MeriTalk recently sat down with Dewaine Beard, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary (PDAS) in the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Office of Information and Technology (OIT), to talk all things IT modernization and workforce.
Beard serves as the Deputy Chief Information Officer (DCIO) for OIT under Kurt DelBene, who joined VA in January 2022 as the agency’s Chief Information Officer (CIO) and Assistant Secretary for Information Technology.
As someone who has worked at the VA since 1995, Beard knows a thing or two about meeting the needs of veterans. In the following interview – edited for length – Beard offers insights into VA’s recent hiring efforts, IT modernization efforts, and a look into the future of cutting-edge technology at the agency including the next frontier of iterative AI.
MeriTalk: Can you tell me a little bit about your background and how you got into the tech field?
Beard: Sure. As the PDAS for VA’s OIT, I’m the top career government employee reporting to our politically appointed Assistant Secretary and CIO, Kurt DelBene.
I started working for VA in 1995 as a temporary secretary. I was a graduate student at Loyola University in English literature studying to be a college English professor when I ran out of grant funding for my dissertation. Rather than starve and become homeless, I went to a temp agency where they placed me at the VA for six months, and I never left.
I really fell in love with the mission. In my first permanent position, I taught doctors how to use this newfangled electronic medical record that VA was pioneering. My career progressed from teaching the doctors to working on the team writing the medical record software. From there I started supervising people who wrote that software, and then supervising other supervisors and doing systems operations work, and on and on.
At this point, I’ve been at VA almost 28 years and it has been a great career. In May I will have been the PDAS for a year. And I was acting in the role for three months before that. I came on as the acting PDAS about two weeks before Kurt DelBene came on as the new CIO. Our approach to leadership aligns extraordinarily well and he picked me to be in the role permanently.
MeriTalk: What is the status update on the VA’s recent efforts to hire technology professionals for over 1,000 open positions? Are you still trying to fill a lot of those positions?
Beard: We are still trying to fill. Our efforts continue to be super aggressive. We’re doing lots of job fairs, lots of active recruitment of folks. As you know, the environment for tech continues to be challenging out in industry, as organizations continue to right-size their workforces. AWS just had an article come out about their hiring practices and how they needed to right-size their workforce. We’re making every opportunity to get that talent to choose VA.
I’m super excited about our efforts to hire at the executive level, which is where I really focus my work on staffing. And we are getting some great external talent from industry into our executive ranks. For example, our new Chief Architect comes from industry. And at this point, our executive ranks are pretty much filled. I think we have one vacancy left. So, during the last 15 months, we’ve hired about 12 executives out of a total of 35. So, our team is really coming together. For the wider workforce, again, we’re making measured progress. I certainly wish we could be moving faster. But you know, it’s just always on, always recruiting, always excited to get people interested in working for the VA.
And this leads to the next topic, which is the Special Salary Rate. We really feel strongly that with the implementation of the Special Salary Rate for the 2210 IT specialist series that we anticipate implementing in July under the authorities granted to VA under the PACT Act legislation. Because of this special authority, we will be able to move out in advance of other agencies and pave the way for others. We believe the new salary rate will help accelerate our recruitment efforts. I am excited to be able to offer a more competitive compensation package to folks as we continue to recruit.
MeriTalk: That is exciting. So then once July comes around, do you expect your recruitment efforts to pick up even more so than they are now?
Beard: I think our ability to close the deal will accelerate. Our current work to build relationships with the talent and get them interested in our opportunities continues. We’re not taking a pause there. But, I think our ability to close successfully will improve once we get that Special Salary Rate in place.
MeriTalk: This next question is a little broad, but how can the VA improve its IT modernization efforts? In order to get into a more constant modernization pace – as opposed to a Big Bang modernization, as Kurt DelBene has called it in the past – what does the VA need? Is that more funding, people, etc.?
Beard: I think it’s an exceptional question, because it goes to the heart of what Kurt and I and the other executives have been doing for a while. Even before Kurt joined us, we were involved in transforming from that traditional Big Bang, heavy lift and shift, waterfall kind of development model to an agile or DevSecOps model of development. So, modern tool chains, continuous deployment of product – that has just increased. We actually have measurements in place internally, where we’re measuring the maturity of each of our product teams by how well they are delivering and migrating away from those old methodologies to the new ones. How many are adopting the new tool chains? How quick are their release cycles? What’s their defect for release rate? And that’s really maturing our teams and changing the way we do our work.
We’ve already shifted our funding model a fair bit. If you look at our budget structure, you will see very, very little wedge in there labeled “development”. Most of the budget is tagged as operations and maintenance, and modernization. What we’ve done in working with our partners – both in the OMB (Office of Management and Budget) and the appropriations teams – is to understand and communicate that our O&M (Operations and Maintenance) investments really are continuous modernization.
We no longer can separate development work from modernization because as we continuously iterate and improve a product throughout its lifecycle, there is less and less one big release for most of our product portfolios – especially our digital platforms, our mobile apps, and a lot of our more modern-hosted applications. We still have some legacy products that go through that more deliberate cycle, but that way of working is becoming less and less a part of our portfolio. Now it’s about monitoring, making sure we’re measuring that progress, and that we’re accelerating it and achieving value quicker for veterans, their families, and those that serve them inside VA.
MeriTalk: And when you’re measuring that maturity and measuring that progress, what kind of metrics do you use?
Beard: There’s a maturity model that Dan McCune, our head of SPM (Software Product Management) and Carrie Lee, our acting head of Product Engineering, and Charles Worthington, our Chief Technology Officer, jointly have developed and are using to measure those product development teams to ensure they are using the agile methodology and modern tool chains. Are they actually measuring the releases, the quality of the releases? Do they have product roadmaps?
There are several dimensions of measurement that they’re using. And again, we iterate on those measurements over time, as we assess each proposed measurement to see if it is really an effective measurement or not? So, is it measuring activity or outcome? And we’re really trying to drive the teams not just to measure how fast our feet are moving, but just how much ground we’re covering, and the value we’re delivering.
We’re linking all of those activities to the business value that our customers have. For example, in the claims processing area, is the speed from veteran filing through final delivery of decision and benefits improving? Is the time in queue reducing? Are we getting feedback from VA staff that they have the information at their fingertips to answer calls in the call center faster? Is the feedback on our mobile apps easy for veterans to find and use? We link our metrics to those business outcomes more and more. Again, we’re not just measuring internal IT specific activity, but is that activity actually impacting veterans, their families, and their caregivers and the VA staff delivering those outcomes?
MeriTalk: What is one key lesson or takeaway that you’ve learned thus far in your time at the VA, and also just in your current role?
Beard: It’s hard to pick out one thing, so why don’t I answer it in two ways. One is about the technology. Technology is constantly evolving. We’re getting super excited about the possibilities of generative AI, the large language models, and other opportunities to speed delivery of code from the coding teams or automate more business processes. Also, some really exciting potential innovations coming from other vendor partners that are integrating that functionality into their offerings so that it might actually make the workforce more productive.
It’s that constant evolution of technology over my career that motivates me to never get comfortable, and to always stay curious and open to new ways of solving old problems. That’s just been a lesson to stay fresh, stay open. You know, I’m getting older, and it’s all about staying flexible and really leaning into change as a technologist. It’s super important. So, that relentless or restless curiosity is a really big, big lesson on the technology side.
On the leadership side, I’d say what has just become more and more important to me is that leadership matters. The way we train our leaders, the way we think about leaders, the way we hire, and bring people into our teams really matters. Jim Collins talks a lot in his work “Built to Last” and “From Good to Great” about how important it is to have a team, a set of leaders that are well aligned, committed and passionate to the work, and committed to moving the ball down the field. I think that is something that has been incredibly important to me personally. But then, I’ve seen its impact on organizations, organizational health, and organizational effectiveness. So, I am just super passionate about getting the right leaders in the right places to inspire, drive, and lead the teams. When that goes well, we can achieve amazing things. When it doesn’t go well, that’s just really challenging for everyone. So, very mindful about that, and its importance has just proven itself more and more over time.
MeriTalk: I like the stay open and curious part you mentioned. You had also mentioned generative AI, and that you are excited about the prospects of that. What kind of new technology would you predict, say two or five years down the road, that the VA will be rolling out and implementing?
Beard: The most transformative things that we’ll be doing will involve event-driven interactions with veterans and outreach to veterans. I think many citizens view their relationship with the government as incredibly transactional and very much having to go stand in line at the DMV or have a hassle to interact with the government. And we’re looking to put veterans at the center of everything we do, and make sure that we push useful information – that they opt into – to them, so that they’re always aware of the benefits they’re eligible for, opportunities to interact with us to monitor their health, prescriptions, appointments, all of that, soup to nuts – really as early in their eligibility for benefits as possible.
We’re really modernizing our platforms to enable that kind of continuous contact with Veterans. We think that’s super important to the experience, rather than forcing veterans to come to us and being difficult. That single front door we have in VA.gov and MyVA411, all of these are really important opportunities for us to make that veteran experience better.
And then, the generative AI, the large language models, the ChatGPT kind of work. Charles Worthington and I have been having conversations recently about just how much we want to start experimenting with that in a way that is compliant with government security, and HIPAA compliance and privacy, so that we can actually start to experiment and understand what kind of productivity gains can be released from the integration of those technologies into our environment. We’re very excited about the possibility of that.
I think that will be the next big thing for us in the next two years. It’s still very early days. And as you know from following the technology beat, things are happening day by day, as new companies release new functionality, and it’s figuring out how to bring that into the Federal space safely. The President has a lot of work on AI at the President’s council level, we’re aligned with those. We’re working very hard to be in line with all that work and keep security and safety of America’s data at the center of what we do. But, we are quite excited about the possibilities there.
MeriTalk: Are there any hurdles you face to experiment with those technologies, such as AI?
Beard: The challenge is this: we do not want anyone to enter VA data into a commercial chat window because the data then becomes the property of that commercial vendor. That’s a huge risk, and we don’t ever want anyone to do that. So, it’s figuring out how to stand up something inside the VA environment or inside a government-compliant environment so that we are protecting the data and patient privacy. Integrity, privacy, and safety of veteran data is key, number one, non-negotiable for us. Until we figure that out, we’re not going to be pursuing those, but we are really trying to figure that out. So, that’s the biggest barrier.
MeriTalk: Enough of the tech talk – what do you enjoy doing in real life that has nothing to do with technology?
Beard: The one that I tell people in casual conversations is snowboarding. I really enjoy going snowboarding in the Rocky Mountains, both the Canadian and American Rockies. Going fast on a piece of plywood down a hill is a lot of fun for me. But, when I really reflect on what makes me happy, it’s not something other people might think is fun.
I like to maintain hiking trails in western Pennsylvania. I live in Pittsburgh, and I work for the Rachel Carson Trails Conservancy. I am a trail maintainer for a 140-mile trail that they’re the stewards of, called the Baker Trail. It goes from Pittsburgh to the Allegheny National Forest, through western Pennsylvania. And every year I’m out with power tools and a shovel and paint, making sure that people don’t get lost on this really beautiful trail through Western Pennsylvania. A lot of people would view that as work and I just have a ton of fun doing that.
So, snowboarding for the dinner conversation but those who really know me know I’d much rather be covered in paint and sweaty in the woods. Far away from technology, in places where there’s no cell signal. If I’m not wearing the headset and staring at the screen, I want to be outside!