‘Walking away from an amazing tech career in Silicon Valley is a scary thing’

23 Jun 2022

Michelle Concannon. Image: Signify Health

Engineering leader Michelle Concannon explains how a career break helped her find her feet back in Ireland and take on a new role with Signify Health.

Michelle Concannon is a tech and machine learning expert with more than two decades of experience across Ireland, Europe, the US and Asia. After holding senior positions at Optum, Cisco and Avaya, she went on to play a global engineering and product role in Microsoft’s cloud and AI organisation.

Concannon recently returned to her native Galway, after almost a decade living in Silicon Valley and Dublin, to take on a new role at Signify Health. She is now senior vice-president of engineering at the US health-tech company, which has set up a new base in Galway.

In this role, she will lead engineering teams in Ireland and the US that are developing tech-enabled healthcare services. Signify Health’s platform uses analytics and tech to create value-based payment programmes connecting patients and healthcare providers in the US.

‘As a technologist, it’s a huge privilege to be working with teams that make a real difference to people’s lives’

What are the biggest challenges facing your sector and how are you tackling them?

Fragmentation, complexity, cost and access to the US healthcare system are a few of the bigger challenges facing the sector, as well as a general lack of implemented standards. Our teams at Signify Health are tackling these challenges in a number of ways for our network of burnt-out providers and often-overwhelmed patients by connecting disparate data sets to create a longitudinal patient view.

We leverage that data to build and integrate a portfolio of healthcare capabilities to predict and get ahead of conditions before they are exacerbated, improving healthcare outcomes and lowering the cost of the care.

We are building experiences that enable providers and patients to better navigate the healthcare system and manage their care, making it simple and intuitive to do the right thing and more difficult to do the wrong thing – anticipating the next best action for a patient and guiding them to that action.

What are the key sector opportunities you’re capitalising on?

Signify Health’s mission is to transform how care is paid for and delivered so that people can enjoy more healthy, happy days at home.

Our teams are uniquely positioned to leverage the home as a primary point of care deploying scalable technology-based capabilities that support real-time management of quality and cost.

What set you on the road to where you are now?

Professionally, it was a conversation with a mentor and sponsor almost 10 years ago about what I wanted my long-term career to look like. I was fortunate enough at that juncture to be encouraged to take a step back and consider what I enjoyed, didn’t enjoy or wanted to do more of, and I went through an exercise of writing down what my ideal role would look like.

That mentor also gave me some great advice about the value of helping and supporting other people through my own career. I feel very fortunate that my new role at Signify Health includes all the elements of what I transcribed during that exercise and our mission couldn’t be more aligned with helping others. As a technologist, it’s a huge privilege to be working with teams that make a real difference to people’s lives.

Personally, the pandemic has offered us all huge perspective on what’s important in life. Being close to family and friends is more important to me than ever and relocating to Galway after 10 fantastic years of adventure could not come at a more perfect time.

What’s the biggest risk you’ve ever taken?

Choosing to leave a fantastic role and team at Cisco after nine years – and Silicon Valley more broadly speaking – in 2016 to take a year out of my career and travel with my partner.

Choosing to walk away (however temporary) from an amazing technology career at an amazing company in an amazing part of the world is a scary thing to do when you’ve identified with your professional self for so many years. I spent the first three months wondering if I’d ever get rehired, frantically researching tech trends for fear of not staying relevant!

Turns out it was also one of the most personally and professionally rewarding decisions I’ve ever made. It set me on my path back to Ireland and new career opportunities with greater life perspective, exposure to different cultures, adaptability and appetite for learning, unlearning and relearning.

What one work skill do you wish you had?

Only one? Masterful storytelling.

How do you get the best out of your team?

By listening. Listening to what’s going on for them personally as well as professionally and being as supportive as possible.

Understanding long-term career goals and offering coaching directly and indirectly to help my teams move closer to those goals or make connections that may accelerate them.

Adopting a people-first approach, creating and communicating our collective purpose and having fun has been the basis for any team successes to date.

Have you noticed a diversity problem in your sector?

Yes. Despite ongoing media attention and some genuine efforts to improve the situation, there is a lot of work still to do. For me, there is a big distinction between hiring diverse candidates and promoting an environment of inclusivity in the workplace, so I personally compartmentalise the two.

I believe fundamentally that education lies at the heart of overcoming bias inherent in all hiring managers so investment in meaningful training programmes is critical. Hiring processes need to have the appropriate checks and balances in place to complement the training and companies need to get more involved in community-based programmes that are in direct support of pipelining diverse talent from non-traditional backgrounds. Hybrid working arrangements and offering more flexibility are also critical to attracting more diverse talent.

Fostering an inclusive environment where every employee feels like they truly belong and can show up as themselves is more onerous. This only occurs as a result of investment being made in culture, allyship training, tools and techniques around meeting etiquette as well as regular sentiment surveys etc. It also depends on how a company’s leadership is modelling that inclusivity.

How business results are achieved is as important as what is achieved and establishing real leadership accountability around that at every level in an organisation is critical.

What’s the best piece of career advice you have ever received?

‘You’re not the first person to have experienced this issue!’

Google, partner, collaborate, speak up – do your research before setting about to solve a problem that someone else may have already solved and be willing to help you with. Build upon what already exists or make a conscious choice to move forward with an independent solution having performed the cost-benefit analysis, but invest some time in the research – it generally pays off.

What books have you read that you would recommend?
  • The Brain: The Story of You by David Eagleman – a great reminder of why we don’t all see things the same way!
  • Dare to Lead (or anything) by Brené Brown
What are the essential tools and resources that get you through the working week?

Breathing, fresh air and sleep! Yoga, meditation and getting outside to exercise are my work (and life) ‘tools’ of choice to keep me in balance.

With hybrid working arrangements, it’s more important than ever to manage calendars in such a way that there are regular breaks built in and to model that for teams. To do otherwise inevitably results in a lack of productivity, however counter-intuitive.

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