New at the Top: ‘I learned not to lose hope in the face of backlash’

My father built most of the electronic devices we had around the house, including our color television. He was a math teacher.

I remember one summer day, he came home and gave me a microprocessor kit and told me to put it together. So I did. I knew at that point I wanted to build hardware like that.

So I went to college and studied electrical engineering. I came out wanting to design complicated computers. I immediately entered the hardware business designing processors for IBM. I loved it. I loved the complexity and the challenge.

IBM was developing a new way to attach peripherals to mainframes using fiber-optic technology, and I came in as a fresh set of eyes to help develop a new architecture. The technology I developed got a tremendous backlash. I made a presentation of this great idea to IBM leadership, and they shut it down. They asked me to sit down in the middle of my presentation.

As it turned out, a couple experts recognized that it was a good idea and helped me get it implemented. Soon enough, the company began using the technology for maintenance. In that, I learned not to lose hope in the face of backlash.

Mike O'Neill, CEO of MedicaSoft.

When you’re a chip designer, you don’t see the outside world that much. But I did a complete 180-degree turn and decided to work with customers to help them figure out how to use the technologies. That gave me a taste for working with other companies, including start-ups.

I ended up moving to a start-up chip company working in marketing and sales and business development. I got a broad perspective for how technology can be leveraged to solve real problems and build big businesses.

I went from there to the investing side of the start-up world, working for a venture firm. I never thought I would be on the investment side. But I got involved with helping entrepreneurs start new companies and helping entrepreneurs figure out how to solve customers’ problems in markets that had a potential for growth.

It was a big change to be on the investing side rather than the operating side of a company. It is once removed from the day-to-day operations of the company. As much as I liked the discussions about strategy, I found I liked being the guy who not just talks about the strategy, but does it.

After five years, I went back into industry and helped run a semiconductor company. The whole task was to figure out how to grow a business and make better numbers. It was a public company, so there was pressure to increase revenue and profit. I brought a skill set for understanding a customer’s point of view.

Eventually, one of my mentors became the chief technology officer of the Department of Veterans Affairs in the Obama administration and asked me to help operationalize some of the concepts they had around innovation with health care. That’s where I got involved with electronic health records, personal health information and giving patients access to their health data.

I decided to continue to work in the health-care field at MedicaSoft. It’s a company that has existing software that hospitals already use. I’m looking forward to figuring out how software can help hospitals and doctors deliver better care for patients, allowing them to be more efficient with what they want to do.

— Interview with Vanessa Small

Mike O’Neill

Position: Chief executive of MedicaSoft, a health-care information technology company based in the District that develops software for hospitals, health-care providers and patients.

Career highlights: Senior adviser, VA Center for Innovation; clean-energy fellowship, New England Clean Energy Council; vice president, ON Semiconductor and AMI Semiconductor; general partner, Kodiak Venture Partners; various engineering and management positions at large companies and start-ups.

Age: 48

Education: BS and MS, electrical engineering, Virginia Tech.

Personal: Lives in Arlington County with spouse and two children.

Vanessa Small covers philanthropy and nonprofits for Capital Business. She also spotlights newly appointed executives in the New at the Top column, which chronicles their journeys to the top. Small was raised in Orange County, Ca. and graduated from Howard University.
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