Habush Habush and Rottier

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Happy Returns

I've been maintaining this blog for over three years now, and I've had Google Adsense running on it from the get-go. This month is the month where I've finally crossed the minimum payment threshold. That couldn't have happened without you, my loyal readers.

Adsense's ToS prevents me from outright asking for people to click on the ads, but I do offer my heartfelt thanks for those who've done so voluntarily.

With my new-found wealth, I think I'll probably purchase the Struck By Orca book, and possibly even buy myself a nice meal from the dollar menu at my local fine dining establishment.

Also, I'm starting to get spambot comments. That's a solid marker of success. If I didn't publish your comment and you're not a spambot, it's because you put some hyperlink in your comment. If you want your comment to be published, either don't include any links, or make the link relevant. I'm not going to publish your comment if it includes a link to your blog about cat-shaped coffee mugs, if the rest of the comment is just praise for how awesome this blog is. If you want to praise me, great! Just don't include random links. If you have something meaningful to say about Epic, the trials and tribulations of Epic consulting, or if you have inside information (like you've been to a recent Epic all-staff meeting), I might be more inclined to post your comment, cat blog link or not.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Epic's Principles, Part 4

It's been a while since I first posted the full list. Ergo:

Epic's 13 principles
1. Do not go public.
2. Do not be acquired.
3. Expectations = reality.
4. Keep commitments.
5. Be frugal.
6. Have standards. Don't do deals.
7. Create innovative and helpful products.
8. Have fun with customers.
9. Follow processes. Find root causes. Fix processes.
10. Don't take on debt for operations, no matter how good the deal.
11. Focus on competency. Do not tolerate mediocrity.
12. Teach philosophy and culture.
13. If you disagree, dissent. Once decided, support.

 This week brings us to Principle 6: Have standards. Don't do deals.

Whenever I heard Judy explain it at staff meetings, she related it to the price of the software. I.e., Kaiser pays the same price per license as Maine Health. Epic isn't going to give one customer a huge discount just to get its business. Like the first two principles, I never saw how it related to me, personally, as someone not in a position to make deals. As I'm thinking about it now though, with my embittered snarkiness in full bloom, Judy and the sales team are the only folks at the company who are even in a position where they could follow this principle, in Sales or otherwise.

If Epic employees had standards, they wouldn't allow themselves to work 60-80 hour weeks. If Epic employees had standards, they'd give their bosses realistic expectations of the work that they can realistically handle in a given week. If Epic employees had standards, they would politely but firmly inform their TLs that their customers are used to certain standards of support, standards that will no longer be achievable if the employee's customer load increases.

I've often said that one of the reasons Judy primarily hires recent college grads is because they don't yet know what is standard for work expectations. If they don't know any better, they're easier to exploit.

Realistically though, the Epic rank-and-file just aren't in a position where they can obey Principle 6. If they tried, they'd be out of a job faster than you can say "Fix processes." In fact, Epic actively encourages its employees to lower its standards. I remember a conversation I had with my TL, after he listened in on a weekly issues call with my customer.
TL: You said "I don't know" a lot.
Me:  That's because I didn't know the answer off the top of my head. I want to research it before giving them potentially incorrect information.
TL: Just tell them something, and then correct it later.
Me: ...Ok... (raised eyebrow)

After the next issues call the TL listened to:
TL: You told them some things that aren't right.
Me: But you said--!
You get the picture, and you've probably lived through it. It is possible in certain areas of life to have standards that are too high. However, in a situation with as much potential for harm as clinical software, there shouldn't be any compromises when it comes to accuracy. You shouldn't have to make a deal between response time and response accuracy.

The "don't do deals" aspect is also interesting, in that it's definitely one sided. Epic won't cut a deal for anyone, but boy-oh-boy will it wring every last advantage out of anything that comes its way. I'm thinking primarily of how it burns through its employees, but I'm sure Judy is reaping lots of rewards from her seat on Barack's EHR panel.

In any rate, the upper echelons at Epic are in a position to obey the principle as it relates to customer expectations. But internally, standards are always movable.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Epic's Principles, Part 3

See the previous posts here:
Part 1
Part 2

Epic's next principle is 5: Be frugal.

Good advice, but I don't think Epic actually follows it.

Dictionary.com defines frugal as:
economical in use or expenditure; prudently saving or sparing; not wasteful

Epic is not that. Epic wastes money (not in large sums, at least not that I've been privy to) on lots of little things that add up. Epic wastes its employees' time, and it wastes its employees in general. 

I remember when I was working there, every office received its own Dymo label maker. Previously, you could only find a label maker in the supply rooms. I'm not sure what the demand was that necessitated a label maker for every 1.5 employees--I don't think I ever had to wait to use it, even when there was only one per floor. The label makers in question have a current list price of $29.99 (available on Amazon). I doubt Judy paid full retail price for them, as I'm certain Epic has enough sense to get bulk discounts where available. Even so, my back-of-the-napkin calculation has the price of enough label makers for every office at Epic being close to one employee's yearly salary.

I would rather Epic had spent that money on hiring an additional TS, in keeping with Principle 3: Expectations = Reality. I expect my TS will be fully committed to my customer and no one else, and that is not reflected in reality.

Epic is not frugal with its employees' time. It takes 6-9 months for a new TS to become self-sufficient. Epic's customers are paying that TS for the time spent on the steep learning curve (which doesn't make the customers happy--no one likes paying master prices for apprentice work), which will then go to waste as the average employee will leave Epic (one way or another) after another 12 or 18 months. Epic is throwing a quarter of its salary expenditures down the drain--they're not reaping any rewards from retaining skilled workers--they train the employees and then fire them (or burn through them) just as they get the knowledge sufficient to do their job effectively. At that point, Epic adds multiple customers to a single employee's roster, which turns a functional, bright, excited little worker bee into a stressed, overworked, non-functional drone. Epic wastes (definitions 4 or 5) its employees.

And some of the uses that Epic puts its employees to just don't make good business sense. The "starting salary" of a TS, when put in hourly form, was about $28 when I started at Epic. Some employee duties included making popcorn for the Staff Meetings, and directing traffic at UGM. I don't know of any popcorn makers who earn $28 an hour, and that's not counting the lost productivity cost in taking that employee away from customer-facing work. The frugal thing to do would be to leave that employee in his office so he can work on billable tasks. Pay a local store to make all the popcorn--the increased productivity from Epic's employees will pay dividends, even if outsourcing the popcorn costs a little bit more per box. The same goes for all the UGM work, which is addressed in greater detail here.

Epic is frugal with employee salaries, so that's something. Compared to other software companies of similar size, and even the salaries of analysts at Epic's customer sites, the Epic employee is receiving less pay than people doing similar (sometimes identical) work at other organizations. Epic is very generous with its raises though, and those who are permitted to stick around make money hand over fist. But the average employee isn't going to last long enough to get that kind of salary. The low starting salary coupled with the huge raises for long-timers leads to a good-looking average salary, but chances are you're not going to hit that average during the typical short tenure of an Epic employee's employment. 

Further breaking the illusion of frugality, there's Epic's artwork, which can best be described by borrowing from Hooters: tacky and unrefined. Judy is on record saying that the art work is a miniscule amount of the yearly budget. But as perceptions also equal reality, it gives the appearance of wasting a lot of money. Customers do not feel as though installing a tube slide or putting a paper-mache giraffe in a forest of fake bamboo is a good use of the copious amounts of money they've paid into Epic's coffers.

There's also the campus, which grows like a tumor. All that construction isn't cheap, and I understand that Judy had to modify the 10th principle because of it. "Don't take on debt, period" is a completely different from "Don't take on debt except in these specific circumstances."

The key to frugality is the wise use of resources. I'm not sure what the return on investment was for those label printers, or if there was one to begin with. If Epic spent more on outsourcing those tasks that don't require extensive, specialized software knowledge (like making popcorn and directing traffic), and less on cool gadgets (like popcorn machines), the appearance of frugality would show more. As it stands now though, there is nothing frugal about Epic.