Bridging labs and software: A day in the life of a tech manager at Zymergen
As part of our We Make Tomorrow conversation series, Sheeva Haghighat shares how she builds digital solutions for biological problems.
Sheeva Haghighat is among Zymergen’s earliest employees. After graduating from UC Berkeley, Sheeva began in 2015 as a Zymergen Research Associate and has assumed roles of greater and greater responsibility since then. In this interview, Sheeva offers a peek into her latest role as Technology Product Manager, what Zymergen’s growth has been like from her perspective, and why she loves coming to work.
Can you say a little about your role at Zymergen?
Until recently, I was a manager on the Data Management Solutions team. In Data Management, there are two sides to it: solutions and data management engineering. The way I describe our team is that we interface between our lab-based teams and software teams to deliver workflow-based solutions. We also consult on many different projects to help everyone achieve their goals by bridging gaps that enable faster iterations through our Design-Build-Test-Analyze-Learn cycle.
And what’s your new role?
I am now a Technology Product Manager for the Test group, which supports all of the media, analytical chemistry, high-throughput screening, and fermentation activities at Zymergen. My role is to help drive the vision of our Test technology product by partnering with several teams to determine what software and data science technology we need to prioritize and where the biggest impact for the company will be.
You’ve steadily earned roles of increasing responsibility. What has that journey been like?
It hits me sometimes as to how far I’ve come. I was working one full-time job as a caregiver and two part-time jobs prior to Zymergen. So even starting my first career job in industry was a huge change for me. But when I look back 6+ years ago, I’ve changed so much personally and professionally in so many positive ways. And that’s thanks to the opportunities I’ve had as well as all the Zymergites that I’ve been fortunate enough to work alongside. It’s been easy and fun and hard all at the same time. I went from working in the lab, to helping coordinate on increasingly better tracking systems, to managing a team, and now to managing tech products. I’m also serving a term on the company’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion council, which has and always will be a learning opportunity. It’s been a lot of growth for someone who is a ball of anxiety, but when I look back on how far I’ve gone in 6 years, I’m extra curious to see where I’ll be six years from now.
Your career has grown up along with the company. How has Zymergen grown?
Growth can be measured in so many ways. When I started, there were less than 40 people, and now we’re well over 800. Of course, we also had the recent IPO, which is a huge signal of our growth. Going to New York for the closing bell ceremony was surreal, and seeing the photos and videos of so many Zymergites really captured how big the company has become. But more importantly, we’ve grown our capabilities in areas like our scientific processes, automation platforms, and software tools. In the early days, for example, I spent a lot of my time adapting spreadsheets to help me track our high-throughput DNA Build processes. We’ve since replaced that with an automated software system. We have more walk-away automation, and we have better biological processes that allow us to continue to do more and do it better.
Sheeva and other early employees were invited to Times Square to celebrate Zymergen’s public offering in April 2021.
How do you explain Zymergen to people who have never heard of it?
I used to say that we take something that makes a product already, and then we make it better, such as by saving money or time. But now I say we’re a natural products-based company, and we’re leveraging natural biomachinery to help build better products that are better for our environment.
Zymergen often talks about being inspired by nature to build more sustainable products. How important is that to you?
I’m just excited to contribute to the good in the world. When it comes to sustainability on a personal level, my husband and I aren’t perfect, but we do things like use the smallest-sized garbage bin offered, and it rarely gets filled. My husband also served as a liaison to our local sanitation district to help get his school certified in recognition of recycling compliance. He’s brought a lot of that experience home, and he’ll even do things like take the spout out of a cardboard milk container to make it better for composting. We’ve even changed some of what we buy because we want to make sure the product is more sustainable — for example, using bamboo toothbrushes, or purchasing food stored in a recyclable or compostable container. What makes me happy is that, with my work, I’m contributing to this effort as well.
What makes you proud to work at Zymergen?
Obviously, the innovation is incredible, but I find the people I work with are so fantastic. They’re super passionate and super smart, and that makes coming to work everyday super fun. I’m proud of our company, and I also love the people I work with.