Cohort needs a Windows App

4 min read

Cohort, if you recall from earlier posts was Epic’s public health laboratory management system. RIP. As it was the first product I worked on, I was interested in its success even though the product wasn’t compelling to me. One function was designed for rapid data entry as lab techs were doing hundreds of tests and then inputting the results manually in many cases.

While some lab machine interfaced directly and stored results into the Epic system, there were many that required manual input. Data input was frequently completed in a 80x25 character table like layout. Fields often needed validation at both a field level and a “row” level as some inputs could only be validated with other values in the row being present.

A simple example might be a type where depending on the type selected, the range of acceptable values for a numeric result might change. Or, the user might type in a number, like 65, then choose the unit of measure like mg/dL. If the lab result were for an HDL test (for cholesterol), then those results would make sense. But, if the user had instead typed in 450, it’s very possible that Cohort would have alerted the user that a value was likely out of range. Or, if the user had typed 65 but selected mg/mL for the unit of measure, again, it would have been flagged.

(I’ll fully admit that I don’t remember if the unit was automatically selected when resulting a test like HDL preventing that type of error. There were definitely connected fields however with more complexity).

As my Cohort knowledge expanded, I had little specific awareness regarding what was going on with Epic’s Legacy (later renamed to EpicCare) at the time other than they were building the application with a tool called Visual Basic (version 2 when I first started!). I didn’t have a license for Visual Basic at work or at home.

But, what I did have was a license for Microsoft Visual C++. It had been released in February of 1993 with another version, 1.5 released in December of 1993. (Honestly, I’m not sure why I owned a copy, it may have been through an educational discount).

During the majority of my time at Epic, I spent many hours at home every day learning new technologies that I could potentially apply to my job, both to satisfy my desire to learn and try new things and to try to make Epic a better place.

At some point during my Cohort time, I decided to make a graphical Windows 3.11 Cohort app. Yep. It sounds a bit ridiculous but as you’ll learn as I continue my Epic experience on this blog, that’s not uncommon.

I dove into learning Windows programming and learned what I could about the Microsoft Foundation Class Library. A big shout-out to Charles Petzold’s “Programming Windows” book at the time which helped me immensely.

After a few weeks, I showed my progress to my TL and she was impressed. I admitted that I had no idea how to make it into something more, but that exploring the opportunities was compelling. In some ways, I knew that I was showing initiative and also that my day job wasn’t challenging enough for me. I wanted more. I asked my former TL what she’d done after showing her the demo and while she didn’t remember the specific time, she is confident that she would have relayed on my success and interests to Carl who was her TL at the time.

The application I created wasn’t comprehensive — it supported data entry, saving, etc. But, by no means was it even 2% of the functionality of a Cohort deployed system. But, for me, it was an exciting journey to learning something new and having an opportunity to show it off at work.

Over the years of working at Epic, many people seemed to believe that I had access to some secret sauce that helped me succeed. I didn’t consider it a secret and have been willing to tell folks that it was at its core: hard work and lots of hours. I learn by doing not by talking or even just reading about tech. There’s not a secret shortcut or “one easy step.”

During building this little demo application, I started to learn about how the Windows operating system that would be the focus of much of my professional development career worked internally. That early awareness grew into broad and often deep knowledge that helped me make better design and development choices for decades.