From bioengineering to Benchling: Product Manager Tara Lee strategizes the best way to support scientists

Kyrstin Lou Ward
Tara Lee

Tara Lee's passion for the life sciences space stemmed from her time at MIT, where she studied Biological Engineering and conducted research on cancer cell migration dynamics. She has since worked at the intersection of biotech, healthcare, and strategy, and her career has led her to her current role as a Product Manager at Benchling. Tara has worked on the Lab Automation product to integrate Benchling with laboratory instruments, and she and her team are currently building out new tools for analyzing scientific assay data.

Can you tell me a little bit about your background and your role here at Benchling?

Tara Lee: My background is in biological engineering. That's what I studied in undergrad at MIT, and also where I heard about Benchling both during career fairs and when we used it in some of our lab classes. I was really drawn to the user interface of Benchling after having used other tools in other lab classes that were pretty archaic. I thought that Benchling would be a really cool place to work, even from that point in undergrad.

After I graduated, I was in life sciences consulting for a little bit, but then decided I wanted to get closer to the science, and so I joined Benchling’s customer experience team. After being on the CX (customer experience) team for a year and a half, I moved over to the product management team where I'm now a product manager working on our assays and scientific analytics offerings. I’ve been at Benchling almost three years now, and it's been really cool to see Benchling grow from some 80 people when I started up to more than 700 people now.

It sounds like you're pretty drawn to the life sciences. What drew you to this?

TL: With all of the innovation happening in the biotech and pharma space, both in the lab and the technology supporting it, it's been great to be a part of it. It interested me in particular to have an impact on the modernization of how research in this space is being done.

Especially having seen the inefficient systems in internships — where it's lab notebooks being physically passed to one another, or just really old systems being used — to have the opportunity to be part of a company that is trying to make all of that better is something that I got so excited about.

Focusing on your time on the product management team, how has your role as a product manager evolved over time, and how has it been informed by your time on the customer experience team?

TL: When I joined the product team, I was working on our lab automation tools, where the team was fairly small — the engineering team that I worked with was around two to three engineers at the time. We were working on a lot of features to improve the quality of life within the lab automation product. Later, I moved over to the assays and scientific analytics team where right now we're trying to build a completely new product to analyze data.

It's been great to both build out features to improve an existing product and then go into the zero-to-one product space where we're trying to build something from scratch and do all of the user research to make sure that we're building the right thing.

It sounds like your experience as a product manager has been pretty dynamic. How has your skillset grown over time, and how has Benchling supported that growth?

TL: I would say a big piece of growth for me has come in the flavor of how to really think about product strategy — how to allocate our time and effort, how to think about the market and our competitors, what is table-stakes for us, and how we can integrate with other systems as well.

And I would say the way Benchling has supported me is definitely through the managers that I've worked with. They have been so supportive in developing the way I think about product strategy, the elements to consider, as well as how to present our strategy to the executive team and distill that strategy into its most compelling arguments.

With that in mind, what would you say are the guiding principles of your team?

TL: I would say in terms of product strategy, one of the guiding principles is related to one of Benchling’s leadership principles, Obsess Over Customers. It means really thinking about the needs of the customer, their entire end-to-end workflow, and what they’re truly missing right now. We have to consider their needs both from the perspective of their scientific workflow as well as from the perspective of their end-to-end use of the product. With all of the different Benchling applications we have to offer, what types of solutions can we come up with for them?

One of the principles we try to follow among our team leads is what we call a mind meld, where we each try to share all of the information that we have in our own brains. So that way we are all sharing the same experiences and the same knowledge base to help each other make decisions. Essentially, we try not to silo different pieces of information to just one person on the team, but instead make sure that we all kind of have that knowledge to enable each other.

Could you give me an example of an exciting problem that you and your team have solved in the past?

TL: When I worked on the lab automation team, one of the projects that we worked on was to build a UI to configure the lab automation runs. Previously to configure the lab automation runs, it required a lot of JSON and an understanding of pretty specific syntax for how to configure these runs. It created friction with customers when they tried to set these up themselves. And so we talked to a lot of customers, and we were able to design and build out this UI to make it much simpler to configure.

Could you tell me a little bit about Benchling customers and what makes the Benchling user different from users for other software?

TL: When we talk to customers, they know so much about their scientific workflow. And the work that we support in Benchling, a lot of the time, is the customer's true day-to-day.

So it's great to see a lot of passion come from them, both when they provide very positive feedback when we build something that is exciting to them because it actually saves them very quantifiable amounts of time. But then also passion when they have critical feedback, because it does impact their workflow so much. And it does really empower us to listen to them and understand their end-to-end workflow, to see what kinds of solutions we can build for the customer, not necessarily just in our own ownership area as the PM, but also more broadly across the product team.

You mentioned how the work that you do is really central to the lives of these scientists and the work that they're doing day to day. What does your day to day look like?

TL: I would split it up into maybe three different categories. First, is talking to customers. For various projects that are ongoing, we'll have a number of customer calls set up to chat with them and just understand what they're doing. The second category would be internal meetings, both with the scrum team that I work with to talk about details about a feature that's being worked on or details about a product spec that is being iterated on.

This also includes meetings with other members of the product team — or members of Benchling generally — to understand how the pieces fit together and resolve any dependencies that might come up between teams. And then I would consider the last category of my day-to-day time, focus time. Sometimes the focus time is a little bit harder to come by. Being on the East Coast, it's really nice. I have a lot of my mornings as focus time, and that's usually time where I get to sit down and have time to myself to write out documents that summarize the thoughts from the previous day's meetings or write up the specs or action items required to move forward with a project.

Zooming out a bit, what would you say drives you in your work?

TL: I don't know if this is cheesy, but the mission of the company definitely drives me. I think part of it is having been on the other side. Even if it was when I was an undergrad or when it was an internship. But even during those times when I had to use the old pieces of software, paper notebooks — it was very frustrating.

To know that the day to day work that I'm doing is making scientists’ lives better is really exciting to me and makes me excited to sit down with the team and talk through these problems that I myself and so many other people have been through.

With that in mind, which of the Benchling leadership principles resonates with you the most?

TL: So first is Obsess Over Customers — where I'll add that a lot of our product team actually truly believes in that leadership principle. It's great to have role models who also similarly feel passionate about it. I'd say another leadership principle that's quite relevant to it is Show Empathy, which applies both to our customers and our colleagues. We show empathy to our customers as we really try to understand why they're asking the questions that they're asking.

Then there’s also just showing empathy to the team, the scrum team that I work with individually. It can mean understanding what the team is feeling passionate about or understanding where there's confusion about the broader vision, where I can help step in and fill any gaps.

I'll also add, I feel like I also am on the receiving end of this, of being shown empathy, from the leaders of the product team and from the managers that I've had. Everyone has always been very open to listening and understanding anything that I bring up.

Wrapping up, are there just any thoughts that you'd like to share about the product manager role for people who might be interested in it?

TL: I think the product manager role is a lot of fun. We get to work with so many different teams very closely, both with our individual scrum team and the broader product team. We're also constantly working with the go-to-market teams and get to see a breadth of customers and use cases. And it's fun to see products and features through and see the feedback that we get from our customers as a result.

For folks who are interested in the product manager role at Benchling, I think if they are excited, especially in light of the pandemic and the types of innovation that we've seen in the biotech and pharma space, this is definitely the place to be.

We get to think about how Benchling can accelerate the research, development, and manufacturing processes of important medicines and cures — it’s something that we directly impact, and I think that should get folks very excited.

If you’re interested in product management at Benchling, check out our open positions.

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