In this episode, we’ll cover an amazing story by one of the best programmers and mentors I ever worked with – Shafi Chowdhury (

We’ll explore how it changed from being a freelance programmer only to building his company on the side. He had a great vision in mind, that drove him forward.You’ll also hear about his approach to teaching and mentoring – or in general helping people do their job better. His abundance mindset inspires me a lot. Shafi explains, why and how he made his own job redundant in his own company.

Retention is a major cost driver and disrupts some companies a lot. You’ll learn how he manages to have nearly no turn-over in his company and how is approach to recruiting and training new employees fits in to this.

Shafi Chowdhury

I have over 20 years of experience as a statistical programmer in the Pharma industry. I worked for Pharma companies and CROs across Europe in many different therapeutic areas and in all phases of clinical trials before setting up my own consultancy firm. I believe knowledge should be shared and therefore I am a regular presenter at PhUSE conferences and regularly attend many other conferences including PSI conferences for Statisticians in the Pharmaceutical Industry. I also provide bespoke training and have a website to allow users to learn just the module they need at that time.

I specialise in reviewing processes and developing standards, tools, templates and macros to improve the expertise of individuals and efficiency of processes. As an independent consultant with all the proven experience behind me, I offer unbiased expert opinions which can be used by management to make their decisions. My aim is always to drive up Quality by Design.


  • Writing SAS programs to check, modify, analyse and report any kind of data.
  • Developing client specific template programs and generic macros.
  • Developing bespoke training programs to produce well rounded programmers within weeks.

Further, we’ll cover how and why Shafi and his team is regularly presenting at different conferences. We’ll especially go deeper on this presentation at the PSI conference in 2017 about an amazing tool to analyse and visualize data at the same time. His approach to delivering all this innovation is very unique.

Finally, you’ll learn a lot about the leadership attitude, that helped him grow his business fast into a medium sized CRO with a very stable client base.

You can find out more about his company here.


On building your own company – interview with Shafi Chowdhury

(0:07) Welcome to the Effective Statistician with Alexander Schacht and Benjamin Pieske. (0:12) The weekly podcast for statisticians in the health sector designed to improve your leadership skills, (0:18) widen your business acumen and enhance your efficiency. (0:21) In today’s episode number 13 we’ll talk about building your own company.(0:27) An interview with Shafi Chowdhury. (0:30) This podcast is sponsored by PSI, a global member organization dedicated to leading and promoting best practice (0:38) and industry initiatives for statisticians. (0:41) Learn more about upcoming events at (0:53) Hello, this is Alexander Schacht from the Effective Statistician.(0:58) Welcome to another episode here. (1:00) Today I’m the only host here. (1:04) My co-host Benjamin Pieske is actually on vacation.(1:07) So I’ll handle that myself and he has his well-deserved break from the podcast.

(1:17) Today I have a very special guest. (1:21) Shafi, he has been my friend for quite a long time.(1:28) Do you remember when we first met, Shafi? (1:30) I think it’s when you first started, let’s see, 2002. (1:38) Yeah. (1:38) Yeah.(1:39) Yeah. (1:39) A long time ago. (1:41) A long time ago and we worked together on a phase three study.(1:45) Actually, my first one, it was my first year in the industry and it was really a crazy time. (1:53) There was so much pressure on the study and we had two studies, twin studies. (2:02) And there was one team in Europe working on it and one team in the US working on it.(2:08) And there was high emotions involved, confusion on all kinds of different topics. (2:17) And it was really kind of, yeah, literally the fire was burning and you came in really as a firefighter. (2:26) But you really loved to be the firefighter in these kind of projects.(2:31) Why actually? (2:33) It’s really good, you know, because there is a defined end. (2:38) You know where you’re trying to get to. (2:40) You can just calm things down, see what the problem is and then get on with it.(2:46) But big problems are always much nicer to tackle than just where it’s just aimlessly wandering. (2:56) So, yeah, no, no, it was really good. (2:58) Yeah.(2:59) So, why do you think are big topics better to tackle?

(3:05) Because often you strip everything down to its most simple parts and then you work your way back up. (3:13) And often it’s not just that actually there are lots and lots of problems. (3:20) It’s often some couple of key fundamentals.(3:25) Years ago, I was helping, I got called in to another, it was actually incidentally another phase three trial. (3:34) And they had, I think, two weeks to lock and there’s a complete mess. (3:38) They were not quite sure where they were.(3:40) So, I came in and looked at how things were doing. (3:43) And you had different people with their own programs updating single data sets and things like this. (3:51) But they were all too busy to actually look at how they were working together.(3:55) So, we had to really stop everything and say, okay, just define everyone’s role within the team, (4:01) who was going to work on what, and really make it simplify everything. (4:07) You know, the longer time you work on a project, you can often get sucked into lots of different bad practices.

(4:15) Yeah, I completely agree.(4:17) And when you have someone coming in from outside, they’re looking at it with a very different view. (4:23) And they can easily see the issues that you can’t see yourself. (4:27) So, that’s why it’s nice to get called in to solve some of these bigger issues.(4:32) And with the other study, within two weeks, you know, we created some template programs and things like this. (4:39) And we managed to get everything done. (4:42) Yeah, I completely remember the situation when you came into this phase three study I was working on.(4:51) Everybody was also completely heads down and so busy on doing their tasks that there was nobody kind of seeing the bigger picture. (5:05) And keeping everybody calm down and then focus first on the organizational things, on the structural things. (5:17) And yeah, as you said, simplifying things helped amazingly.

(5:22) Because I remember we kind of were updating data sets that were not used and stuff like this. (5:29) Because we couldn’t see that they were not used. (5:33) So, that was a crazy time.(5:37) I saw a cartoon, I think a few weeks ago, I think a while ago actually, on LinkedIn. (5:43) And it was a group of people pushing a cart with square wheels up the hill. (5:48) And there’s someone standing at the side of the road with round wheels saying, excuse me.(5:54) And they’re like, sorry, we’re too busy pushing this. (5:58) And, you know, I think we’ve all been in that situation. (6:01) We’re just too busy doing this stuff to actually take a step back and see actually what’s the best way.(6:08) And often just basically restructuring solves most of the problems. (6:12) Yeah, yeah. Very much agree.(6:16) Actually, sometime later after we first met, you started your own company. (6:22) And this episode here is very much about building your own company. (6:27) What inspired you for this? 

(6:32) It was really to do with helping people.(6:37) Where, you know, we’re all busy doing our stuff. (6:42) And often if someone, what happened was there was someone that wanted to get into this programming industry. (6:48) And they didn’t have, they didn’t work in this industry.(6:51) So, I said, okay, I’ll give you a hand. (6:53) And then I would sit down with them in the evenings after work. (6:57) And just show them how to do stuff and so on.(7:00) And then after a while, then I thought actually they’re pretty good. (7:03) Yeah, I ran into a colleague that worked with us on this phase three study. (7:09) He was an intern and had no prior programming experience.

(7:15) I think he was actually a teacher in English and religion, I think. (7:24) Yep, religious studies. (7:26) And so, yeah, and all he did was, you know, he’s very intelligent.(7:31) But you just need someone to get somewhere to get started. (7:35) And I had a good boss who was, actually they needed people. (7:39) And I said, look, here’s an opportunity, someone who’s pretty good.(7:43) And so they tried it and then they were really happy. (7:46) So, and then there were other people similarly who also wanted some help to get into this industry. (7:52) So, then I started helping them again in the evening.(7:56) So, my evenings were full of just teaching people. (8:01) But it was a lot of fun. (8:03) So, and then, yeah, and then slowly more and more people came.(8:08) And then in the end, I had to get some other people to help with training. (8:12) But that’s how it started, just in my living room. (8:18) Yes, it’s pretty amazing.(8:20) So, it was really kind of your desire to help people. (8:26) And the fun part for you is all the teaching. (8:31) And then to put that into some kind of more formal structure.(8:35) Was that the origin of the company? 

(8:37) Yeah, exactly. (8:39) So, it was really just getting, you know, just teaching and so on. (8:43) And it grew from there that actually more and more people wanted to get into this industry.(8:48) And there were more people who were clients who were asking, look, can they have some people? (8:54) And they were very happy with the people that I provided them, you know, (8:59) who came from no programming background at all. (9:02) That they were very happy to take on more people from me. (9:05) So, and that really was how it started.(9:09) Because you already knew a lot of clients through your own hands-on work, didn’t you? (9:16) Yeah, yeah. (9:17) I mean, I did a lot of work because I worked with CROs in the past. (9:23) And so, we worked with lots of different pharma companies.(9:28) And, you know, this idea of sharing knowledge and stuff, it’s something that really goes back a long way. (9:35) And whatever I did, I always tried to let everyone know so that they can help themselves. (9:41) And so, you know, usually I go to conferences like FUSE, PSI.(9:45) And I always try to present something. 

(9:47) It doesn’t matter what, even something simple. (9:50) Just so that – because we’re in this one industry and everyone’s having similar problems.(9:56) So, if you go there and you show them a way that you’ve resolved something, it will help a lot of people. (10:03) And if someone has a better way of solving that same problem, they can tell you. (10:07) And then you’ve learned something as well.(10:10) And it helps for your everyday life very often. (10:14) Exactly. (10:16) Yeah.(10:16) I completely agree. (10:17) And it doesn’t always need to be these super complex, novel approaches. (10:25) I think a lot of, actually, effectiveness is in the little tasks we do every day.(10:33) If we do them really in a brilliant way, that will make a much bigger impact than if we do, you know, just one single amazingly difficult task that we do every 10 years in a much better way. (10:49) Yeah. (10:49) Yeah, exactly.(10:51) So, but there’s so many different CROs out there. (10:56) So, why did you need to start another one? (11:01) That’s a really good question. (11:04) I think the thing is, the environment is changing all the time.(11:10) What was happening was that I see, like I said, we work with lots of different clients. (11:15) And even then, I was working with lots of different companies. (11:18) And you see that they have some really bad providers.(11:23) And they stick with them because, I don’t know, someone above said, (11:29) yep, you must work with this company, and so they stick with them. (11:32) But actually, they weren’t getting good service. 

(11:36) And some companies are good at one thing, but then they’re also, because they’re already in, then they also do other things which they’re not good at.(11:44) And what I think is, actually, if you have people who are dedicated to a specific task, they’re much better than someone who’s doing this a little bit on the side. (11:55) So, that was really the thing that I thought, actually, you know, if we have a group of programmers who are taught to program, (12:03) and that’s, again, it’s very different from just learning on the job. (12:07) And you can often see this.(12:09) The people who actually were trained as programmers, I don’t mean necessarily a university or anything like this, (12:15) but they were trained by someone as a programmer and someone who’s just learned on the job. (12:22) There is a big difference, and you can often see it. (12:24) It’s the way they approach problems, solutions.(12:28) So, I thought, actually, well, you know, with the skills that I have, I thought we could really make a difference. (12:36) And one of my first tasks was really to look at an organization and see how they’re working and work out the best way for their team to work. (12:49) And that meant, like, for some things, we created templates.(12:54) For other things, we created macros. (12:55) For other things, we updated procedures. 

(12:59) But you kind of need to have really good contact with the work, you know.(13:07) There’s a difference between, say, for example, the way a statistician approaches programming and the way a programmer approaches programming. (13:15) The statistician generally approaches because they have a problem, they want to solve it, and it’s complex analytical stuff. (13:24) They work on it, and then they resolve it, and it’s done.(13:27) The programmer, generally, the first thing you think about is actually, I might have to do this again. (13:33) I might have to do this again in a few months’ time or a few years’ time. (13:37) So, how can I do it so that I can reuse this? (13:40) And this is just one basic example between two different types of people solving the same problem.(13:49) Yeah, I think the statistician comes in with a very different motivation than the programmer. (13:57) Exactly. 

(13:57) Because I think the statistician comes in with – he wants to answer a specific question for a specific study.(14:09) And it’s also not programming on a daily basis, usually. (14:16) Exactly. (14:17) And the programmer is thinking, actually, if I have to answer this question again, how can I write this program so that I don’t have to do too much work? (14:27) Yeah, I think to have a good approach in terms of laziness actually is something that I learned a lot from you in terms of programming.(14:38) So, I learned that kind of elegant programming usually involves lots of laziness. (14:47) Exactly. (14:48) It’s a good kind of laziness, but you need that in a programmer.(14:51) Otherwise, you just end up with lots of inefficient processes. (14:58) So, really, kind of your view on the company was you wanted to have a different approach to training the staff. (15:09) So, how does your training approach actually look like in your company? 

(15:15) So, what we usually do is when we have new starters, it doesn’t matter if they’re experienced or not experienced.(15:21) They all go through a set of, like, core SAS training modules. (15:28) It’s to make sure that they really understand SAS. (15:31) Because often, you know, and we’ve had people who’ve worked for like 10 years, and then you ask them questions and they’re not sure.(15:38) And it’s because they’ve always learned to do things, but actually they never really understood how it’s working in the background. (15:45) So, what we do is we train, really, everyone for a period of time. (15:50) And especially if they’re not as experienced, they get up to six months of training before they even come close to a client project.(15:57) And it’s just so that they understand how SAS works, about the clinical trials, about the data, so that they have a good understanding. 

(16:08) So, when they come and speak to you about AE data or about lab data, they already know what the data kind of looks like, (16:15) what are the things that cause problems, and if there are certain problems, what are the usual solutions, (16:22) so that you don’t feel like you’re speaking to a complete novice. (16:26) So, for me, that was really important that actually we add value, that you’re not working with people who you feel that you have to train.(16:38) Yeah, I think we’ve all come across those. (16:41) Yeah, I can completely relate to that. (16:43) So, in terms of the people that you recruit, so also if you recruit these people that are completely new to the industry, (16:54) just want to join the industry, where do you actually recruit the most? (17:01) So, in Europe, it’s generally people that I know, either friends or relatives or friends of friends and things like this.

(17:10) But in Bangladesh, we generally recruit mainly from universities and sometimes from other companies where they’ve heard good things about what we do. (17:21) In Bangladesh, there isn’t really lots of jobs for statistical programming. (17:32) There’s lots of other tasks and stuff, but if you want to do kind of statistics and you want to do programming, (17:37) this is really quite a unique place.(17:41) And so, what we do is we have quite good connections with several universities and with their professors and we go and visit them often. (17:50) We sometimes provide lectures and we also have free training courses and so on, (17:56) so that people find out about clinical trials and what kind of analytical work we do, what kind of programming we do. (18:04) And so, there’s actually quite a big buzz.(18:08) And so, then when we try to recruit, it’s very easy. (18:11) We have a lot of people applying. 

(18:14) Okay, okay.(18:15) So, I’ve never been to Bangladesh. (18:18) How is it to actually live and work in Bangladesh? (18:24) It’s very nice. (18:26) It’s very different from Europe.(18:31) And in general, the working culture is also very different. (18:34) But what we try to do is we try to create almost like a European culture, at least within the office. (18:41) So, you know, like everyone speaks English in the office.(18:46) We have a pool table, a big widescreen TV and so on, so that when it’s cricket season, they can watch a cricket and things like this. (18:54) So, it’s a very different way of working. (18:58) So, the way we have is we spend actually within our six months of training.(19:03) We also teach them how to actually think and ask questions and so on. 

(19:07) Because again, there’s different culture. (19:10) The way it is there is generally you don’t question your superiors and so on.(19:14) And we promote that actually. (19:16) If you’re not sure about something, you always ask. (19:19) And if you think your superior is wrong, then you question them.(19:21) And you should always be happy with the answer you get. (19:25) So, it’s very different. (19:27) But we try to and the environment that we’ve created is really good.(19:32) So, people generally, you know, there are quite a few companies out there that whenever we’re recruiting, we’re always getting lots of people from those companies applying. (19:41) Because they like the structured approach. (19:43) They like the kind of freedom to think and actually provide your own input.(19:52) So, yeah, it’s very different from Europe in general. 

(19:57) But we try to create a structure which is an environment which is much closer to how we do things here. (20:04) And that also makes it easier for them to work with people in Europe.(20:07) How many people do you have actually located in Bangladesh? (20:13) We have about 45 people at the moment. (20:17) And if you have so many people, how do you kind of make sure the culture stays the same? (20:31) That’s a difficult one. (20:33) But we try to make sure we do things, you know, which is really the new people, they are always brought into the culture.(20:45) So, they learn, and like I said right from the start, they learn to question people. (20:49) They learn to, if something doesn’t look right, you ask someone, what’s going on? (20:54) Why are we doing this? (20:55) So, not to accept things as given is almost like something that they’re taught from the beginning. 

(21:04) And I think without that, we would struggle.(21:07) But we try to make sure. (21:08) And then we reinforce it throughout. (21:12) So, each year, we have different activities and so on to actually just reinforce this.(21:18) That actually, look, this is how, you know, this is, don’t worry about anything. (21:23) So, that’s one of the key things that, you know, in other places, people always fear, (21:28) if they step out of line, that they might get fired or something like this. (21:33) And what we try to promote is never worry about that.(21:36) If you see something, if you think better of doing it, raise it, let’s push it forward. (21:42) So, and I think that helps. (21:43) And I think people like being involved.(21:47) Yeah. (21:48) Yeah, I think that’s one of the major things. 

(21:51) If you kind of empower people to speak up, that’s a big, big motivation driver.(21:59) In terms of that, I think, you know, you just mentioned new people entering your company. (22:09) Entering is one thing, leaving is the other part. (22:12) Lots of companies struggle in terms of retention and especially retaining good people.(22:21) And that can, you know, I think that’s a pretty big underestimated cost driver. (22:28) And, you know, disrupts lots of different companies. (22:32) So, how do you manage retention? (22:37) For us, actually, we have really good staff retention.(22:42) Our turnover is really low. (22:45) And as I said, mainly because the environment we provide for people to work in is really good, (22:52) where they feel that they can be themselves. (22:54) I mean, you have to have your basics.(22:59) So, people, you know, they need to be paid well. 

(23:02) They need to make sure that there’s good bonus. (23:04) So, that’s, you have to, if you don’t do that, then to a certain extent, the other parts don’t matter too much.(23:12) But once you pay well and once people are happy with the work, (23:17) then it’s really important that they have a good environment to work in. (23:20) And that’s what they really like with our company. (23:23) So, and it’s very different from other offices in Bangladesh.(23:27) So, it doesn’t matter about big, you know, they have big IT companies, (23:31) big telecom companies and also small companies. (23:34) But the environment is completely different. 

(23:37) So, and that’s why I’d like to say whenever we start looking, (23:41) we always get lots of people applying just because the word has spread (23:46) that actually this is a really good environment to work in.(23:49) So, we don’t really have anyone leaving our office to go and work for another company. (23:55) There are some cultural things. (23:57) So, if someone leaves, it’s usually to go abroad to study.(24:03) Or if it’s sometimes, if it’s a female, then they move to where their husband is located. (24:11) That’s also traditional. (24:14) But besides that, we don’t really have people leaving to join another company.(24:18) So, that also gives us a good comfort that we do well for our staff. (24:25) So, this episode is also to make people aware about kind of how to start your company and things like this. 

(24:36) And I think lots of people feel that they get completely overwhelmed with all the different things.(24:44) Now, I can remember we had a chat about your company a little while ago. (24:51) And where you told me that one of your goals was to make yourself redundant in your own company. (24:58) So, which I found is a really, really particular way of looking at your job.(25:04) But why did you actually want to do this and how do you approach that? (25:09) Well, the thing is, sometimes, you know, you think you have to be involved in everything. (25:18) And you think you have to make all the decisions. (25:21) And sometimes, as you said before, if you empower people, if you train people to be good, (25:28) and to be able to think objectively and think what’s good for the company, (25:33) you don’t need to make all the decisions.

(25:36) So, what we’ve done is we’ve set up some committees and some different groups who looks after different parts. (25:43) And, you know, I speak to them at different times so that I get an understanding of what’s happening. (25:51) But even right from the beginning, one of the things we always tell people is make sure there’s someone else behind you who can do your role.(26:00) Because if you don’t have someone who can do your role, then you can’t move on to the next thing. (26:05) They’re always more important and nicer challenges. (26:09) But if you don’t let someone else know how you’re doing stuff because you want to keep it as a secret, (26:15) because to be powerful or, I don’t know, to be really influential, but it stops you from moving forward.(26:23) So, I always try to think, how can I get other people to do my work so that at least those particular bits, (26:30) I can then give to them and then I can then look forward to other new challenges. 

(26:36) So, and that’s something that we, again, it’s like you said with culture, (26:41) it’s something that we try to drive within the company. (26:44) So, everyone is always trying to make sure that there’s someone else who’s shadowing them so that if they’re away, (26:51) if they’re on holiday, they don’t need to get phone calls or if they move on to another bigger project or something else, (26:57) or at least that they have the possibility to because they’re not stuck with these few tasks.(27:04) So, I think that’s important for people to grow. (27:07) Yeah, I think that’s a pretty good general advice for Korea to always have this abundance mindset, (27:16) such as always further opportunities coming up. (27:21) We don’t need to stick to the opportunities that we just have and kind of hold them so tight that no one else can take over.(27:32) I think that goes in line with the teaching approach that you have. 

(27:39) So, it’s really sharing the knowledge and making sure that all the other people can also benefit from that. (27:48) And what I find amazing about this is that you find the time to regularly present at different conferences.(28:00) So, for example, at the PSI conference in 2017, (28:04) you gave a great presentation about some amazing tools to analyze and visualize data at the same time. (28:13) It was in the visualization session and I found this really, really cool. (28:21) But I think that also you need to spend a lot of time to actually develop something like this.(28:30) So, how do you get these things done beside all your client work that you’re doing? (28:39) Yeah, one of the things that we do is we try to make sure that we have lots of internal projects. (28:49) Because, like I said, the thing that drives me is getting rid of mundane work. 

(28:57) Anything that we don’t need to, we shouldn’t spend too much time on.(29:00) So, I’m always looking at how to solve all our basic issues so that we can spend time on really more important stuff. (29:11) So, for me, that is really important. (29:15) And what we do is we have quite a big development budget.(29:21) So, we really try to spend most of our time. (29:25) So, we have a big group who are working on different projects to really move the industry forward. (29:33) Years ago, I remember at one of the conferences, I said that I was really not happy that we as an industry, (29:41) considering how the technology has moved forward, we are still essentially producing PDF reports, (29:47) which is just like a piece of paper at the end.(29:51) But getting there, we’re doing so much more interesting things in terms of science and the technology used in science.

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I work to achieve a future in which everyone can access the right evidence in the right format at the right time to make sound decisions.

When my kids are sick, I want to have good evidence to discuss with the physician about the different therapy choices.

When my mother is sick, I want her to understand the evidence and being able to understand it.

When I get sick, I want to find evidence that I can trust and that helps me to have meaningful discussions with my healthcare professionals.

I want to live in a world, where the media reports correctly about medical evidence and in which society distinguishes between fake evidence and real evidence.

Let’s work together to achieve this.