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The Way I Work: Anne Wojcicki, 23andMe
 

Anne Wojcicki thinks we should know more about ourselves, all the way down to our chromosomes. Here's a day in the life at her company, which provides genetic testing services.

I Dream of Genes: Anne Wojcicki and her employees at 23andMe hope to discover how genes play a role in Parkinson's disease, sarcoma, and a type of blood and bone marrow cancer.

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Anne Wojcicki thinks we should know more about ourselves, all the way down to the chromosomes. Her Mountain View, California-based company, 23andMe, provides genetic testing services. A customer gets a kit in the mail, spits into a test tube, mails it back, and, a few weeks later, gets information about his or her ancestral heritage and genetic profile. Wojcicki, a 38-year-old working mom--and wife of Google co-founder Sergey Brin--holds a biology degree from Yale and worked as a health care investment analyst for 10 years before co-founding 23andMe in 2006. The company has raised $68 million in venture capital and has nearly 150,000 paying members. As the company's president, Wojcicki oversees 70 employees, many of whom are scientists. Even customer service reps have biology degrees. Wojcicki constantly pushes her team to focus on big goals, develop new ideas, and--something that may not come easily for scientists--socialize. As told to Liz Welch.

I usually start my day when my kids wake up. My son is 3, and my daughter is 7 months old. They usually get up around 6:30. After the nanny arrives, at 7:30, I usually work out and then take my son to a nearby day care. I have a backpack that fits both of the kids, so I try to walk there when I can. We have a company membership at the day care as well as a company account at a local kid-friendly café, which has a separate supervised playroom, Wi-Fi, and amazing food and coffee. I often work there until about noon. I carry my iPad and laptop with me everywhere. I find that I'm more productive at the café, because at the office I spend a lot of time chatting. I think it's important to have flexibility to work wherever is best for you. I actually encourage people to work at the café--or from home or wherever works best for them.

I usually don't get to the office until late morning or early afternoon. I don't use my desk very much. I often sit in the office kitchen and work on my laptop.

I usually don't get to the office until late morning or early afternoon. I don't use my desk very much. I often sit in the office kitchen and work on my laptop. Other times, I'll go sit with the research team. About a third of our employees are top-notch scientists: geneticists, biostatisticians, neuroscientists, computational biologists, and medical doctors. I'm usually trying to suck knowledge from them. We're making tons of discoveries. In addition to the gene-mapping services we offer individuals, we have several research initiatives. Last October, we announced a major breakthrough in Parkinson's research. Our Parkinson's community has 7,800 members--it's the largest genotyped Parkinson's cohort in the world. We already knew that a gene called LRRK2 increases your risk of developing the disease, but we were able to identify another gene that seems to offer protection against Parkinson's.

On Monday afternoons, I do a general strategy meeting with my senior staff. My goal is to check on things like sales figures and our budget versus the burn. Periodically, we have big-picture discussions: Are we actually accomplishing what we want to do? Are we doing the right projects? Or we'll review things like pricing. We've aggressively tried to push down the price. The tests used to be $999--now we offer a plan as low as $99 plus $9 a month. (Editor's note: as of online publishing date, May 29, 2012, 23andMe charges a flat rate of $299 per customer.) We're looking to drive volume. My role at the company is to get everyone to think bigger. Instead of genotyping a few thousand people, why not millions? Why not everyone in the world? I really believe that 23andMe has the potential to revolutionize health care.

We're constantly updating our members with relevant scientific studies. My husband did the first version of our gene-mapping chip, which included a Parkinson's probe. He was particularly interested in Parkinson's because it runs in his family. He was able to see that he did have the gene that makes him vulnerable. So now he's taking steps to stay healthy--Parkinson's isn't considered curable, but research shows that high-impact exercise and high caffeine intake can slow the progression. Our members get updates every month about new scientific studies that relate to their own genetics.

We run the company on Google--we use Gmail, Google Calendar, and Google Docs. We also use Google Sites, which is like an internal wiki, to keep track of product ideas. The bulk of these come from our product team, but I encourage everyone in the company to come up with ideas. My assistant has a music background, so I've been encouraging him to try composing music based on his DNA. I'm not guaranteeing we'll do something with it, but I think good ideas can come from anywhere.

We follow the objectives and key results system, which means everyone in the company, myself included, sets individual and team goals for a six-month period. That way, we can constantly check that what we're doing is helping us meet our goals. I also have everyone write up a weekly summary of what they got done. My assistant emails them to the whole company. I don't get to talk to everyone each week, but I can spend an hour reading those memos and follow up with people if I have questions. I also notice when people turn the same memo in two weeks in a row or don't submit anything.

We have lunch catered every day. I like company lunches, because I think going out wastes valuable time; plus, a lot of good ideas come up over lunch. On Thursdays, we used to have food appreciation day. Basically, we wouldn't provide any food on Thursdays, so it would make you appreciate the other days. But people revolted--including me. Every Thursday, I'd just eat snacks, which was disgusting.

Now, we do something else. Thursday is mandatory social integration day. I had noticed some cliques were starting to form. So, on Thursday, everyone in the company goes out to lunch with an assigned team, and the company pays for it. We have a little software program that randomly assigns you to a group of five people. The idea is that we are all connected and should start to know and understand one another's problems in order to generate ideas and solutions.

I try to leave the office around 4 p.m. to go be with my kids. Sergey and I like to have dinner together as a family, usually around 6. Then we'll put the kids to bed, and both of us will work until 11 p.m. Once a week, I might stay late at work. It's sometimes very efficient to work until 7 p.m.--and then come home to kids who are clean and ready for bed. Those days are good.

I spend a lot of my spare time with my family. My sisters, parents, and in-laws all live nearby. My perfect weekend is going for a walk with my family in the park. I don't think there's anything better. It's funny; everyone talks about a bucket list, but I don't really have one. I did a lot of fun things before I had kids--I traveled a lot. Now, I just really love being with my kids. We have a nice couch--I love hanging out on it. And I love that I can put the kids in my backpack and walk to a café for really good coffee. I don't really crave much more than that.

IMAGE: Matthew Reamer
Last updated: May 29, 2012




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