I read with some interest a NY Times piece about the parallel stories of two companies working on a COVID vaccine – Pfizer and Moderna. It caught my eye because I knew a little bit about Moderna – they’re a very small company playing in a very big game. I figured they were hoping to use a vaccine success as their launchpad to the big time. The parallels between vaccine development and testing and the nature of most custom work, whether it’s programming, building a custom home, etc are fascinating.
There’s a quote in the story about Moderna’s technology that identified the key to going after the virus (the spike protein, apparently) within two days of receiving the genetic sequence of the virus, which follows:
That’s from January. The comments about this process reminded me so much of custom work. Specifically, showing a customer the mockup of an application or website that maybe took a day or so to develop. Mockups don’t take long because they don’t do much. They’re just a visual example that proposes a look for the real software / webpage. The idea is to get feedback from your customer *before* doing a ton of work.
Mockups are everywhere
It’s not terribly different from the 3D mock ups that you can create if you remodel or build homes. There’s architectural design software that’s simply amazing in that respect. The realism is impressive. I remember seeing it a few years ago. You could design a house in 3D including landscaping. Once done, you could visually “walk” through the design and get a feel how it would look – all in very realistic 3D. While impressive, it was still nothing more than a mockup. Like mockups in other industries, it looked real, but it didn’t do anything.
The parallel isn’t exactly like Moderna situation but it’s similar. Here’s how: once you identify what you have to build – in detail – and you get agreement on it, the hard part is done.
I don’t mean that building whatever you mocked up doesn’t require a lot of work, technology, raw materials, time, communication, know-how, etc. It does. Even so, the work to figure out what you needed to build in the first place, can be most difficult. Getting consensus on an on-budget design that everyone agrees on – and it’s actually what’s needed – can be rather difficult.
Without enough communication to describe what was wanted, why, the possible solutions, and what solution makes the most sense, a project heads for trouble. We build what we thought someone wanted, only to find out everyone made too many assumptions and failed to ask enough questions. Mockups are great for reducing these problems.
New school design
What Moderna did in two days is flat out amazing, particularly when you compare it to how it was done in the past. Old school methods of building vaccines were in some cases done by getting people sick and studying the reactions in the sick peoples’ bodies. From those reactions, scientists, doctors, chemists and others eventually came up with a vaccine. Today, much of that work happens in a computer. That’s an oversimplification medically, biochemically, and probably in other ways – but you get the idea.
Some of you may remember the SETI project from years ago. After you installed their software, it would download and process a small amount of the radio telescope data collected by the Arecibo observatory – yes, the one in Puerto Rico that suffered damage resulting in it being permanently taken offline. SETI’s software would process the data and send it back to the SETI system, which would use whatever processing your computer had done to figure out if that data was valuable.
Early this year, I stumbled across similar project for medical study called Folding@Home. Folding@Home is working on protein folding analysis for COVID and other diseases. I read somewhere that some of the data processed by this project helped produce some portion of the vaccine solution – but I don’t know the details. This happened thanks to a large number of people all over the globe letting their computer do these computations and analysis in the background. As a group, these computers served someone as an equivalent to a medical supercomputer. That’s important to this work because supercomputers are rare, in demand, and really expensive.
Next week, connecting the vaccine, custom work, and the expectations gap.
Mark Riffey is an investor and advisor to small business owners. Want to learn more about Mark or ask him to write about a strategic, operations or marketing problem? See Mark’s site, contact him on LinkedIn or Twitter, or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.