While growing up in Casper Wyoming I often worked for my dad in his plumbing business and was called the “what is it kid.” I loved to take things apart and figure out how they work. So systems thinking was a natural tendency and reinforced by learning how plumbing and heating systems work. Thirty years ago I was fortunate to get the opportunity to combine my formal education as a Medical Technologist (BSMT) with my mechanical and nerdy tendencies and joined a startup called Patterson, Gorup, Illig and Associates, now known as Cerner. This year marks thirty years since joining Cerner and 15 since leaving in 1999. I wish to share some of the growing and learning business and systems lessons experienced and learnt while a Cerner Associate.
The first lesson I would like to share was learned in a watershed moment at Community Hospital of Indianapolis (CHI). You see the TI 990 platform was a 16 bit computing platform and the PathNet Laboratory Information system needed more power to scale. The founders and a brilliant systems architect chose the Digital Equipment Companies VAX / VMS 32 bit computing platform as the future for the Cerner systems. Engineering spent the best part of a year migrating the PathNet system to the DEC VAX platform. Cerner also closed a deal with a large hospital and commercial laboratory with 20 or so remote locations, becoming the first clients on the 32 bit computing platform. This was a Big Bang project meaning the entire user community switched from their current system (MedLab) to PathNet one night at midnight (12/6/1984). So the team was excited, we had performed all the testing and training and conversion work and we believed we were good to go. Conversion happened, and the systems slowed to an unusable state. There was no going back per se. Long story short, of the maybe 20 employees at the time, almost all of them piled in cars or hit the plane to get to CHI to lend a helping hand with the failed implementation. I think one or two were left behind to answer phones and run logistics. Various people took responsibility for different departments / functions in the lab. One associate took it upon himself to stock up on gum and every time he came across a stressed laboratory employee. He would just smile and hand them a stick of gum. So after days and nights of ups and downs, one step forward two steps back, the founders called a meeting of all the associates in the laboratory conference room. I recall Neal saying, “You will all be better systems people as a result of this experience.” Of course, tired, frustrated, embarrassed, little “Laboratory Systems Consultant” really didn’t understand or appreciate the comment. I do now. After 30 years of systems implementation, project leadership, client support and enterprise systems consulting I absolutely credit this and many other Cerner experiences with equipping me with big picture, lateral problem solving, systems and business thinking that is now leveraged across the Tricension associates and our Clients.