Customer story – Modernizing for growth with Pacific Dental Services

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Young female dentist smiles at patient

After decades of rapid growth, Pacific Dental Services needed to modernize its infrastructure and operations. As we worked together to understand the company’s IT portfolio and support a hybrid migration to a new data center and the AWS cloud, we also upskilled its IT team and helped inspire a new era of innovation.

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Pacific Dental Services (PDS) started small, with its founder supporting his father’s dental office. Today it’s a billion-dollar company supporting 670 dental practices in 20 states and adding about 80 more each year. By simplifying the administrative aspects of running a dental practice—including computer systems, phone service, payroll management, health records, and insurance processing—PDS frees dentists to focus on their patients.

But with rapid growth, PDS struggled to scale its technology systems. Performance issues and outages escalated. The final straw was a 17-hour outage when the aging data center that housed all the company’s servers lost power. For an entire day, every member practice had to turn patients away because they had no phone service, no email, and no access to patient records.

“That’s when PDS realized that IT isn’t a cost center, it’s a strategic asset, and we need to invest in it,” says Rich Brownlee, the company’s director of infrastructure and operations. Brownlee and CIO David Baker were hired to modernize the organization’s approach to technology.

Committing to the cloud

“PDS needed to become a lot more nimble and a lot more resilient,” says Brownlee. “Our strategy was to embrace cloud technology, so we don’t have all our eggs in one basket and have the ability to deploy and scale quickly.”

That meant moving to Microsoft Office 365, a cloud-based phone system, a cloud-based contact center solution, and—as much as possible—the AWS cloud. But before they could migrate their infrastructure, Brownlee and his team needed to understand exactly what they had, which was no easy task without an application catalog, service catalog, or prioritization system in place. The team also had a knowledge gap, especially after letting go of most of its long-term contractors, who were, in Brownlee’s words, “operating on their own agendas.”

“I talked to vendors who promised a turnkey migration, but I didn’t want to be dependent. I wanted to build expertise on my team. Education was huge for me, and Slalom offered us that.”
Richard Brownlee, director of infrastructure and operations,
Pacific Dental Services

“They didn’t want a hero-level migration,” says Badar Qureshi, Slalom solution principal. “They wanted an upskilled team. Make sure you’re teaching our people to migrate and manage and operate in the cloud. That was the key ask.”

Inspired to grow

Johnathan “JT” Tran was a level-one systems administrator at PDS when Brownlee joined. His experience reflects the reality of a team that was stuck in reactive mode and lacked opportunities to make meaningful contributions to the business. “I was just doing mundane work day to day,” he recalls. “I had started interviewing for another job. Luckily, Rich came along and gave us a new direction.”

Tran was an “absolute newbie” to AWS, but he jumped at the chance to learn. He and the rest of the PDS team attended dozens of training workshops and hands-on labs with Slalom experts. They also paired up to work side by side with functional counterparts from Slalom throughout the process of defining requirements, building the AWS foundation, and migrating the portfolio.

“They would watch us do something and the next time, they’d do it and we’d watch them,” explains Qureshi. “Over time, the bulk of our team rolled off, and they were doing most of it themselves.”

“It opened my eyes to a new adventure, a new career journey. Every day I’m learning new things."
Johnathan Tran, systems administrator II,
Pacific Dental Services

Tran now has three AWS solution certifications and plans to get at least two more. “JT just attacked AWS knowledge bases and certifications,” says Brownlee. “He was promoted not one but two levels. He continues to take ownership and really help us design where we’re going.”

And he’s not alone. Half a dozen other members of the PDS team are now AWS-certified, and the overall mood has shifted dramatically. “Engagement is really good,” says Brownlee. “People like coming to work because we do cool stuff now. We’re attracting and retaining great talent.”

Clarity and security

As Slalom and PDS sorted through the application portfolio together, we made many decisions that set the company up for a successful migration. This process was accelerated by Slalom’s experience with both Windows and the healthcare industry.

“We’re about 98% Windows with around 80 SQL databases,” explains Brownlee. “We never had to explain anything to the Slalom folks. They were awesome at understanding our environment quickly and making recommendations on what was best for us to change for efficiency, cost, and availability.”

PDS also had numerous applications that contain sensitive patient data and need to be HIPAA-compliant. “Slalom was a big part of helping us understand what all our applications were doing, which ones needed to access patient data, and how to operate securely in the cloud, delivering the right access to our doctors and clinicians, as well as external patients,” says Brownlee.

“We used the NIST cybersecurity framework to make sure the AWS foundation is secure,” says Qureshi. “Patient data is encrypted at rest and in transit. If anybody tries to compromise their security, the PDS team will immediately get an alert.”

Looking ahead

In the end, about 20% of PDS’s applications and servers migrated to the AWS cloud. The rest moved to a tier-four data center, with the majority of those scheduled for retirement in a year or two.

“They threw a party and invited us,” says Qureshi. “It was a really nice celebration. They’re truly a cloud team now, continuing on their optimization journey.”

“We’re out of firefighting mode,” says Brownlee. “We’re looking two or three years ahead and designing for that. Our jobs are a lot more strategic, and it feels great.”

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