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The coronavirus is giving health and pharma companies a chance to woo tech talent

The chief digital officer of drug giant Novartis says tech professionals don’t need a background in biology to switch industries.

The coronavirus is giving health and pharma companies a chance to woo tech talent
[Photo: Unsplash]

The healthcare and pharmaceutical industries are having a moment with techies. Drug giant Novartis conducted a survey of more than 2,500 technologists this summer and found that 83% of them said they were “very likely” or “somewhat likely” to consider careers at healthcare or pharma companies. The reasons varied from the opportunity to innovate through technology (52%) to making healthcare more efficient (49%) and improving quality of care (49%).

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Bertrand Bodson, the chief digital officer of Novartis who previously held top digital jobs at Sainsbury’s, EMI Music, and Amazon spoke with Fast Company about the growing appeal of the healthcare sector to information technology professionals.

The following interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Fast Company: How much of this interest from the tech sector do you think is tied directly to the pandemic?

Bertrand Bodson: I think that the trend has been a long time coming. That’s what attracted me to [Novartis] in the first place. I had been working in sectors that had been completely transformed on the back of digital transformation, and to me it was obvious this was coming to healthcare and pharma as well. And I liked that canvas, and the ability to shape the strategy and attract the right kinds of individuals. It was obvious that [technology] could help at every level, from speeding the delivery of drugs—and God knows we need that right now—to the way our operations are run.

FC: Novartis has a partnership with Microsoft to use AI to innovate drug discovery. Are you finding the tech industry has greater enthusiasm for creating deep partnerships in healthcare?

BB: The key is that it has to be a true partnership, a true collaboration—there’s an aversion to having just a vendor relationship. One of our four strategic pillars in digital transformation is to become a No. 1 critical partner in the tech ecosystem. It’s rooted into a deep belief that we can’t do this alone. We need the best of tech and the best of science to come together. And it’s not just Microsoft. We’re doing this with Amazon as well, where we are rethinking our supply chain and some of our commercial models. Likewise, in China, with Tencent.

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FC: While Novartis’s research suggests there’s a high degree of interest in careers in healthcare and pharma, some of the tech professionals you surveyed are afraid they don’t have the right knowledge for a career in these industries. How do you overcome these perceived knowledge barriers?

BB: I was pleased to see 72% [are more likely to consider careers in health and pharama] compared to six months ago. COVID certainly played a role in there, in terms of raising the awareness. But we had about 40% feeling that they lacked industry knowledge and 20% feeling that they’re not qualified. My message to them would be, “Jump in!” The point is not to be a scientist, it isn’t to be a molecular biologist. It is to be part of a team. It’s when we bring those disciplines together that magic really happens.

FC: Are there traits that you find make for a successful transition into Novartis from another industry?

BB: That’s at the very core of how we think about who we want to attract today, not just in tech, but broadly. One of [the traits] is curiosity, which is true to the culture we are fostering. Under Vas [Narasimhan, Novartis’s CEO], the leadership is “unbossed,” curious, and inspired. What we have to offer is a sense of purpose . . . being part of something that is bigger than oneself.

FC: What was the transition to the pharmaceutical industry like for you, and what words of comfort would you offer for technologists who are coming from other industries to make it seem less terrifying?

BB: It’s not terrifying, I assure you. I didn’t know [this] when I made the jump but there is a real appetite for [tech transformation] at Novartis. In some other industries there is a real nervousness but that wasn’t the case here. Maybe it’s the scientific background or people’s natural curiosity, but the [questions] were, “How do we do it? How do we set it up?” And that goes back to talent, to attracting people who paint a picture and go and execute on it. And I promise you, I’ll have your back.

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