences, some economics, the vast majority of non-specialty medicine, a reasonable amount of statistics, epidemiology, and public health any one of those things, I mean, that’s now a fairly strong percentage of the academic literature in existence.
I have reasonable confidence that I can pick it up and read it faster than any kind of required rate of understanding. And it goes double. If you have more than one paper that’s on the same thing, you start to be able to intuit what things mean and move through it really quickly. You have the ability to do that fast and super useful. It’s also something you develop without even thinking about it.
Natalia 33:13 First of all, I would like to congratulate you for having a plan B from the start. That was my biggest mistake, I think I didn’t have a plan B. It was also that I was relying on this label of a smart person that I always had ever since I was a kid. I think this’s a common mistake. And I have to agree with you that not every networking scheme is the same efficient. I also made the mistake that my network was brought shallow. I indeed had a lot of friends and casual friends from conferences.
A lot of people recognize me in my field, but when it came to looking for jobs, these contracts appeared to be useless. I was not really helped with finding jobs after my contract expired. And that was also a bit of a disappointment because I fought. You know, I know so many people. There will be definitely something but then turned out that, as you said, it’s better to have a few long-lasting contacts which you can count on and it’s not just worth it. These people are actually willing to take you onboard rather than having this broad but shallow network. I have to 100% agree with this.
I have so many questions for you right now. The next thing I would like to mention is that thank you for your warm words about Poland. I am Polish myself. I did undergrad in Poland. I was probably one of the competitive labs because my students in my master’s studies were in Warsaw on the faculty of physics. I’ve never been to the labs in Poznan. But I have to say that back then I had this feeling that it was too chilled an atmosphere and there was not enough pressure on the publications.
And I left for the Netherlands because I felt I wanted to do a PhD in a more competitive place. Maybe not, you know, knowing what I know now about academia, I have a bit different attitude. Now, I would actually enjoy this lack of publication pressure. Although Poland changed as well. In the last 10 years, I think it became much more competitive. Now, there’s a rat race as well. But back then, it was just so chilled. That publication was so something extra. It was not even expected of you. I can imagine that you had a good time there.
I can imagine those good times. And indeed, I thought that there was more like comparing Poland and the Netherlands, I think research was going a bit slower in Poland, but everything was done more diligently so more pressure, like less blood pressure on faster results, more pressure on doing things, right. I think that always pays off in the long run. The first question will be the least obvious one. Do you think that your episode as a sports guy doing in strongman competitions contributes to your career in a positive way? This really brings something to your life that you can use until this day, as you know, a skill or mindset.
James Heathers 36:48 When you have something that requires you to not only be a big beef person but you have to learn maybe a dozen core and two dozen other events that have their own certain tricks. It’s not like weightlifting. There are two lifts with powerlifting strong weight and the other has 25. You have to have standard strategies and how you do it, and how you put yourself in a position to do as well as possible with it.
That changes when you need to learn to do something like that. You accept the fact that it’s going to take a very long time and it’s going to hurt. I’ve been in competitions. And this is what actually made me pull back from being in competitions and knowing that I had to go a certain other distance, there was like a reasonable percent chance that it would kill me to finish the actual event. And after having the experience of that a few times, and then realizing like right now, just simply because I don’t care.
Let it all blow up. I’m taking this thing over that and then realizing that there’s probably a way to be a little bit more healthy. A sport like that will teach you about the focused application of progress over time. Consistency is the only thing that’s genuinely rewarding. You can’t wait to be inspired to pick up a car, you just have to pick it up. You need to do that a lot.
Natalia 38:45 I agree. I’ve never done sports. But I have to say that was also one of the reasons why I decided to continue with this YouTube channel. Because I’m more of an artist type. And I have issues with being structured and keeping pace and keeping like regular return with delivering work, which doesn’t mean that I don’t deliver a lot of like large portions of work, I produce a lot. But it’s never on regular basis. I thought YouTube kind of pressures me to be consequent and to produce an episode every single week.
And I have to say that it improved my life already in the last year. I can see that I became more systematic. Because you know, to be able to record an episode, you have to also sleep better and you have to be prepared. This suggests more things than just putting on camera. And I think that it kind of radiated to a few different areas of life. I mean, it’s hard to compare you to sports but I can see the point that sometimes just one routine influences your whole daily life in a positive way.
James Heathers 40:12 We have a podcast. It’s been going on for almost four years now. I think we’re on Episode 130, 140, or something like that. I continually forget the number. And it used to be very stochastic. And then quite some time ago, we pinned it down to two a month, the first and third Monday of every month. If I’m planning something, and I’m days or weeks, or months away from that, I know what our commitment is. And we’ve missed one episode. We only missed it by a couple of days or something. And that was just completely unavoidable at the time.
Natalia 40:52 I have so many questions for you right now. One very interesting thing that you’ve said in your story was that in your 20s, you seem to first pinpoint which things you don’t want to do, right? You had a long list of things you tried and all kinds of activities that you didn’t really enjoy or didn’t really see as the future. And I have to say, I kind of experienced the same. I also went for one of these, like hybrid majors on studies, it was an interfaculty, like, interfaculty truck between 17 different disciplines of natural sciences.
It was quite an open-field experience. I also kind of studied mathematics, physics, and psychology. At the same time, I felt a bit like a jack of all trades. And I didn’t really see myself in any of these disciplines altogether. I felt, okay, I want to be a professional physicist, I want to be a professional mathematician. I can study, I can graduate, but I don’t see myself doing this. In my 20s, I built a long list of things I won’t be doing.
I’m still an only now when I started doing business development after my PhD and helping people with careers and writing books. Now, I kind primarily focused on things that I want to do in the future. And I can see myself doing 20 years but it’s only now when I’m like 35. And, like five or 10 years ago, I was just trying things. And it was always the same conclusion that okay, this is almost it, but not it and I have to keep on going and keep on searching.
James Heathers 42:55 Then the dream is to be able to make it through that process while someone pays you.
Natalia 43:02 Most of the time, indeed, it was the case for the whole graduate school and before. I agree. But I think that many successful people are late bloomers in school who tried multiple things, you know, and sometimes when you read biographies from people who turn into success, they are now famous for things that they never studied and that are very much different from where they started their careers.
And so for instance, Suzan was studying literature. And she was in humanities, but it so happened that the founders of Google installed their startup in her garage because they had no other choice. They had no place. And then she started observing what they were doing. And she caught the bug and completely changed her scope and went for working for them and for technology. She wanted to be very talented.
James Heathers 44:09 You mean, you want to talk about good luck and the kind of associations between people. It’s something that you don’t plan simply because you have exposure to something that’s relevant. Having someone start Google in your garage has got to be one of the most epic-luck players of all time. I got a garage.
Natalia 44:33 I just wanted to say that it’s often the case that you end up in a very different trajectory. Then you start and just stick to what you do initially. It might be because I know a lot of people who basically stick to whatever they were good at in their undergraduate studies, they had this confirmation from the environment that they are good students. They stick to it even despite their own intuition telling them that maybe this is not the optimal place.
But they got informed by the approval from their environment. Until this day, they basically are pursuing careers directly related to their study and never really tried to explore more. I like to think that there is value in failing in your 20s. And just to a realization that you spent some time doing things that are not your future, that’s good as well.
James Heathers 45:50 Anyone who’s rapidly hurtling towards middle age, it’s hurting my feelings. They tend to compare themselves to people in certain areas. Now, these were the mathematicians who a lot of the time doing all of their best work before the age of 25. It’s the whole sort of young person’s game kind of thing. Now, it’s people who run software companies. Both of these areas have a distinct advantage in that they are self-led.
They rely on a lot of intuition about what’s possible. And that you don’t need any formal instruction like you can leave a 10-year-old alone with a copy of Python in a corner and come back 10 years and find out something that’s going on. But you know, you do that with a textbook on fundamental biology. That doesn’t happen, right? It can be completely self-directed from the very beginning. And you can start whenever the hell you like. The other thing is every tiny software company started by a happy 19-year-old who manages to grow it into a million billion. Trust me, there are 1000 of them that fell through the cracks.
The whole thing of the young wonder kid is significantly tempered by the broader facts of how these things work. I know plenty of people who, in their 20s, started to do a thing and it just didn’t work. And they couldn’t put together an organization. And they tried, and I don’t know if they’re better or worse coders than the people who built billion-dollar companies. But I imagine there’s a reasonable equivalence. I’m not talking about people who are foolish about it, people who had genuine plans, it just didn’t work out.
It’s far more normal to try and discard things before you find something that is genuinely suitable. I’m certain that there’s research that’s on this. But the one thing that everyone needs to know is that you know, he’s 27. And he runs a billion-dollar company. He’s a product of very unusual circumstances. Why can’t I do that is just your psychology talking to itself. It’s not a realistic external standard. Cheer up and go to therapy.
Natalia 48:19 I think, in general, the myth of a successful founder, who becomes another billionaire, it’s I wouldn’t say it happens, but when you look at statistics in the US, most of the millionaires are employees. If you get to a salary of 100,000 and more, then actually, if you constantly invest your savings even into American Stock Exchange, you don’t even have to look into sophisticated methods of investing, then after 10 to 20 years, you will be a millionaire.
James Heathers 49:05 If you’re joining the right organization, early as employee number, for employee number 13 or employee number 17, and you stay long enough for everything to vest and it’s the right organization, then it’s all done for you. But there are many more dozens of those people and the people who charge on the banner head.
Natalia 49:28 I mean, that’s also a luck factor, right? Because it’s hard to predict that given organization to grow but if you go work in a big institution or bank or a consultancy company where there are certain like tires, like salary-wise, then you can predict where you’re gonna get. It’s a much more predictable path and a much more predictable level of wealth. I’m just saying that most of the entrepreneurs I know didn’t choose this path because they were thinking of wealth.
Because honestly speaking, when you look at statistics, it doesn’t even work this way. And most people have to restart and try again and again. And it depends also on how fast you learn. Because you have to acquire many other skills, not just coding skills, you also have to have sales. This week, I had a conversation with two friends who are involved in blockchain projects. And these projects are technically very advanced, but they are not in the mainstream. They are listed somewhere in the first 1000s of the biggest projects but they are nowhere near the level that they would like to get, like, they don’t have enough exposure.
But when I was talking to them, they didn’t want to promote them. They didn’t want to build marketing around it. They didn’t want to delegate one person to become a spokesperson. They hoped that they would become mainstream by not doing mainstream things. And that was just contradictory. They wanted to do it hacker style, and like the faceless style and still get to the mainstream, that was just contradictory. I can see that there are lots of fantastic coders who just don’t get the reality of marketing and sales and fail.
James Heathers 51:32 They also don’t get the reality of literally every other business. But I mean, this is the lovely thing about digital space. I mean, as someone who has to build hardware, I’ll show you that I would love to only have software problems. It will make an awful lot of stuff go away.
Natalia 51:53 I would like to also refer to what you said about the programming skills. I fully agree with you that today, you either have to be good at writing code, or with writing text, or both, at least one of the two is absolutely necessary. And I can tell because like ever since I started, the company I write for the whole day is like everything, from emails, through promotional materials, social media, like writing, you know, material for a website. It’s like, most of the day is spent on writing text. I cannot imagine.
Businesses that don’t have good content creators are also flopping these days. Because a company blog and the content on the websites, like one of the major factors that build trust, and without trust, you cannot build a brand today. It’s really important to have those writing skills with programming. I agree. And I think, from my perspective, I can say that I always felt like better of a writer than a coder.
But still, you have to be good enough at coding to recognize a good developer. As you said, it also has to be clean. It has to be understandable. It has to work, obviously, but also has to be self-explanatory.
James Heathers 53:20 I would say it needs to express a certain clarity of internal logic.
Natalia 53:28 The big leading IT companies like Google have those policies that they would rather employ you if your code is a little bit slower but very easy to understand, then the fastest code possible, but impossible to comprehend by someone who didn’t write it so they penalize you on the interview for writing code in your way without caring about the user. I fully agree with you.
And I would like to ask you a little bit more about this experience you had regarding investigating misconduct in academia. For me, it was also one of the main reasons why I left because I’ve seen a lot of p-hacking, unfortunately, and I was more on the FMRI side. It was more of cognitive neuroscience and that’s like we even thought we express it openly. We were talking about Blobology and even other lab meetings like how is your Blobology looking?
It was like everyone was just laughing loud about it. But still, we were getting these millions and millions for new grants. And to me, it was like a circus at some point. I was like Nah, I’m not going to spend my life like this. I decided to leave. But indeed, no one is doing anything about it, apparently, or at least not for real. And the problem is like the new hypotheses are driven by the previous studies. And when you have so many false positives, then this becomes more and more of a soup.
And my feeling is that when I was leaving in 2017, or 2018, the amount of knowledge we had at that point was lower than 10 years before, just because in the meantime, there were so many false positives. In India, that is published in a field that only blurred the image of what we already knew about the brain 10 years before. I felt we produce negative output. The value of what we do is less than zero because we only induce more and more chaos at the cost of the taxpayer’s money. I was like, I’m done.
James Heathers 56:05 The social neuroscience in that particular umbrella has a lot to answer for. It feels to me like one of these things, when equipment becomes possible to use when something becomes available, far more people will use it than understand it. In many respects, it’s perversely selected if it’s expensive and difficult, which means it requires a higher upfront investment which gives it a certain sense of exclusivity, especially in an area where there’s no strong social scientific tradition.
This overlaps a lot of the time more than it does with the kind of traditions of the biological sciences that are also related to different brain stuff. And I suppose behavioral neuroscience is somewhere in the middle. There isn’t that tradition in doing it on figuring out what that brain area does in that task and coming up with a meta-narrative that goes on top of it. Suddenly, the whole idea that it costs you $1,200, to get to a data point, or that it cost you $5 million to get a scanner, and then $120,000 to support it every year, all of a sudden people like what we could do.
It’s perversely selected for and then out of this environment grew. Alongside a series of people who had absolutely no idea whatsoever of what the risks were, what their own measurement space was, they wanted a very fancy mirror to hold up in front of other social concepts. They felt like they understood and they shook it all together in a bag furiously for years. There’s some incredibly poor work in it.
And the one reason why people like me haven’t turned up in it is to say hello to who’s involved in the fact that there’s a series of very strong abstractions at work and how the data is collected and analyzed. And there is a nominal amount of actual computation going on to be able to produce the things that come out on the other side and you end up with abstract objects. It’s very hard to intuit where the problems are unless you genuinely know how it works. It is a little bit depressing.
Natalia 58:50 It is like a machine that already knows, like, so running for so long that it’s hard to kind of stop this. I could see the number of publications published per year with a keyword of MRI, and that is already kind of saturating so it was like growing fast for the last 10 years. Now, it’s kind of saturating even going down a little bit. But I’m not sure if it is because of Corona when lots of experiments could happen or is because the interest is now somewhere else. It’s hard.
James Heathers 59:27 That’s very difficult to say I do not know.
Natalia 59:32 Just referring to what you said before, you also mentioned that you never know what will be useful in the future and it’s good to be vigilant. I agree with you. And I have to say that now I regret a little bit that I was sleeping in the lab meeting sometimes because I was doing PhD in two different labs. One of them was doing fMRI and this is where I was doing my PhD effectively. But the second lab that was paying for 50% of my contract was doing animal work. They were doing some bioinformatics and also epigenetic studies and all kinds of interesting animal experiments.
I have to say that at the lab meetings, I was always just chilling or sleeping or sitting on my phone because I didn’t feel that way, you know, I needed to listen. But now, when I help career-wise, then actually it and biotech are the two biggest, you know, like two most popular directions for PhD graduates to go to. Now, I’m back to square one.
I have to learn everything about that about biotech from scratch, even though I could already be much farther with my knowledge, just because I was just ignoring the discussions just, you know, flying around. I have to say, Yes, I just didn’t have that tunnel vision to see that maybe in five or 10 years, I will use this knowledge for something else. And I was sleeping. I have to say, I agree. You never know, you just never know where it’s gonna be.
James Heathers 1:01:21 It’s very hard to compel yourself. It’s very easy to say, oh, I should have been more vigilant. You know, you cannot go back in time and put yourself in a different headspace. It’s very easy to see a lot of the time when you’re in a situation you think, Well, I was not in a position where that was interesting to me at the time.
And especially if you’re, I have a checkered relationship with paying strong attention to something over time. I will only legitimately learn things that I want to. If that’s how you think, then you have to index the things that are available to be learned. Because you are compelled to find out. I mean, knowledge is no burden to carry but it certainly is a burden to just sort of stuff against your own will.
Natalia 1:02:29 I think I was overworked. That was also one factor. Because I was always just, you know, how it feels at the grad school, you always feel overwhelmed. I just felt like, you know, I could starve nothing more in my brain at that point. I should have but then it felt different indeed. Lastly, let me ask you a little bit about what you do right now in Cipher Skin. What is the scope of your projects? While you already said a lot about the skills that you acquired before that are useful for you right now.
And then maybe you could say a little bit more about the future of this discipline. What is possible today? Because from what I understood, you’re occupied with all kinds of body measurements, and applications for healthcare and robotics. And maybe you can say more about that. What is possible today and what will be possible tomorrow?
James Heathers 1:03:32 Let’s start off with what the devices actually are. The clothing-mounted movement and biometric monitors right now. They’re sleeves like shooting sleeves and basketball or knee sleeves that your granny wears to make sure her patella doesn’t slip out of place, or orthoses that people wear because they’ve got something that’s sore or loose or needs management over time. Think of that, make it very thin, try to make it look cool, and then instrument it.
Okay, what can we do with something like that? The answer is very difficult to pick just one thing to do. If you play any given sport, we can monitor that. If you have a large cohort of people, and we’ve interested in your movement, say everyone doing a group therapy program could monitor that. You had an intake into the military and everyone was going through boot camp and they were running 1000s of miles a day and hanging up their feet and ankles and knees. We could measure that. You want to do specific lab-based work for the movement.
You want to make sure that your worker’s compensation program isn’t getting ripped off by people who aren’t doing physical therapy for musculoskeletal conditions. We can do that. The difficult part of something like this is picking an area of endeavor that’s going to work for you and sticking to it. The most important scientific questions come from a broader strategy defined by who has the greatest need for this. What structure do they have to buy it? It doesn’t immediately cost them money.
The single best mindset that I’ve encountered for refining these sorts of scientific questions is honestly, who will want to buy this because it will make them money. If that’s the case, they have a certain thing that they need measurement. It’s going to make money. They have a measurement environment. They have a certain thing that they want me to have a lot of other things, have a user experience, a database, etc. A lot of that is less my problem. But what they generally have is one specific thing that they need to be measured with a value of that knowledge greater than the value of the device.
And I provide them with that measurement context by figuring out exactly how that needs to work if this chip does this fine. We put them in this device here, and it bends this way. But it doesn’t bend this way. Now, we have vectors that we’re putting together in a model of how an arm or a leg works fine. Okay, here’s the output of the early device that we’ve built. And this is what it’s saying people do. And on this basis, we make decisions, usually via some statistical measurement of whether or not it did manage the trajectory of all of that.
There is a fourth column in this data and I don’t like it through to where do I see the sort of market of this moving. Who wants that? Who has that desire? Who am I helping with this? Who gets more money from buying it? Who makes money when they buy my stuff? This shouldn’t be zero. That should be one.
Natalia 1:07:26 It has to match my job.
James Heathers 1:07:31 Yes, it will. Because a lot of the time, a lot of things that enter into this, you will you end up in a space, it’s kind of like a co-development space. It’s very difficult with a platform device. He’s like, Well, I can do anything. And then someone says I wanted to do one specific thing you’ve got, okay, well, we will need to make it do that. How will we help each other? As opposed to you know, we’ll do that right out of the box, everything will be okay, I’ll handle all your data analysis, please buy our stuff, you know, we’re going to make money.
There is a component of business development that’s built out of trust and interrelationships in a way that has nothing to do with whether or not something works. Scientifically, it all very quickly becomes about people which is interesting. And if you think this sort of like, well, what’s the center of that job feels like? It’s a lot. I mean, if you want a leadership position at a small organization, it’s going to be a lot just like the vertical level of the sort of hierarchical responsibilities here.
The levels of abstraction are going to go up much more than you’re used to. You know, that’s necessary to maintain interrelationships with other people. The ability to know sometimes the best thing to do next, and having the kind of the position within yourself where you feel like you’re making the right decision and then questioning that if you haven’t, it’s all very different to just doing the analysis or just writing a paper about it.
Natalia 1:09:30 Let me ask you a question that I often ask at the end. You now seem to utilize all the skills that were like turned out to be your strengths on the way so you found a way to combine them nicely and you seem to be happy about what you’re doing today. I would say the lucky escape from academia and for sure, but is there anything that you would still do differently? Or do you have any regrets? Do you think that you made some strategic mistakes?
James Heathers 1:10:14 In the first place, it implies that you were on a trajectory that was supposed to end up in a certain place. There’s a kind of bias that keeps in I don’t regret. I didn’t do it. I asked him to do that. But we already had that code. And that wasted three of our collective workdays within this team. I regret that stuff. But you know, did you do this great, big thing? Do you regret it? No, screw that. I learned from it suddenly.
But it’s just not within the sort of frame of reference that I think is useful for thinking about how you’ve lived your life. Make a different decision. If it comes up again, in the future, it’s inherent in me. I made a mistake. Recognize that immediately. Forget about it. Try not to do it again. I wish I could. I think a lot of people do. It’s just I mean, it’s congenital, I’m just not built for. Do you know people who are our age, right, in the 30s, who have continual conversations about things that happened in high school?
We don’t care. I don’t even remember any of that. And I wasn’t in it. That’s so far from my experiences, my emotional life. I know that much about what happened at that time? Have you been like sitting around reminding yourself of that every three months? Do you write it down? How is that in your head?
Natalia 1:12:19 Right.
James Heathers 1:12:21 That’s how I feel about crying over spilled milk for professional macro kinds of decisions.
Natalia 1:12:30 I got the recognition that, once in a while, I still I’m in touch with people from high school or undergrad studies. And I noticed some of them mentally stayed in the same place. They have the same problems as 10 or 20 years ago. They have the same habits. It’s not even about like, physically, like geographically living in the same area. Because that doesn’t mean much but mentally, when you speak to them, they didn’t change at all. I have done ignition. And that’s sad.
James Heathers 1:13:09 I mean, it’s also how they choose to live. It makes a lot of them happy. But so many people I meet that sort, there’s a difference in mentality that I couldn’t wait to check out and do something else. I’m a no different person. It was just, I mean, it was like, six weeks after I left, the whole thing was dead to me. The same thing when I remember people leaving primary school, and you know, we’re not gonna see each other.
And so you went to high school with 12 or something, or pick up my bag and went home. I’m capable of being sentimental but I’m not capable of these things that will never get you anything positive. It will do to occupy your space, you might as well solve a number of puzzles in your head, at least then you’ll be flexing some kind of mental muscle, it will never get you anything. It’s very easy to say that and very difficult to work your way away from a habit of cognition or something that is something that you focus on. It’s very difficult to say, don’t do that because most people got well, I’ve tried that. It’s hardly instant.
Natalia 1:14:20 I don’t have many regrets. But a few regrets I have is that I didn’t trust my own intuition, I think early enough, and it’s a good one, I think it’s good and if I trusted it more, I will be like, much more developed today. I wouldn’t say successful or famous or anything like it because it’s like, all relative and it’s not measurable in any way.
But it’s I’m just saying, you know, I would avoid a lot of problems on the way and I would probably have more knowledge, more contacts and I would say financial freedom and everything else, then today, if I made this like one little change that I would be more reliant on my intuition and less on like external advice. That’s one thing I can say. Now, I kind of respect my own gut.
James Heathers 1:15:28 Your regret, in this case, has resulted in you behaving differently. It’s not simply a matter of you’re at war with yourself. You’ve just identified something that you think is useful to behave differently. And now you do that which speaks very well to your effectiveness as a person.
Natalia 1:15:49 Thank you.
James Heathers 1:15:55 I’m not much older than you. You keep a civil tongue in your head, young lady.
Natalia 1:16:00 But my dad says similar things. He’s just playing by the way. And he uses his intuition a lot. And he’s got like, much more than you would think. You would expect from a chess player. He’s always saying what you just said. Thank you so much, James, for taking part in this episode and for sharing your wisdom today.
And thank you guys for watching and if you’d like to ask James questions, please follow him on Twitter. He’s very active there and you can also post questions below. We’ll make sure that your questions are answered. And thank you so much for watching.
James Heathers 1:16:44 Thanks for having me.