Getting to know us: Bilal from Ensembl Applications

In January, we talked to Bilal El Houdaigui from the Ensembl Applications team. He has told us all about the projects he is currently involved in, what his typical day looks like and advice he would give his younger self if he could meet him. Continue reading to get to know our colleague Bilal!

When did you join and what is your job in Ensembl?

I joined the Ensembl Applications Team in April 2020, coinciding with the start of the pandemic. Initially, I worked from home for about a year before transitioning to a hybrid working model.

I am a software developer, occasionally wearing different hats depending on the requirements, from backend to frontend to databases and DevOps-related tasks which I really enjoy.

What do you enjoy about your job?

I really like the laid-back yet motivating atmosphere at work. It’s awesome to tackle projects that have a real impact on science, and my teammates are super friendly, which makes a huge difference. The campus is lively, filled with all sorts of people and new ideas. It’s this mix of doing important work, hanging out with cool people, and being in an energetic place that makes my job enjoyable.

What are you currently working on?

When I just started, I worked mainly on Track Hub Registry, which allows third parties to showcase their track hubs, and to make it easier for researchers around the world to discover and use track hubs containing different types of genomic research data.

Alongside this, I collaborated with my colleagues in the Applications team on other projects such as the Transcript Archive (TARK), and the GIFTs Collaborative Annotation Portal.

Currently, I’m focused on developing GraphQL and gRPC endpoints providing access to Ensembl data, which are used both by the new Ensembl Beta website and separately as a public API which will be accessible to a wider audience.

What’s really interesting about some of these projects is their cross-team nature. It’s given me a great opportunity to interact with various teams within Ensembl, broadening my experience and understanding of our collective efforts.

What does your typical day look like?

My typical day starts as soon as I arrive at the Wellcome Genome Campus. First thing, I grab a cup of tea (or coffee if I need a wake-up boost). Then, I settle in by going through my emails and Slack messages and organising my tasks based on their priority. The daily stand-up meeting with my team is an essential part of my morning. We synchronise our day’s work, where I confirm what I’ll be focusing on, share any updates, and discuss challenges from the previous day. The rest of my day is usually filled with working on assigned tickets, attending meetings, and sometimes organising them. It’s a mix of individual tasks and collaboration, keeping things interesting and dynamic.

What surprised you the most about Ensembl when you started working here?

What stood out to me when I started at Ensembl was the genuine care and attention given to the well-being of the staff and the work environment. The friendliness and warmth of my colleagues made a big impression on me. Another delightful surprise was the remarkable diversity of the campus. It’s such a multicultural environment, you can be chilling at lunch with like six people, and everyone’s from a different country. It’s pretty awesome to see so many different perspectives all in one place.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic changed your / your team’s way of working?

The COVID-19 pandemic significantly altered our way of working. I joined Ensembl just as the pandemic escalated, arriving in the UK on the eve of the lockdown, March 23, 2020. Despite the challenging timing, my Project Lead (PL) and Group Team Lead (GTL) were incredibly supportive. They even suggested that I delay my move to the UK until the situation stabilised. However, I chose to proceed as I was relocating alone and didn’t have the additional concern of moving with a family. Upon joining, my then-group team leader, Daniel Zerbino, was kind enough to personally deliver my laptop. This marked the beginning of my work-from-home period, which lasted for about a year. This shift to remote working was a significant change for both me and my team, but we adapted surprisingly well, maintaining productivity and cohesion despite the distance.

If you could meet your younger self five years ago, what advice would you give yourself?

If I could grab a coffee with my younger self five years ago, here’s what I’d say:

  • Future: Remember, keep faith in the journey even when the future seems uncertain or daunting. It’s worth taking those leaps of faith. Even if things don’t turn out as expected, there’s always a valuable lesson to be gained. Each experience, successful or not, is a stepping stone to your growth.
  • Present: Cherish what you have right now. The present is fleeting, so make the most of it. Appreciate the people, opportunities, and experiences that you have in your life today.
  • Past: Use your past as a learning tool. Every mistake and every challenge you’ve faced is a lesson. Forgive yourself and others for any missteps, but remember the lessons learned. It’s not about dwelling on the past, but about using it to shape a wiser future.

What do you do when you are not working?

I’m quite passionate about reading books and immersing myself in audiobooks. There’s something special about diving into different worlds and stories through the pages or the narration. Swimming is another activity I enjoy; it’s refreshing and a great way to relax, especially when I can fit it into my schedule.

I really enjoy spending time in nature, whether it’s a quiet walk in the park or a more adventurous hike. It’s during these times that I indulge in my photography hobby. Capturing the beauty of nature and the animals I encounter is something I find both rewarding and fun. I love the calming effect of being around animals and in natural settings, and photographing these moments adds an extra layer of joy to the experience.

On days when it’s too chilly to venture outside or when I’m feeling a bit too tired to be active, I find comfort in more indoor pursuits. Video games are my go-to for some relaxed, fun entertainment. They’re a great way to unwind and engage in different types of adventures without leaving my home. And, of course, there’s nothing quite like curling up on my cosy sofa with a good book. It’s the perfect way to spend a quiet evening, lost in the pages of a captivating story or learning something new.