Tally Portnoi is a software engineer at Color, where she focuses on improving outcomes for the end users of Color. Today, Tally talks about what keeps her motivated to create tools that make genetic insights accessible and actionable.
Tell us about yourself and what got you into Engineering.
I grew up solving riddles, puzzles, and math problems with my dad. I was always known as the “math girl,” and I always knew I wanted to do something involving math and solving problems.
However, in college, I had a really hard time choosing a major because I was curious about everything! I ultimately chose computer science and electrical engineering (EECS) because I felt like I didn’t really have to choose — I could develop a powerful set of skills that built on math and could be applied to any field I chose after school. The deeper I got into EECS, the more I started enjoying it as a field in and of itself, learning to control complexity in the design of big systems.
While I was studying EECS, I also found myself drawn to medical applications. I worked in a neuroscience lab studying Parkinson’s, an MRI lab developing imaging reconstruction techniques, and then a lab applying machine learning to medical images. When I was looking for jobs and internships, I looked in the healthcare space.
What is your role at Color and what does your team do?
I am a software engineer on the product engineering team. Our role is to build all the interactions aspects of Color: buying a test, filling out a health profile, receiving results, scheduling appointments, care routing and so much more. I focus on the outcomes side of our product, building the systems we use to drive improved health outcomes, including systems for generating genetic reports that can inform the user’s individual health actions. For example, preventative screenings for a disease like breast cancer can catch the disease at an earlier, more treatable stage.
A big focus of my work is our clinical genetic report generation system. We pride ourselves on delivering top-quality genetic reports that are also easy to understand and help an individual understand what their genetic results mean for them, their family, and the next steps they should take. Generating clinical reports is a lot harder than it sounds — in order for Color to scale, we need to be able to automatically generate accurate reports for all of the genetic mutations we find. I work very closely with genetic counselors and the clinical team to better understand genetics so I can ensure the system is built with the right underlying abstractions. This is one of the things I have loved most about my job — growing by learning from the experts.
Tally and her team build software that helps to improve user outcomes.
What attracted you to working here?
Before coming to Color, the engineer in me realized the American healthcare system could and should be working so much better for the users. While I had previously worked on medical challenges, I found myself interested in digital health– exploring ways technology can make the healthcare system work better as a whole.
Coming to Color gave me the opportunity to work in the health tech space and to use my skills to impact a broken system. I was attracted to Color because I found genomics fascinating and because Color was taking a high-friction, very expensive and inefficient process, and making it cheaper and more accessible, and using the data to drive better health outcomes for individuals.
I also liked the size of the company — when I was choosing my first full time job out of school, it was important to me to work at a place where I could have a big impact on the team and ownership over my work. I also loved all the people I met while interviewing at Color — everyone was kind and collaborative.
What has been the biggest surprise for you here at Color?
The biggest surprise is how much trust and ownership is given to individuals here. Our leadership establishes the big picture and goals for the whole company, and then teams figure out what that vision means for them. Individuals are then empowered to determine what that means for their responsibilities. I love this way of working because I feel like I am personally contributing to the success of Color.
What has been your favorite memory so far?
One of my favorite memories was teaching an employee-led class on my master’s research. A few months ago an article was circulated around the office about an AI tool that could predict breast cancer up to 5 years early. It soon got out that I helped write the paper that article was talking about, so I was asked to teach an employee-led class about the tool.
I love teaching (I was a TA throughout most of college) and I really enjoyed coming up with a way to explain how deep learning works for an audience with a wide range of technical expertise. After the talk, a genetic counselor told me it was one of the first times she understood computer science. This is what I love about teaching: making things accessible and helping people understand things they don’t expect to be able to. This is why the idea making genetics accessible and actionable really resonates with me.
Tally started an #Abs channel on Slack to host afternoon workouts.
How else do you bring your unique talents to Color?
I started the #abs channel on Slack while I was hosting a weekly “abs class” for my friends at the gym. My team and I started planking behind our desks as an afternoon break, and then it turned into a Slack channel where as many as 8 of us (mostly women, including one mother-to-be!) would gather for an afternoon ab session and pick-me-up. I also taught an employee-led-class on how to knit and crochet.
What excites you about what Color is doing?
I am pumped about building a service that helps people make informed health decisions by making clinical guidelines understandable, but is also scalable. Our work with the National Institutes of Health’s million person All of Us Study keeps me motivated. To return genetic results to a million people as part of the largest genomics study ever, our clinical report generation system has to be scalable.This is just the tip of the opportunity we have to transform healthcare and I’m so excited to play a role in it!
Color is the leader in delivering precision healthcare through cutting-edge technology. Color makes data-driven health programs such as clinical genetics accessible, convenient, and cost-effective for everyone. Color partners with leading health systems, premier employers, and national health initiatives around the world including the million-person All of Us program by the National Institutes of Health. For more information about Color, visit www.color.com