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Steve Lemon of 23andMe shares insights and suggestions during KTech event last week

By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA

Thanks to their long-standing professional and personal friendship, Chris Meystrik, Chief Technology Officer of Knoxville-based Jewelry Television (JTV), convinced Steve Lemon, Vice President of Engineering at 23andMe, to speak at the last event before a summer break for the Knoxville Technology Council (KTech).

Held Thursday afternoon at JTV’s large auditorium and also offered virtually, the event featured one of 23andMe’s early employees and, more important, an individual who has played a key role in the development of its technology products. The company bills itself as “about real science, real data, and genetic insights that can help make it easier for you to take action on your health.”

“Steve and I met in 1998 at WebMD,” Meystrik said in introducing the guest from the Bay Area. Lemon was Senior Vice President and General Manager of Engineering at WebMD, while Meystrik also served as a Vice President. “He’s a great visionary,” JTV’s Chief Technology Officer said of his long-time friend and former colleague.

During the first portion of his presentation, Lemon discussed the company – facts and figures that are certainly impressive – before shifting to two aspects of engineering and his role.

Describing 23andMe as focused on “helping people access, understand and benefit from the human genome,” Lemon added, “We do it as an unprecedented scale.” The company has 12.2 million customers who go through a four-part process: (1) ordering a kit; (2) spitting or providing a saliva sample; (3) sending it back to one of the two contracted labs; and (4) receiving a report.

23andMe describes the process as using “genotyping to analyze your DNA. This means we look at specific locations in your genome that are known to differ between people. We then turn those results into personalized genetic reports on everything from ancestry composition to traits to genetic health risks.”

Lemon also noted that the company has collected four billion answers to its surveys and tested about 7,000 customers for the BRCA gene that could indicate a significant increase in risk for breast and other cancers.

The company has grown in a little more than 12 years from about 10 employees when Lemon joined to more than 200 and went public in 2021, the same year that it acquired Lemonaid Health, Inc., an on-demand platform for accessing medical care and pharmacy services online. That transaction expanded 23andMe into the precision healthcare space.

The balance of Lemon’s presentation – he did not have any connection to Lemonaid before its acquisition, he said when asked about the coincidence of the names during the Q&A session – was focused on two aspects of engineering. He termed them “Engineering – the verb” and “Engineering – the team.”

About the former, he reinforced that “culture is critical for success,” adding that the “development lifecycle must be aligned with the culture.” Lemon described the 23andMe engineering efforts that he leads as “working in cross-functional atomic units of productivity” where the “mindset is to iterate with a conviction to finish.”

Regarding the team aspect of engineering, he said, “Everyone needs to optimize for this. A team mentality takes a lot of intentional nurturing.”

He noted that his engineering team is relatively balanced between newbies (25 or so), those with four to six years longevity (another 25), and those with six to eight years (yet another 25). Five have been with 23andMe more than 10 years. On the question of retention in an era of the “Great Resignation,” Lemon offered a suggestion to do what he called “stay interviews” with those who have chosen not to leave. “Pay closer attention to them,” he said, and suggested adopting something like 23andMe does with its monthly pulse surveys that provide regular check-ins with team members.

The next KTech event will be a “Women in Tech Networking Happy Hour” August 11. More information can be found here.

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