My First User Group Meeting

8 min read

Epic’s User Group Meeting. For many recent years, UGM has been covered extensively by Madison local newspapers and trade press from around the United States and internationally. It’s quite a spectacle.

It wasn’t always that way. In fact, when I started it was nearly the polar opposite to what someone might experience today if they were to attend.

The first UGM I attended in 1993 was held in the The Madison Concourse Hotel conference center. I’d not been in a hotel conference center before, so I had zero specific expectations. My memories of the facility is that it was fine, very bland, very corporate, very practical. Epic had reserved most of the rooms for various events and sessions that would take place. There were a few broad general sessions with teams parading on stage to discuss upcoming application functionality. They were long sessions. In the era before mobile devices, wifi, laptops, this meant you were either captivated by the content, or lost in your thoughts (or an occasional napper).

The theme that year was…oh, this was before the annual theming became a thing. So, it was themed as Epic UGM 1993. The attendees were quite varied. Remember that this was before EpicCare was a thing with sales. A lot of content was focused on application functionality, but there was a healthy dose of technical content too. Many earlier Epic customers had IT and developers extending and modifying the core functionality at the time. There were courses on Epic’s database for example, Chronicles.

Leading up to the event, Epic employees set up a ton of terminals in the Concourse conference center so that “live training” could take place. I attended most of the “programmer” focused training sessions as a way for me to get up to speed on Epic’s technology stack. My only recollection really is that they were well done courses for the customers. I found them to be very slow paced for me, but I wasn’t the training target.

UGM was absolutely an all hands experience. I don’t recall what I did leading up to the event (I was quite overwhelmed by new employment, a conference, customers, MUMPS, etc.). The entire company was laser focused on UGM during the weeks leading up to the event. We had a number of all staff meetings and there were many many preparation meetings. Practically speaking, very little other work was done leading up to UGM in the month prior. If we weren’t doing UGM prep in some way, you’d likely get a stink eye or two. 🦨👁️

Modern UGM attendees are spoiled by the multimedia extravaganza and spectacle. Remember, this was before fancy digital projectors and before PowerPoint was nearly on every business computer. We had transparencies and overhead projectors and microphones. There was a video projector as far as I recall in the main session room where the Epic applications were shown in their Sunday Finest.

I’ve had to socialize/mingle over the years at many events, but nothing like UGM. I’m an introvert by default, so when my team leader said we’d all been assigned a specific person (a customer’s employee) to shadow and be sure that they were always “doing well” and was having a productive and useful experience, I was more than a bit terrified. This was a person I’d never met nor talked to and I was somehow supposed to stealthily monitor their happiness during UGM. 😬😳

One of Cohort’s customers was the state of Texas public health lab (Cohort = Epic’s Public Health Lab software). My assignment was one of their employees, Ron. I was assured they were all friendly. Not surprisingly, that doesn’t make this introvert feel any better. (“Are some of them not friendly?“)

In any case, when UGM started, my TL introduced me and I proceeded to rather poorly I think try to interact with Ron over the few days of UGM. What’s amusing I suppose is that they knew this was happening too and just played along.

If you wear a suit routinely because you have to, I am sorry. I thankfully donated my last suit when I left Epic. Back in 1993, Everyone had to wear Business Formal. Including customers. It was just the expectation that this was a formal event (the UGM invitations for many years said as much). It was in such stark contrast to Epic on a day to day where anything went, shorts, t-shirts, etc. (And in August in Southern Wisconsin can have some brutally hot and humid days). I didn’t have a suit, so I had to buy one for the “once a year” need. I had to relearn from my father on how to tie a tie the easy way. I’ve never learned anything but that basic knot.

Epic’s UGMs have for decades had a dinner event and in 1993 it was held at a local private event space in the Madison Club. I suppose it wasn’t held in the hotel just to give attendees a break from being in the hotel (but there may have been more to it than that). My recollection is that the dinner was held at this same location the following year. So, I may be confusing the two events, but all I remember was that the facility was essentially at capacity for attendance and some of us, well, less-important staff and products were relegated to an off-room of some sort. For those of you with big families who have attended an event where the kids were in a different room at a table, this had a similar feel. But, what I remember the most was that it was FREAKISHLY HOT. Like a sauna. In my suit.

It was awful. There were too many humans and an overcapacity cooling system that hadn’t paid attention during the UGM prep meetings to keep customers comfortable.

Epic has had a formal way of customers directing development directions over the years. One of course is money (and sales prospects). But, in absence of an extra spend on software functionality, customers have had the opportunity to vote on what was most important to their organization. In advance of UGM, current customers would receive a list of options with some details about the functionality. Each Epic product team would hold a special session going through more details of future development directions and then would step through the suggested options for functionality that could be scheduled. Each customer would then be able to cast a certain number of votes (or rank) helping Epic decide what was most important during the next long development cycle for a product. What was interesting about the process is that it appeared to be a transparent democracy in many ways as these items were discussed. Customers would be able to see what was important for other customers in addition to their own requests. The votes/ranks were completed by the end of the session. The full results however were not given back to customers and were generally only a team guide/influence. Unfortunately, there wasn’t a level of accountability during this process, but very often the ranked/voted functionality was scheduled and worked on. Most importantly, large customers had no more votes than a small customer.

As customers were often suggesting features during a development cycle, this process helped them focus their interests on functionality that was most important to them. There were definitely healthy discussions during the voting sessions too. When Epic was smaller, these meetings had fewer attendees too and I know that one customer’s enthusiasm and need for a feature could transfer to another customer who would end up deciding that they too would benefit from a feature. That type of immediacy and interaction is missing in many software planning discussions unfortunately. A forum post or a thumbs-up 👍 on a feature request isn’t the same. Of course, even then there would be some vocal and opinionated attendees that could derail an otherwise positive discussion (not unlike in a online forum today).

I’ll leave you with this …, downtown Madison not being on a North-South / East-West and having the Capital be in the center with roads wrapping around …, has never never clicked with me. I’ve not had a useful mental model of the streets or layout. It’s broken in my head. I’d not been in the downtown more than a few times ever in my entire life, so nothing was familiar.

So, one day when I left the parking ramp on the way back to my apartment, I was attempting to navigate the streets, discovering more and more places that I didn’t recognize. I didn’t have a map of downtown, only a general map of Wisconsin. With a weird mix of extreme unhappiness and delight, it wasn’t until I drove by the street that eventually goes to the Dane County Airport that I could find my location on the map (the street is called International Lane, which is funny as Dane County Regional airport doesn’t have international flights ✈️).

I was 45 minutes from my apartment. I’d been lost for about 30 minutes. So, what should have been a 15 minute trip turned into more than an hour. Ugh.