The Great Healthcare Migration
Techies Are On the Move!
It was November 2019. I was wrapping up my time at Lime, the scooter startup. As far as startup gigs go, it was pretty sweet: I got to run between electric scooter warehouses, transportation departments, and the streets of the markets where our team operated, overseeing a small fiefdom of blinking electric bikes and scooters. The 7 year old in me couldn’t believe his luck.
And yet, as goes the refrain of the restless and financially stable, one thing was missing: a sense of purpose. I recently arrived at the conclusion that if this cosmic coincidence of existence has a purpose, it is to do as much good as we possibly can.
Sure, the gradual adoption of electric scooters and bikes for short trips will, to some extent, reduce the world’s dependence on fossil fuels and therefore help the planet. One can find meaning in that — and many of my colleagues did.
But while I believe the impact of bringing scooters and bikes to cities is a net positive, I struggled to connect it to my work. I felt like I chose what seemed fun, and it happened to also be somewhat good. Instead, I wanted to start with what was unambiguously good, and find ways to make it fun.
When I asked myself what’s at the top of the list of unambiguous good I could do, the response was pretty clear: improve people’s mental and physical health.
And so, I found my way from the traditional tech world to the messy but fulfilling world of healthcare. Turned out, I wasn’t the only one. In fact, I was part of a recent mass migration of talent from traditional tech (fintech, adtech, vertical marketplaces, etc) to healthcare startups.
Although there isn’t much publicly available data on this migration, we can infer it in other ways. First, let’s look at funding of healthcare tech startups:
Healthcare tech investment doubled year over year in 2021 and is more than 20x higher than what it was just a decade ago. Even accounting for lower labor intensity of many healthcare tech models, there can’t be 5 or 10x more healthcare professionals this year for the new startups to draw their talent from than 10 years ago. So for both the incumbents to continue operating (as they have) and for 500 newly venture-funded startup to hire, they’ve got to come from other industries.
Another clue is the increasing gap between healthcare jobs posted and jobs filled:
Although this includes both clinical jobs (for which tech workers would obviously not qualify), this data fairly maps to my own experience as someone who has had to start and hire two separate healthcare teams over the last 18 months. To fill roles, we had to widen our hiring aperture and bring on people who have developed transferable skills in non-healthcare industries1.
Job boards have sprung up, with a quick search of pallet.xyz (a platform of job board platforms) revealing 5 popular healthcare tech hiring boards just on the first page, all started within the last 12 months. Six out of the 10 non-clinical roles I picked at random did not not require any healthcare experience2 .
As the demand side opened up to non-healthcare tech workers, so did tech workers’ interest in moving into the space. My Uber alumni group has a rapidly growing community of ex-Uber people now in healthcare, with representation in pretty much every major healthcare tech startup out there. Ex-colleagues from Lime are taking senior roles at healthcare tech companies like Wheel and Nomi.
Blogs and media have sprung up to welcome the influx into the industry. Both Nikhil Krishnan’s Out of Pocket and Kevin O’leary’s Health Tech Nerds started their newsletters as side gigs but converted to full time, financed by advertising dollars from talent hungry employers. And more traditional industry media – often weary of healthcare neophytes charging in to “disrupt” the industry – published pieces with titles like It’s Time To Be More Open-minded to Newcomers Moving into Health, Even from Tech. The argument, summarized, is that:
…we’re seeing a spate of Silicon Valley types succeeding because they bring a fresh perspective to medicine, not in spite of it… rather than being gatekeepers, it’s time we hear from these new voices
Why is this happening?
COVID. This is the most obvious tailwind. It’s our generation’s first global healthcare crisis. The first time many of us were forced to reckon with our own mortality and the mortality of our close ones. Those of us with experience building businesses or developing software, reared on techno-utopian ideals, were used to believing there was nothing we couldn’t figure out after a few conversations with experts, some academic papers, a white board, maybe.
Though we knew how to build spreadsheets and webapps, optimize for clickthrough rates and lead with Radical Candor, COVID threw in sharp relief our inadequacy in the face of a global crisis. We thought we were Eagle Scouts but then COVID left us in the woods overnight and we realized no one really knows how to make a fire. Sure, this realization can be overwhelming, but many in Silicon Valley saw it as a new challenge.
Indeed, several startups that became pandemic success stories were founded by techies outside of healthcare. Tia, providing virtual care for women’s health, was started by two industry outsiders and recently raised $100m. Medallion, a healthcare credentialing platform, was started by Derek Lo, who came from the recruiting space. As did Michelle Davey, the founder of Wheel, which rapidly enabled brick-and-mortar health providers to adopt virtual care. The same is true for Headway (founded by a former retail marketplace engineer), Carbon Health (started by the founder of Udemy) and Mindbloom (run by a former legal tech founder).
Religious decline and fragmentation of community. Not a Gil Original Thought™, but with the decline of religion (atheism set a new record just this year), political and civic participation and the fragmentation of community, we are increasingly turning to work for a sense of meaning.
If we can connect to the positive impact of what we do on fellow humans – even as software engineers or operations associates behind the scenes – working in healthcare can be a deeply enriching and fulfilling experience. At its best, or perhaps most aspirational, it can replace a sense of purpose that we used to derive from elsewhere. Whether that actually plays out in practice varies by person and by specific road traveled, but there’s little doubt that the path is clear and destination attainable.
A major bull market. Although the benefits of the massive bull run we have seen since 2008 have been distributed unequally, tech workers fared better than most. The tech sector far outpaced an already growing market, ate other industries, IPO’d and SPAC’d left and right and generally left a trail of vested options and competitive salaries in its wake.
As more tech workers achieved financial security (if not outright riches), they discovered the luxury of choosing what they want to do based on what matters to them. Don’t get me wrong – plenty of people still chose to go into fintech or sell digital JPEGs, but even those decisions are often driven less by maximizing dollar bills and more about other factors, like curiosity, fun and independence.
There’s probably more driving the shift to healthcare. But there’s no denying it’s happening, and that it’s generally a good thing. As I’ve written about before, it’s making me feel optimistic about the decade ahead.
Reinforcing this trend is that many healthcare leaders realized there’s much for the healthcare world to learn from the playbooks written in other sectors, getting creative in executive hiring.
Though I recognize this isn’t exactly the apex of scientific rigor