Bishr Tabbaa: Software Engineering and Biotechnology as strands of DNA Double Helix

“Don’t take shortcuts you’ll pay for tomorrow; technology debt is just like financial debt – it compounds on you," said Gene by Gene software engineering manager Bishr Tabbaa (B.A. '99).

Gene by Gene software engineering manager Bishr Tabbaa is a Rice CS alumnus.

“When I matriculated, my original focus was on the natural sciences,” said Gene by Gene software engineering manager Bishr Tabbaa. The Rice University Computer Science alumnus (B.A. ’99) was initially pre-med.

“Then a computational biology lab internship after my sophomore year at Rice inspired me to switch majors from biochemistry to computer science. It was clear to me that the future of medicine and healthcare was going to be influenced and shaped by computing, and that decision changed both my academic and professional trajectories.”

At Rice, his favorite CS class was Programming Languages, taught by Matthias Felleisen. Tabbaa said COMP 312 could have been abstract and theoretical, but it taught him to recognize, apply, and build practical patterns of software that could make systems easier to develop and maintain.

“And that is how I still think of programming today. When I evaluate talent in technical interviews, I regularly ask candidates about their understanding and use of software patterns,” said Tabbaa.

Recruiting and retaining engineering talent is only a part of Tabbaa’s role at Gene by Gene, a pioneer in the field of genetic genealogy.

“Gene By Gene was started in 2000; it was the first company to apply genetics to ancestral genealogy, and it remains a leader in the field specializing in the production of detailed maternal and paternal family trees that can go back centuries and connect with extended family all over the world,” said Tabbaa.

The company’s laboratory and genealogical expertise led to an exclusive partnership as the DNA testing provider for National Geographic’s Genographic Project, and their ancestry database now serves over one million customers. Tucked away in a nondescript building in the Heights neighborhood of Houston, the lab has earned the highly regarded CAP and CLIA accreditations based on rigorous reviews and inspections by pathologists and public health organizations.

Tabbaa said, “When I came on board, the lab was already world-class, and we wanted to make the software capability world class as well. We supply DNA services for clinical research, carrier screening, forensics, and paternity testing. More recently, we’ve expanded into B2B data delivery services to support healthcare providers.

“For example, an insurer or hospital can send their patient DNA samples to us. We’ll process the material, analyze for diseases like cancer and cardiovascular issues or reproductive health, and return the results to the clinic or hospital to help shape their patient care strategies. I believe Gene by Gene will one day become a household name, like LabCorp or Quest [Diagnostics].”

The intersection of his interests – medicine and computing – feels natural to Tabbaa. He said computing and biology are similar because they both involve systems based on processing information.

“Computer systems are composed of bits; we use programming languages to transform those bits into useful artifacts. In biology, DNA is the lowest-level language, and RNA and proteins are the higher-level programs that translate that DNA into action. Understanding both biology and CS has really helped me at Gene by Gene; they go hand in hand, much like a double helix.”

Before he returned to the combination of CS and biology that first inspired him in college, Tabbaa spent several years as a software developer for energy and security employers, then launched his own company. His experience as a co-founder revealed a need to better understand the business world, so he returned to Rice for his MBA.

“You only need one good idea,” said Tabbaa in reference to his successful startup. “Plus, solid partners and the focus to bring it to fruition. Our company hit all three and I ended up selling my equity to my two partners, which freed me up to build engineering teams for other companies.

“I love growing teams and developing products while helping individual engineers and supervisors increase their own skills in a positive environment. My mantra is ‘making profitable work fulfilling and fun.’”

In addition to leadership skills, the Rice MBA provided Tabbaa with the holistic background required to succeed in the business world. Thinking from a business owner and stakeholder’s perspective is different from the viewpoint of a software engineer or even technical team leader. In his MBA program, Tabbaa said he discovered the “whole ecosystem that supports the delivery of value to customers.

“In the technology industry, our employees need engineering backgrounds to deliver software and hardware, but each person is also a product owner and a colleague --it takes a village to make a product happen.”

Working for an employer that was very capability-focused also honed Tabbaa’s management techniques. He said he now looks beyond a single product or person to its (or their) capacity for growth because capability is more enduring while the environment is changing. And it is where new ideas can often be discovered.

“Most people can accomplish more than they think possible, so I try to create an abundance mindset to encourage our employees to stretch their minds and abilities in a new direction.

“When one of our engineers surprises herself or himself by doing something they thought was beyond their capability –and doing it incredibly well –that’s a very good day. Seeing an employee happy in their work or getting a ‘thank you’ email or call from a customer can really make your day.”

As an engineering manager, Tabbaa is keenly aware that the high demand for software engineers has created a scarcity of resources. When a team member appears to become bored in their current role, Tabbaa looks for ways the employee can evolve. His management style is to help his employees grow, “even if that means they move on because our company can’t support their trajectory.

“I want people to look back on our time together and be proud of what they accomplished and be proud of their work here,” he said. “Part of my job is to be a coach, and I meet monthly with the supervisors and individual contributors interested in developing skills like how to listen, how to handle challenging situations, and how to navigate conflict and criticism.”

Communicating through words of criticism or advice is a challenge many employees face, and Tabbaa softens his audience with an anecdote from his own college years.

“My father once said, ‘My best advice is to know when someone is giving you good advice – and taking it.’ Not all of us are good at hearing and acting upon good advice. But critiques are useful and help us grow.

“That’s the thing about working in a small company like Gene by Gene – the potential to grow. Your imagination is the ceiling, there really is no upper limit.”

He is equally optimistic about pushing the technology envelope and cautious about its implications for the future. If software is indeed eating the world, its voracious appetite will likely lead to digestion issues.

Tabbaa said, "Like the carpenter’s adage, ‘measure twice, cut once,’ we need to be aware of the ethical impact and complex dependencies of today’s cutting-edge advances upon the next generation of consumers, governments, and economies. The challenge of business technology is balancing the needs of today with the right thing for tomorrow. That’s where having business and engineering backgrounds is advantageous. The business focus is on the customer and knowledge of how technology works helps you get things done.

“Don’t take shortcuts you’ll pay for tomorrow; technology debt is just like financial debt – it compounds on you. Build well, hire well, and work hard to ensure all of us are developing our systems the right way.”