CAP TIMES IDEA FEST DAY 2

Judy Faulkner, CEO and founder of Epic, speaks during The Cap Times Idea Fest Saturday.

Judy Faulkner describes the culture she’s established at her enormous electronic health records company, Epic Systems Corp., as one woven out of a tapestry of philosophies and ideas.

Think in terms of “Yes, if…” instead of “No, because,” Faulkner told an audience filling up Shannon Hall in the Memorial Union at the Cap Times Idea Fest on Saturday. Don’t think something is a problem — instead, think of it as a project. Don’t be distracted by “golden apples” as Atalanta was in Greek mythology — keep your focus on the finish line.

Plus, there’s the credo that she tells all of the nearly 10,000 employees who work at the company’s sprawling campus in Verona: Have fun, do good, make money.

Faulkner, delivered a rare public address as Epic celebrates its 40th anniversary. To mark the occasion, Faulkner shared some of the company’s history, its philosophies, its success stories, and some of the projects it’s currently working on.

Faulkner said that she first worked on an electronic health records system as a project when she was pursuing a master’s degree in computer science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“There were a few real challenges to it,” she said. “One thing was, how do you keep track of time? Some things never change, like your birth date. Some things always change, like your vital signs.”

Ultimately, after years of encouragement from colleagues, she decided to spin out the project into its own company. Epic launched in 1979 as a small business located in the basement of a building on Old University Avenue, valued at $70,000 and with two employees on staff. They built the system on a then-sophisticated 50 megabyte computer drive, she said.

“You couldn’t touch it because it would corrupt the data. We walked in a wide berth around it,” said Faulkner.

Faulkner said that from the get-go, she designed the company to “put the patient at the center, and all the data around the patient.” She said that decision has been key to the company’s monumental success. Also critical to the company’s success, she said, was the fact that the CEO was a programmer. Epic’s competitors, she noted, are all led by men with MBAs and economics degrees.

“I’m a techie. And that’s the key difference. Those guys were taught things like go public, make mergers and acquisitions. What was I taught? How to program,” said Faulkner.

Faulkner also brought up what has historically been a huge point of pride for her and the company: It has never acquired another piece of software. Everything in the company’s software, she said, has been built in-house.

Other contributors to the company’s success lie in its campus and aesthetic. She said that the company values humor — hence its whimsical campus, which includes a tree house, a replica of a New York subway station and buildings based on children’s stories like Alice in Wonderland and Harry Potter.

She also said that she has always tried to place employees in their own offices, instead of embracing an open layout. It's easy to get hard work done when you're wearing comfortable clothes and sitting in a quiet space, she said.

Ultimately, she said the company is striving to avoid what she identifies as symptoms of corporate decline: increased bureaucracy, too much focus on legal matters and finance, and an acceptance of mediocrity.

Faulkner also briefly outlined some projects that she thinks will help define the company’s future: a records-keeping system that’s entirely based on voice recognition, a wider embrace of incorporating social determinants of health in EHRs, and an expansion beyond traditional health care systems to facilities like pharmacies or rehab clinics.

She also mentioned one of the company’s most ambitious projects: A massive database of biomedical data called Cosmos, that could be used to encourage more data-based medical decision making.

“You can ask Cosmos to look at the 230 million patients in the database to ask, who looks similar to my patient? And what works best?” said Faulkner.

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Erik Lorenzsonn is the Capital Times' tech and culture reporter. He joined the team in 2016, after having served as an online editor for Wisconsin Public Radio and having written for publications like The Progressive Magazine and The Poughkeepsie Journal.