The Best Background for a Career in Healthcare IT

My Folder

Perfect Healthcare IT CareerWhat is the best background for someone who works in healthcare IT? Common sense says a college major in computer science, engineering, or math would be a good starting point. But as I look around at my colleagues, I see people who come from a variety of backgrounds. One of my best data architects used to be a finance director and another came from a physics lab. There is no one answer, no one path to a career in healthcare IT. To prove my point, I’ll briefly share my story.

I didn’t major in a technical science at all. I majored in music – the clarinet specifically – with a goal of joining a major orchestra and performing classical music. Of course, even then I understood how difficult it can be to become a success in music. There are a lot of great players on all instruments, and the competition is fierce. That’s what led me to pursue my dream at Carnegie Melon University (CMU) in Pittsburgh. After all, if a career playing the clarinet wasn’t in the cards for me, I could always fall back on engineering – another passion of mine since high school.

As it turned out, I loved being part of the music program. I enjoyed working really hard to learn the material, and the focus it took to perform in the spotlight. I graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in music from CMU and went on to pursue a Master’s Degree in Music at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois.

During graduate school, I supplemented my income (as most classical musicians need to when they’re starting out), working as the IT administrator for the Northwestern School of Music. I did that for about a year, then got into helpdesk work, eventually winding up on the server side.

After finishing my Master’s degree, Dr. Warren Kibbe, a Ph.D. scientist at Northwestern (and now the Director of the National Cancer Institute’s Center for Biomedical Infomatics and Information Technology as well), got me a job working for him as a systems administrator and later as a web programmer. That job led to my becoming a web programmer on a project called NUgene, one of the first gene banking studies in the U.S. While on NUgene I discovered I really enjoyed programming.

After a couple of years working on NUgene I met someone who wanted to build a new cardiovascular IT research program at Northwestern, and I signed on as an IT manager. That was an interesting change. Although I enjoyed programming, I realized I didn’t have the depth in my technical skillset to do it as well as those who really excelled at it. But I found that I was very good at managing programmers, solving problems, and keeping projects on track. I think that work ethic learned in countless hours of rehearsing a piece of music over and over in order to get it just right served me well.

It was at this time that I was introduced to Dale Sanders, now a senior vice president here at Health Catalyst. Dale had recently accepted a job as CIO of the Northwestern Medical Faculty Foundation (NMFF). He actually came around to meet one of the admins, and I got invited as an adjunct to the meeting. In 10 minutes, he had me sold on how we had to build a data warehouse for the entire Northwestern University campus. Within a year, I was working for Dale at NMFF, and I was hooked.

About the time Dale left Northwestern to take a job as CIO of the Cayman Islands I received a call from Steve Barlow, who was starting a new company called Healthcare Quality Catalyst. Steve asked me if I’d be interested in taking a position as Data Warehouse Manager with their first customer, Allina. The job would entail managing the enterprise data warehouse they had set up. I said yes.

Working with Allina gave me an opportunity to see first-hand and up-close how well the technology and clinical improvement approach Steve Barlow and Tom Burton performed. I got to piggyback on that, nurturing it, and evolving it along the way. And now I am a part of the Health Catalyst team.

In some ways, it may seem like I am far from my original goal of becoming a classical clarinet player in a top orchestra. But in my view, I’m really not. We are the sum of our experiences, and what I learned as a student and performer has helped get to where I am now.

So, it’s not unusual to see this kind of winding, multi-industry background in the people at Health Catalyst (for example, Dale Sanders started in nuclear warfare). We all have similar stories, and the people who are effective can come from just about any background. The Health Catalyst team represents a range of experience that gives us depth and richness. What we share is the ability “get” what healthcare data is all about. We’re all driven by an ambition to transform healthcare. We’re not satisfied with the status quo. And our backgrounds reflect that.

Your turn, where did you start?

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