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Black in Tech: Otis Johnson, PhD, MPA - VP & Product Line Executive at ERT

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Our Black in Tech series features the career path & advice from Black professionals in the tech industry. In this Q&A, Otis Johnson, PhD, MPA - VP & Product Line Executive at ERT shares his story.


Where did you grow up and what were you like as a child? Otis Johnson ERT

I grew up in a small farming and fishing community in rural Jamaica. Few people had a chance to go to high school and almost no one went to college. I am part of a huge family and was constantly competing for attention from my parents and older brothers and sisters. One day, an aunt persuaded my mother to send me to middle school in a nearby town, where I would have a chance of proceeding on to high school. After raising several objections, including the fact that she thought a car would certainly hit me because I did not know how to cross the street in a city with cars around, my mother finally agreed. 

Growing up in a small remote village limits, to some extent, one's expectations of possibilities. This was certainly true for me in a small community where no one had a car until I was about 9 years old. The first time I saw a car, I thought it was a futuristic machine being driven by some kind of superhero. I was so fascinated that I knew right then I wanted to be a driver when I grew up. Throughout my youth, my perception of the ideal profession changed multiple times, mainly due to new experiences and interactions. My career aspirations shifted from driver to superhero to lawyer to doctor to president. In other words, I had no idea what I wanted to do when I grew up.

Middle school went by quickly. Fortunately, I passed the high school entrance exam for the most prestigious boarding school in the country. From there, I went on to the University of Technology, Jamaica where I got an Honors Diploma in Medical Technology and was elected the science department representative in the student government. In my role as the representative, I founded and ran an educational game show similar to Jeopardy. Students in the various science programs competed against each other, and the game became a major weekly attraction for the entire department. I won the award for most outstanding department representative that year and was nominated for the university’s Student of the Year Award.

Where did you go to college? What did you study and what did you do after graduating? 

Upon arrival in the United States, I found it difficult to get a job as a medical technologist because I had foreign educational credentials and had done only six weeks of internship at Cornwall Regional Hospital. Consequently, I ended up doing odd jobs to pay the bills. These jobs included package delivery, book sales, and telemarketing. These were challenging for me, as I had never done anything similar before and found them difficult and stressful. I even contemplated returning to Jamaica where my job was a lot easier and I got more respect. A former classmate and friend had also migrated to New York a few years earlier and encouraged me to hang in there.

Once I was settled, I started attending Hunter College of the City University of New York, where I ended up redoing several of the courses I had already taken in Jamaica. I found this frustrating, but was determined to get a degree in the United States so that I could simply get a decent job. I reflected on my wild childhood dreams of becoming a doctor and of becoming president. At that point in my life, I found myself simply aiming for an OK job. I felt the need to lower my expectations so that I would not be disappointed any further by the pressures associated with assimilating into my new environment. Based on the negative experiences I had finding a job, I felt it was dangerous to have high aspirations because the consequences of not achieving them could be even more devastating.

Having struggled for two years to save enough money to pay for the courses at Hunter College, I was determined to learn everything I could and to do well in them. In Economics, I completed every single exercise in the study guide twice and was the only student who earned an A+. In an assignment for literature class, I immersed myself into the play Antigone and compared Antigone and Creon’s experiences to my childhood desires to own a bicycle. To my surprise, the professor read my paper in front of the class and described it as her idea of excellence. Both professors encouraged me to change my major, but I declined and stuck with science.

After completing my honors degree at Hunter College, I conducted HIV research in an immunology laboratory at New York University (NYU) School of Medicine before moving on to become a clinical research scientist at Merck & Co., Inc., one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies. I spent my first 6 years at Merck researching and developing medicines for respiratory conditions such as asthma, exercise-induced bronchospasm, allergy, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. My work involved researching, consulting with respiratory experts, and working with physicians to design and conduct clinical research studies. I also had the opportunity to co-author several protocols and clinical study reports, which became part of drug applications submitted to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and other regulatory agencies worldwide. I later obtained a Master of Public Administration degree in Health Policy and Management from NYU and a PhD in Management from Walden University.

What inspired you to get into the tech industry?

Some of it was a natural career progression, but mostly it was out of necessity to solve key problems at the companies I worked for. My transition from the scientific side of the business to operations and tech was not easy, as I feared I was destroying great relationships with the head of the respiratory and immunology department and my manager. They both wanted to retain me in the group because of my strong performance history and expertise I developed in spirometry training, data collection, and analysis. However, I was well aware that moving up in a scientific role at the time for a non-physician staff was more the exception than the rule. At the same time, I noticed that it was becoming increasingly difficult to find patients interested in participating in clinical trials. I also learned of a small group of people in Merck's clinical operations group who were studying the patient enrollment problems and became fascinated with some of the initial ideas they had.

I always had a key eye for identifying ways to improve efficiency and frequently did value-added work outside my core job description. Because of this quality, I was asked to participate in a major restructuring initiative at Merck to improve the efficiency of its scientific and operational divisions. This project led to the creation of a dedicated patient recruitment and feasibility department, intended to create discipline and focus on processes to facilitate better planning and execution of clinical trials. I later joined this dedicated group and founded a clinical informatics function that provided the analytics to support feasibility and patient recruitment for clinical trials. This was my first foray into tech and the first piece of software I led the development of was a Monte Carlo Simulation tool to predict clinical trial enrollment with a probability of success.

Otis Johnson ERT

What has your career path looked like in tech and the various positions you’ve held before joining ERT? 

My career path leading up to the role at ERT was semi-tech. It was mostly science and operations with a tech focus. The tech industry needs subject matter expertise in the various verticals they are focused on. In my case, I brought a strong health care background from my 20 years of clinical research and commercialization experience. This experience helps me ensure that the products we develop are relevant and resonate in the market.

Prior to ERT, I spent a short time helping a healthcare technology startup develop and commercialize an AI-driven site selection and study design product. Before that, I led the feasibility, clinical informatics, and site selection teams at ICON, a large CRO, for about 4 years. In this role, we built business intelligence dashboards to automate aspects of the clinical trial research and analysis process to support sales and project delivery. Prior to that, I spent 2.5 years in a similar role at Syneos Health and 13 years in various scientific and operational roles at Merck.

Can you share the high-level responsibilities of your current position as VP & Product Line Executive at ERT?

Sure. ERT is a global data and technology company that supports the global biopharmaceutical industry  We provide innovative solutions and services to facilitate the collection of l safety and efficacy endpoint data from patients participating in clinical trials of new medical treatments.. Regulatory agencies, such as the FDA and European Medicines Agency, use this data to determine if a drug is sufficiently safe, effective and worthy of approval. In fact, ERT’s solutions were used in the clinical trials that led to75% of all FDA drug approvals in 2019. ERT has over 2,300 employees in 17 locations across, North America, Europe, and Asia.

As the vice president and product line executive for Trial Oversight, I am responsible for ensuring that the clinical trial data we collect across all our product lines are of the highest quality. This responsibility requires a strong business intelligence reporting and analytics strategy to flag data issues in real-time, so that the clinical trial teams can take appropriate remediation actions to preserve data quality. In clinical research, every detail matters. As trial complexity increases, new risks emerge. Missteps and inaccurate data can mean more expensive trials and delays in bringing life-saving treatments to the patients who need them most. So, I lead a team of product managers and software engineers responsible for delivering on this trial oversight performance and risk management function. We help our clients spot and mitigate risks before they become problems.

The role I have reporting to the chief executive officer at ERT was not something I imagined as a child. People in my community were not exposed to anything other than the traditional professions and trades. The childhood Otis would be proud of the man I have become. Not only do I have a great job working for a company I love, but I also have a loving family. I have also been giving back to my rural Jamaican community through multiple avenues, such as mentoring, career advice, charity, and scholarships.

What has attributed to your success thus far and what types of obstacles have you had to overcome along the way as a Black professional? 

A large part of my success was a result of the strong support and mentoring from colleagues and managers. During my first month at one of the CROs I worked for, a senior vice president challenged my work, citing her experience as the reason for the challenge with no other data to support her position. My manager stepped in, cited my data-driven analysis and reminded the team of my strong academic and professional background. I gained a lot of respect and became quite influential in the organization from that point on. I do not think my status as a black professional was a factor in that interaction. If it was, my manager steered the conversation away from it to focus on the fact that I had done the job well with data and analytics to support the conclusions and recommendations.

What types of programs and initiatives does ERT have that support diversity, equity, and inclusion?

ERT has made some bold steps to champion diversity, equity, and inclusion. We have formed a diversity council, which is an umbrella structure designed to provide consistent governance to current and future employee affinity groups. Within the structure, we have an active women’s leadership network, as well as a people of color network. The objective of the people of color network is to level the playing field by enabling recruitment, advancement, and development of people of color. To enable this objective, we modified aspects of our recruitment strategy to target people of color. These modifications expand our reach within universities to identify specific active student and alumni groups, as well as reaching out to historically black colleges and universities to find suitable talent. We are also examining existing leadership development and mentoring programs to ensure that people of color are active participants. Another key component of our diversity strategy is having a forum for employees to share experiences about what it is like to work for ERT. We are also rolling out various types of diversity training to the global management team and entire employee population.

What advice would you give to other Black professionals who are interested in joining the tech industry? 

Identify the attributes and specific skills needed to succeed in the tech role you desire. This could be a skill you acquire as a result of taking on and solving a pressing problem in your department. You then become the go-to person when a similar need arises and a valuable asset to your organization in the process. Depending on where you are in your career, you may need to learn a new coding language or you may need to learn about machine learning. In my case, I saw that tech is playing and will continue to play a major role in bringing efficiency to the way we develop new medical innovations. So, I decided to learn about artificial intelligence and its implication for business strategy, and obtained a certification from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to prepare for a leadership role in tech.

Also, do not get fixated on perfection. This is especially important in tech. It is expensive and time-consuming. It is often more important to get the project done and improve from there. So focus on your minimum viable product (MVP), but make sure your MVP has enough value in it, so customers will demand it. This is an area I have spent time developing over the years, as I often found myself spending too much time trying to make things perfect. As a result, I tended to feel I never had enough time to get everything accomplished. Finding that balance between perceived perfection and getting tasks accomplished is my idea of excellence, but I consciously guard against the waste associated with seeking perfection.

Once you get into tech, learn what is expected of you in your role from the start. If specific, measurable goals are not set for you, create them yourself and discuss with your manager. Doing so will help you focus. I have come across many situations in which I was asked to take on substantial projects not aligned with any of my established performance goals. The response I was usually given when I asked for clarification and the connection with my goals was that we need to do whatever is needed for the business. Doing what is needed for the business is absolutely right and you should absolutely do it, but adjust your goals to include those projects. Those projects should now be your focus. Your time is a limited resource and although you can attempt to do everything, you will not be able to do all of them really well.

While general awareness of the problem of diversity in the tech industry is a step forward, to make a lasting change, real actions need to be taken.  Do you have any ideas or suggestions on what companies or employees can do to step up and make a difference?

Companies have the biggest opportunity to make a difference in this space. If companies treat diversity objectives the way they treat annual goals and objectives, they’ll have a much better chance of creating lasting change. Companies should not treat diversity as only a “nice to have,” but a necessity. It will take time for some organizations to get there, but the ultimate goal should be the following focus:

  • Real problems – Tie to real business objectives
  • Real numbers – Objectively measure the value of diversity
  • Real consequences – Someone has to be accountable for meeting established objectives
 

About the
Company

ERT is a global data & technology company that minimizes uncertainty and risk in clinical trials so that our customers can move ahead with confidence.

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