Epic decoded: An inside look at life and corporate culture at the center of the health IT world

When you walk onto Epic Systems' Verona, Wis.-based campus, you're guaranteed to see one thing: people wearing clothes.

"Our dress code is when there are visitors, you must wear clothes," says Epic Founder and CEO Judy Faulkner.

In an exclusive interview with Becker's Hospital Review, Ms. Faulkner pointed to this dress code as something readers might find surprising about Epic's culture. "As long as there's nothing objectionable, everything's fine."

The rule seems simple for the biggest name in the health IT world. Epic has made a name for itself for a number of reasons, and ironically, one of those reasons is that it never tried to make a name for itself.

First, Epic is one of the biggest EHR providers for hospitals and health systems in the country. As of December 2014, Epic was the most commonly used EHR among eligible professionals participating in meaningful use, according to data from CMS. For hospitals and health systems, it was the second most commonly used EHR, following MEDITECH.

Additionally, Epic was named the top overall physician practice vendor and overall software suite for the 2014 Best in KLAS awards by vendor performance monitor KLAS.

The accolades crown a company that does little, if anything, to market itself, which is the ironically telling second reason for Epic's prominent standing. The corporate culture is rather opaque to outsiders, and the company isn't too concerned with doing anything to change that. According to Forbes, just 1 percent of Epic's employees in 2012 were in sales and marketing, and there were only five salespeople, none of whom earned commission.

Epic doesn't issue press releases and there is no labeled "media" department on its website. The company's website is surprisingly dull and basic for one of the most prominent health IT companies in the country. In fact, when I reached out to Epic for a comment on this story, there was one email address listed under the "Contact Us" tab for general information: info@epic.com.

So what's the secret behind Epic's marketing-free success? Ms. Faulkner says there really isn't one. "When I started the company, I had no idea how to do marketing, so we just didn't do it," she says. "What I did know, because I was a technical person, is to be able to write good software. So we focused on writing good software, and we focused on doing good support. And then fortunately, word of mouth did the rest."

A company of ideals
There seems to be a disconnect between the way outsiders perceive Epic's no-marketing approach and Ms. Faulkner's philosophy behind it. For those on the outside, it appears opaque or mysterious. Ms. Faulkner's rendition speaks of total dedication and focus on the product and service offerings.

As former Epic employee Joshua Arkin puts it: Epic's culture is idealistic. Mr. Arkin worked at Epic for just under three years in implementation services for the hospital billing application. "[Epic] views the customer as the reason that Epic exists," Mr. Arkin says. "They only develop software they think the customer wants, and they only do things they think will help that customer."

Mr. Arkin mentions the 12 principles of Epic Systems, which he says is a list of values printed and framed in every bathroom and break room across the campus. One of those principles is to never go public. "They want to stay privately owned so they're not influenced by stockholders to act in a way that's not in the best interest of their customers," he says. "That sums it up. They're really idealistic."

When asked if he thinks that idealistic approach is sustainable, Mr. Arkin responds, "They're doing their damnedest."

Ms. Faulkner started what has flourished into Epic in 1979 right after graduate school at University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she studied computer science. What was born as three part-time employees working in the basement of an apartment house has turned into more than 8,000 employees working on a campus spread over more than 1,000 acres that is valued at more than $700 million, according to HIT Consultant.

Epic has also helped put America's Dairyland on the map as an IT hub. In May 2014, Forbes ranked Madison No. 5 on its list of "The Cities Creating the Most Information Technology Jobs," which is entirely attributed to Epic's presence. From 2008 to 2014, Madison's IT employment sector grew 28 percent, one of the fastest growth rates in the country during that time period, according to the report.

But Epic's employee growth rate, for better or for worse, may be the biggest threat to this idealistic outlook.

"That idealism and attitude and mentality runs to the core of the people who are in charge," says Mr. Arkin. "As the company gets bigger, it's just more difficult to make sure that stays resonant with such a large group of people."

Another former Epic employee, James, also expressed the downside of such rapid growth. James agreed to speak to Becker's Hospital Review only if identified by first name.

"The place is growing faster than it can handle," he says. "It's hiring people and throwing a lot of work at them that they don't want to do, and then [the employees] leave."

Epic as a workplace
James worked at Epic for approximately seven months in technical services. He and his teammates were nicknamed "problem solvers," or as his colleagues put it, "a glorified help desk" for Epic customers.

James' thoughts and feelings about his time at Epic are nearly opposite of Ms. Faulkner's and Mr. Arkin's comments about the consumer being most important and the work centering around building good products.

"Everything about Epic was wonderful except the job itself," James says. "I thought it was mind numbingly boring to work there….If I had liked my job, I would have stayed there for life."

James says he was attracted to Epic because of the salary and, having graduated a semester early from UW-Madison, he wanted to stick around the area for a while before starting graduate school. He says he found the dynamics of the job itself, the average age of his cohort and their relative lack of experience somewhat perplexing.

"A lot of the mystery of Epic is the fact that they hire a lot of young people, and [outsiders] don't understand why they get hired there," he says. "From the perspective of someone who was hired when he was 21, people were amazed that they saw their drinking buddy get a $63,000 a year job one month after graduating with no relevant experience in healthcare or health IT."

In 2014, Business Insider ranked Epic No. 5 on its list of companies with the best pay and benefits. The report indicates an average salary for a technical services employee is approximately $72,000, and approximately $82,000 for a project manager. Software developers might make closer to $89,000, according to the report.

However, Epic has come under scrutiny lately for its employer practices, most recently as it faces two lawsuits alleging the company owes employees overtime pay. According to the lawsuit, the workers were technical writers who allege Epic classified them as exempt from overtime wages, so they were paid a fixed salary regardless of how many hours they worked. While certain labor laws do permit exemptions from overtime pay for certain areas of work such as managerial or computer work, the lawsuit argues technical writers don't fit into any of the exemption categories.

In a statement to Becker's Hospital Review, Epic said, "We believe the lawsuit is without merit. We provide good, professional jobs to very talented people and we value their contribution to improving healthcare."

Epic faced similar allegations in October 2013, when a former quality assurance employee filed a class-action lawsuit alleging the company violated labor laws by denying approximately 1,000 eligible workers overtime pay. Epic settled the lawsuit in October 2014 for $5.4 million and did not admit guilt.

Once employees leave Epic, they still are bound to the company for at least one more year. Employees sign a one-year non-compete clause with Epic, but when Vonlay, a local Epic-focused consulting group, was purchased by Chicago-based Huron Consulting group, Epic increased the non-compete clause for employees wanting to consult for Vonlay to two years.

Last December, Epic reduced the non-compete clause back down to one-year, though the company has yet to offer an explanation for the reversal. In an email to Isthmus, Epic spokesman Brian Spranger said, "We'd rather not comment on the policy as a whole."

Corporate culture
Job specificities aside, Epic's culture appears relaxed and unassuming. Again, the only dress code is that people are required to wear clothes, a theory devised by Ms. Faulkner to boost productivity. "We want people to be productive," she says. People want to be productive, so it works in both directions. As a programmer, I felt that being productive meant that your clothes aren't bothering you. If I had to wear heels and stockings, I actually couldn't do work as well as if I were in comfortable clothes."

Such a lax policy bodes well for millennials whose generation is producing, and seeking, "unconventional" jobs that don't require business attire and a traditional 9-5 schedule. For example, tech startups are a popular draw for millennials, largely offering casual work attire, flexible hours, a spirit of innovation and an overall "cool" aura. While Epic certainly isn't a startup, its philosophies and campus culture appear to emulate its newer tech counterparts, including the relatively young employee group. A 2012 report from The Capital Times finds the average age of an Epic employee is 29 years old.

The young age isn't too surprising. A 2013 PayScale survey found technology workers are generally younger than cohorts in other industries. The survey looked at median ages of workers at some of the most successful technology companies and found eight of those companies' median age was 30 years or younger. (Epic Systems was not included in the survey.) The results make sense, given the rise of digital natives and the natural familiarity many millennials and Generation Y'ers find with technology.

Mr. Arkin thinks the younger age group is just a matter of circumstance. Located 10 miles from UW-Madison, Epic has an ample supply of graduates ready to join the workforce, he suggests.

What's more, Mr. Arkin found the opportunities he had as a recent graduate working for such a reputable company unparalleled. "I presented to hospital executives," he says. "I've stood in front of a CFO and explained how something works and answered their questions and solved problems for them. That's a rare kind of experience for someone who's young."

Mr. Arkin continues, "They do this interesting thing, which is where they only hire smart, capable people," he says. "They look for a certain personality type, and they get that personality type: The Type-A person who is smart, understands what quality work is and will not settle for less than quality work. They bring exclusively that type of person in and then they give them an enormous set of responsibilities."

James offers a less glorified version of Epic's corporate culture. "They built us up as if we were some kind of Google," he says, explaining his one qualm with the corporate culture. "Google is the smartest company I'd say that we know of, and they tried to convince us that we were Google intelligent."

Regardless, productivity is the name of Epic's corporate game, supported both by the intrinsic culture Ms. Faulkner aims to cultivate and the archetype employee Mr. Arkin outlines. There are two other things Ms. Faulkner hopes employees internalize during their tenure at Epic: roots and wings.

"For roots, I mean caring, honesty, keeping commitments; those basic roots there that are fundamental," she explains. "And wings, I mean being proactive. Taking ownership over a project and doing it well."

We aren't in Silicon Valley anymore
Young professionals, software development, a sprawling campus — it sounds like Epic should be nestled in Silicon Valley among its technology counterparts. So why rural Wisconsin?

James says the campus is really "charming," and he suspects a lot of millennials right out of college are more willing to move anywhere, "even if it is rural Wisconsin."

Mr. Arkin suspects Verona, Wis., remains home to Epic simply because Ms. Faulkner wouldn't have a reason to leave. "Judy just, I don't know how else to put it, she just wouldn't care about moving to California," he says. "It works well where it is now, land is way cheaper and the cost of living is cheaper. They probably have to pay their software engineers less than a company in Silicon Valley if for no other reason than cost of living."

Epic employees work about 20 minutes outside of Madison, the state capital and medium-sized liberal college town largely characterized by its livability. James says most of the young people working at Epic lived in downtown Madison, which he says has a great social scene and everything a young person would want.

Madison is consistently ranked among the best places to work and live, named among the greenest cities, most bike-friendly, best Midwest concert venues, best city for young entrepreneurs and best city for quality of life, among many more accolades.

In early January, Epic announced plans to expand its campus even further, adding five buildings, all of which are reported to be literature-themed.

All of Epic's campus extensions have revolved around a theme — the latest one was called Wizards Academy Campus and took aesthetic inspiration from regal, historic universities such as Cambridge and Oxford, with a hint of the fictitious Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry and Lord of the Rings. The campus is known for its treehouse conference room and a hallway that looks like a New York City subway car.

At the 2014 Epic Users Group Meeting, Ms. Faulkner gave her reasoning for the whimsical campus in her executive kickoff address. "We are competing for talent with Apple, Microsoft and Facebook. We need to give these people a reason to come to Wisconsin."

"Do good, have fun, make money."
And come to Wisconsin they continue to do, appeasing Ms. Faulkner's concerns. Whether they stay there or not — or enjoy their time there or not — is a different question.

Epic appears to be caught between a handful of these dichotomies. Anecdotally, the two former employees who spoke for this story had largely opposing views of the company and their individual experiences. External parties aren't always privy to the internal workings of the company, but internally Epic strives to be transparent. James says all Epic employees have access to everyone's schedule, including Ms. Faulkner's, through a system called Guru that displays each person's certifications and demographic information.

Epic truly is a powerhouse, if for no other reason than it enraptures the attention of everyone in the healthcare world. Love it or hate it, people want to know more about it.

Epic's motto — do good, have fun, make money — is clear and simple. It may be the only thing about the company that is.

More articles on Epic:

Geisinger-Lewistown Hospital to go-live on Epic EHR
UW Health piloting Epic's MyChart Bedside app
Epic, Allscripts, Cerner among finalists for DoD EHR contract

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