Last January, an amazing collection of PPM professionals joined our 1st US Pharma PPM Toolbox in Jersey City, US. Our keynote speaker was Eric Towler, Project Director at CSL Behring. When I called him for our interview, I thanked him for his time to participate in our speaker-interview-initiative and his response was: “Don’t thank me yet. Maybe you’ll see that all this is craziness and you’ll feel sorry for talking to me”. But I wasn’t. Before going to lunch with a friend, Eric answered my questions about his background and his session during our event.
You have a B.A in Chemistry and a PhD in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. What made you start focusing on Project Management?
It was actually quite a natural progression. It really started when I was an undergraduate student here in the US. I started working on molecular modelling of DHFR drug resistance. The old cancer drug that was used to target DHFR is called methotrexate; it is still in use today for both cancer and arthritis. I started working on it because I wanted to understand what makes certain molecules more prone to drug-resistance and what kind of changes can you make in the drug to avoid that. That is when I started to focus on the bigger picture, the biological significance of the science, not just the more abstract scientific questions such as I had done before in my work to understand the orbitals of cobalt compounds. This is what influenced me to join a graduate program, where I ended up working on understanding another class of enzymes that were also targets of cancer drugs. Moving to a post doc where I was working on HIV-1 protease drug-resistance was only natural. And as I moved further and further, I asked myself how can we get around that?
But one question kept popping up in my mind: what’s the bigger picture?
You will often find scientists that will get to a certain point, no matter how advanced they are, that want to understand what all this means. What is the bigger picture? What should my next move be so that I can still ask a lot of scientific questions but make a more direct impact on the human condition? I’ll be quite honest with you and also myself. I am a good scientist but I am not a world class scientist. But, I have other strengths. I can understand the science, I am focused and I am very good at organizing. That really started leading me into the project management type of role where you have to understand the science (because in the end it is all about the science) but you have to be good at organizing things and understanding that we’re trying to put pieces together to build something really nice like a drug that helps people.
It was something that fit my personality. Someone that is interested in pure science and pure research has an important role to play but probably, does poorly in this kind of role.
Tell me more about your session at the conference and why Project Management is so important to you?
When I was at the event, I gave the keynote speech and I talked about building a house as being an analogy to drug development. When you build a house, you have lots of different tradesmen that have to do different parts. You have plumbers, electricians and other people that perform all those special functions. You might be a plumber and you might like plumbing very much. You like all the details of when to use this type of pipe etc. That’s great, but maybe you’re not that guy. Maybe you’re the guy that likes to look at the blueprint of the house and determine when it’s the right time to call for the plumber or the electrician. Maybe you are the guy who organizes everything so that in the end we will have a beautiful house that will provide shelter for somebody and will make a profit so everybody wins. Lots of times drug development is very similar. I’m like the general contractor; that’s what I like to do. I don’t want to focus on all the smallest little details; that’s what my “tradesmen” are doing. I like to have these guys work with me so that I can focus on the bigger picture and then try to help them understand that they’re not just a plumber but a piece of something really big.
In what way did this event help you?
As a practitioner, as someone who has been doing project and portfolio management for some time, your event was unique in comparison to others. It brought people together from different companies and different environments and asked them to share what they know and their specific experiences. I found that some of the examples and stories that people shared were exceptional. One thing that I appreciated a lot was the “meet the speaker” opportunity. That was a phenomenal idea and was clearly very popular. As I walked around, I saw people sitting down in small groups, talking to each other. People we clearly feeling comfortable. They talked to each other, they met with each other and now they can say “let’s go talk to this guy about this problem. Let me see what he thinks about these situations”. You got people to share. You also allowed people to make connections because you gave them opportunity to build relationships with people they might not know before.
Now people have the chance to solve their problems.
Personally, I learned about things that I haven’t considered before. Some of them were very tactical and some others practical. For example, what are some of the newest approaches to visualize a timeline in a nice way so that you can present it to management? What is the difference between a mentor and a manager? Is the manager by default a mentor? How can I implement a strong risk-management approach? It was part of a nice eclectic mix of topics. It is all in the general PPM world and there was something there for everybody.
In what way do you think the event will help the potential attendees?
As I mentioned, I think that they will learn things that they may not have known completely or things that they probably didn’t know at all before. But more importantly they will have new contacts and new friends who have expertise, that can say “Oh, I remember that guy. He did portfolio management and I don’t know how am I going to handle this so, let me go talk to him and see what he thinks”. It was really interesting what other individuals had to say.
What are your expectations for our next event?
Do more of the same! Do the same! That format works! It’s a small format but it works. “Meet the speakers vs the talks”. You found a good niche for yourselves. I promised myself that I will do only one conference per year. This year was your conference! Get some new blood or look for people in the meeting. Who’s asking more questions? Are you interested? Then you’re in the panel. You guys made a fantastic job. It can only get better and if I had an opportunity to attend next year, I absolutely will.