Dancing in the office, wearing costumes to work, and a flat organizational structure? What is this, Google? No, these are part of the unique workplace culture at one of the Rockford area’s biggest software design firms.
When the music starts playing, it’s time to dance. It doesn’t matter what you’re doing at your desk, your colleagues encourage you to join in – maybe for the Biker Shuffle or the Macarena.
It’s like a birthday jingle at Texas Roadhouse – except this isn’t a restaurant. It’s the busy office of Practice Velocity, 8777 Velocity Dr., Machesney Park, Ill., one of the largest software firms in the Rockford area.
Around 2:30 p.m. on a Friday, the company concierge rouses the troops as music blasts from the overhead speakers. Everybody in this open-concept office begins stepping, clapping and laughing as they share a line dance.
“There are people laughing at work – it’s kind of fun,” explains Dr. David Stern, company founder and CEO. “You get up, get moving, and it’s good for your health. If people sit around too long, they get clots in their legs. I’m a doctor.”
Dancing at your desk is one of many unique quirks at Practice Velocity, a company whose culture is far more in tune with the Googleplex than the Midwest cubicle farm.
This pioneering enterprise is attracting highly skilled jobs to the region and infusing the area’s workforce with a decidedly 21st-century skillset. Stern has 230 employees right now and sees ample opportunity for growth in coming months. It’s good news for Rockford’s small, but growing, software industry.
“This company will bring more than $30 million to the Rockford area this year,” says Stern. “Most of it gets spent right here in the Rockford area in restaurants and stores, paying rent or mortgages, and that’s pretty cool. We have room for 500 people in the building and 500 people sitting at our tables in our Town Hall. We have 500 parking spots outside, so we’re ready to grow.”
Stern’s venture into the software business began as many enterprises do: he needed a product that didn’t exist. In the early 2000s, he was one of three partner doctors at Physicians Immediate Care, then a Rockford-based chain of urgent care centers. He and his partners wanted to find an electronic medical records (EMR) software program that could help them easily track patient care. But nothing on the market quite suited their needs.
“I told my partners, ‘we’ll just have to jerry rig something,’ but one of my partners said, ‘Why don’t you just start a software company?’” Stern recalls. “I thought it was the dumbest thing ever. Who makes a software company? They all go bankrupt.”
But he couldn’t escape a good idea. In 2002, Stern, partners John Koehler and Terry Buzzard, and some software engineers, began working in the basement of a Physicians Immediate Care clinic. Although it was Stern’s first foray into software, he brought a wealth of expertise in the urgent care business.
“One of the reasons software companies fail is because they don’t know the end user well enough, and they don’t bring the end user into the process,” says Stern. “But because I was a doctor, I’d used the doctor software. I’d run the billing department, so I knew billing, and every part of the flow of the clinic I’ve been involved with.”
The team’s first product, launched in 2002 and implemented at Physicians Immediate Care that year, was designed as an add-on to existing technology.
What’s now the core of Practice Velocity’s business is a pair of original software products: PV Billing, released in 2007, which provides billing and revenue management services, and VelociDoc, released in 2009, an EMR software which allows physicians to document the patient’s care from entry to discharge.
Customized for urgent care centers, Practice Velocity serves clinics in all 50 states through software accessed online.
The firm does have competitors in this space, but it’s continuously ranked at the top. KLAS Research has ranked it as a top EMR software since 2012. Black Book named it tops from 2011 to 2015, while Medical Economics ranked it in the Top 50 in its latest survey.
A Silicon Valley Culture
Looking around the Practice Velocity office, you quickly feel like you’re standing in Silicon Valley. The completely open office space is filled with pods of desks, with dividers rising to a seated employee’s eye level. Bright reds, greens and blues abound.
Near the entrance, a Rockford Roasting Co. barista serves coffee at half-price, with Practice Velocity subsidizing the remaining cost.
Nearby, four conference rooms allow employees to meet at standing conference tables, individual desks or a roundtable. In one room, team members lounging on couches are conferencing with a woman seated on a balance ball.
It’s “Team Fanatic Friday,” the closing day of the company’s Spirit Week, and employees are sporting their jerseys and hoodies. Stern is wearing a soccer jersey.
You’d never guess this space used to be a Kohl’s department store at the Machesney Park Mall. In 2014, Practice Velocity invested $8 million into converting the 63,000 square-foot space into a high-tech office, complete with windows and skylights that fill the workplace with natural light.
The design of this space helps to reinforce the company’s unique culture, in which cohesive teams and meaningful work are valued.
“Everybody should like coming to work, not just me,” says Stern. “That was a challenge, at first, because if you’re working in the mailroom, might you see that as a great thing? But I think if you talk to the team in our mailroom, they’ll tell you they love it, and they get cheered when they keep costs down.”
The team at Practice Velocity embraces four core values: team player, positive energy, continuous improvement and clients win.
“Everything we do should be to make things better for the client,” says Stern. “We used to call it client-focused, but we changed it because being focused on the client wasn’t good enough. Is it a win for the client?”
Teamwork is essential to the company’s flat organizational structure, which has eliminated most hierarchies. Employees work in teams of about eight to 12 people, all huddled together in pods. Alan Ayers, the company’s vice president of strategy, is one of many company executives who is stationed in a pod with his team.
“We consider everyone in the company to be a leader in their sphere of influence,” says Ayers. “And we make significant investments in training. We have a course called ‘Heart of a Leader’ that we have invested more than $1 million on, so we can send every employee through. That course emphasizes that everyone’s role is leadership. You’re each accountable.”
Employees hold each other and the company accountable in several ways. Teams begin each morning with standup, a discussion of what was accomplished the day before and what needs to be accomplished today.
“You have a list of tasks you have to do,” says Scott Rupke, a lead software engineer. “If something gets in front of it, one of those tasks gets dropped off.”
Transparency is an important component, since the company launched open-book management this year. On Tuesday mornings, the crew assembles in the Town Hall center for a huddle in which financial information is shared.
“We show the past week’s financials and engage the teams in that discussion,” says Ayers. “Team members will come up and report the financials against the budget for the area they control. We encourage, through that transparency, individuals to take control over the areas they can control. By people understanding the financials and their role in the financials, individuals can make decisions for their teams.”
Metrics play an important role, but Stern is also quick to celebrate small successes and identify the stories behind the metrics.
“For example, we recently had a large client on board and they didn’t get us the data we needed, to get them live on the software, until Friday afternoon,” says Stern. “It had to be there by Monday morning and took at least eight hours of cleanup work. So the person who did those eight hours of work, who worked until 4 a.m. on Monday, is the person who announced the revenue numbers that week. She was part of the reason the numbers were so good that week.”
Stern rewards his team in many ways, constantly reinforcing the company culture while doing so. On Wednesdays, employees enjoy a free lunch. One Friday each month, employees stay late for a “TGIF” company party. The recent Spirit Week ended with a chili cook-off and barbecue.
“It’s really a culture where people develop relationships, where they have a sense of belonging and attachment,” says Ayers. “And as a result, because there’s really no other workplace like this, it’s garnered a tremendous sense of loyalty among employees.”
Realizing this unique company culture was no small feat. When Stern reorganized the company into a team structure, not everyone was on board, he says. Some left the company, but once the approach took hold, the company found incredible efficiencies.
“We became so much more efficient that our billing team shrank from 158 people to 138, but the amount of money they collect for clients is up 150 percent,” says Stern. “It’s amazing what happens to efficiencies when everybody’s working together.”
The Creative Process
For now, Practice Velocity isn’t designing new software, but it is enhancing its current products. Through small changes, the company is able to address customer needs and adapt to industry changes.
Before Ayers joined Practice Velocity in 2015, he spent a decade managing urgent care centers around the country. Both he and Stern have served on the board of the Urgent Care Association of America, a trade group that Stern helped to launch. They both maintain dialogue with clients and industry leaders.
“We’re very responsive to our clients’ day-to-day operational needs, and many of our clients rely on us to help them understand where the industry is headed and where their businesses should be headed,” Ayers says.
Whenever a new software feature idea arises, it’s given a litmus test against two objectives: does it get the patient in and out quickly, and does it maximize the efficiency of the doctors?
“You can’t get the patient in and out quickly if the doctor is slowed down by technology,” says Ayers. “If you overstaff on doctors, you can get patients out quickly, but your labor costs will be through the roof. Our clients rely on us to have a system that, when they implement it or we enhance it, will empower them with a best-in-class workflow for urgent care.”
Proposal is the first step in creating a new software feature. From there, the new idea will go through discovery, solution, development and validation.
During the discovery phase, company leaders brainstorm about what features the new tool should employ. Once those ideas are gathered, the product enters solution phase, where prototypes are developed. At this point, only a few developers have been involved.
“The clients get involved in all aspects of the process, but the development department is shielded from clients, because we’re not savvy to the medical industry,” says Rupke. “So, we have what we call product owners who are subject matter experts and they know the medical industry. You have Dr. Stern and Sharon Thomas (a software product owner), who’s a registered nurse, and they help us out with things specific to the medical industry.”
Once the software hits development stage, its creation is divided into specific tasks, which are doled out to teams of developers.
“We start writing what we call stories and tasks, to get the feature going,” explains Rupke. “As we develop it, we probably find some things we’re not able to do, so we go back to the solution phase. It could go all the way back to proposal, depending on the situation.”
Next, the completed product must be tested and validated. A team of quality assurance and embedded testers push the tool to its limits, to make sure it won’t crash the system or break when the client uses it.
Practice Velocity’s developers use a process called Scrum, part of the Agile software development method. This workflow emphasizes teamwork and prioritizes incremental production. Developers complete two-week “sprints” to complete specific tasks. The idea is to break work into short, achievable components of a working product that visibly move the team toward its goal.
“Right now, we’re at the end of our two-week sprint, so we get to show our work to our stakeholders, including Dr. Stern,” says Rupke. “All the developers get together and they demo what they’ve done.”
Practice Velocity is hiring aggressively. This spring, a job fair at the company headquarters drew more than 200 applicants, about 40 of whom were hired. Stern promises jobs are always open for experienced senior and junior software developers.
These positions are fundamental to Practice Velocity’s product, but they’re far from the only role you’ll find. Support jobs include titles like business analyst, quality assurance tester and collections specialist. And, because Practice Velocity hosts its own data, the company has a robust team of 14 IT specialists who maintain servers, train clients and troubleshoot tech issues.
Recruiting skilled developers is often a challenge in Rockford, where information-related jobs make up less than 1 percent of the workforce, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. Practice Velocity typically relies on hired recruiters and employee references to find skilled developers. Unfortunately, attracting them to a smaller market like Rockford has its challenges.
“I think this is a great place to live, but there are a lot of things people want that we don’t have here,” says Stern. “To me, there’s nothing I would want that isn’t here.”
Stern finds he’s starting to attract top executives, from around the country, who were impressed by our region’s numerous recreational activities. Ayers, for example, had been working with a division of Humana in Dallas. Rick Cochran, Practice Velocity’s chief information officer, relocated from Denver.
On the other hand, those already interested in the Rockford area quickly find their way to Practice Velocity.
“We’ve found a significant number of people who are commuting a good distance who can now work nearer to home,” says Stern. “Some people want to come back to Rockford and have good software experience. There aren’t a lot of places for them to go, so we’ll get looked up pretty quickly. The big fish, small pond thing works pretty well for us, but the problem of the small pond doesn’t go away.”
Before the company moved to its current facility, Stern says, he was courted by the state of Wisconsin, even receiving a call from Gov. Scott Walker inviting him to relocate to Beloit. Stern says that, although it may be harder to find skilled employees here, he remains loyal to the Rockford region. In fact, he anticipates employing 300 people in the Machesney Park office by 2018.
Still, he’s supplementing his team with a new office in Madison, which is ramping up with six new jobs for software developers at all levels. Practice Velocity also is adding to its business portfolio with acquisitions of companies in Arizona, Montana, Colorado, Kentucky and elsewhere.
“The biggest company we acquired has grown 100 percent year-over-year in the past year,” says Stern. “We synergized with them beautifully. What they were doing was good and what we were able to do with them was help make them a great company.”
Stern emphasizes the company’s workplace. He’s seen the transformative effect that a positive, reinforcing team culture can have on his employees.
“The best letter I ever got was from a sixth grader who wrote in and said, ‘Thanks so much for hiring my mom. I didn’t used to like her, because she came home unhappy,’” recalls Stern. “The last line of her letter was this: Thanks for giving me my mom back. That made it all worth it. It’s not about how much money you have or how successful your business is. It’s how did you touch the lives around you?”
Inevitably, that positive culture can filter into the greater Rockford region.
“Making investments in our people is an investment in our city as well,” says Ayers. “The question becomes, ‘What if you make investments in these people and they leave?’ Well, it’s cliche, but the answer is, ‘What if we don’t, and they stay?’ By making these investments, if our people do go elsewhere in the community, we’ve still elevated the labor force in our community.”