Tell us about your job.
My official title is Computer Specialist. I’ve been the lead developer on a team of one for over thirty years. I created and maintain a computer system called VACOLS, the Veterans Appeals Control and Locator System, which manages the appeals process for the US Department of Veterans Affairs.
That’s an interesting title, “computer specialist.” Why is that your title as opposed to “software engineer”?
When I first got started that was what we were: specialists. We did everything from hardware to running cables to configuring and maintaining switches and routers. We maintain our own Exchange servers, which are Microsoft systems used for email and calendaring. So when I started at the VA, I was involved with all of that. Then, in 1986 or 1987, I started developing VACOLS as a side project. Eventually, more and more people started using the application, and it became more and more my primary task.
I don’t know if the government has “software engineers,” I imagine they do. But “specialist” was my official title thirty years ago, and that’s what it still is today.
You started out as a contract worker at the VA. What was that like?
I was on a full-time contract at the time with the State Department’s diplomatic security unit, and they were ten blocks away from the VA. At lunchtime, I’d run over to the VA, do my VACOLS stuff, and then head back to my regular job after that.
The VA had me working in the computer room, which was about sixty-two degrees. Remember, this was pre-PC so we had what were called dumb terminals: a keyboard and screen all attached directly to the server with a coax cable. No processor or anything. At the VA, the coax cable ran back to these Wang minicomputers. I was a team of one back then, too, so it was just me in there.
There was a lot of learning to do. It’s fairly complicated, that whole appeals process. A lot of different legal regulations, things you have to follow. So it was a bit of a challenge in figuring out everything that goes on there.
Can you tell us what an appeal is and why someone might go through the appeal process?
The majority of appeals are for benefits. Let’s say there’s a vet who returns from service and he has a knee condition that’s rated as 30 percent disability. As time goes on, he might get worse, and he can appeal his original decision and say, hey this is a lot worse. I’d like to get 50 percent, or 100 percent, or whatever. So those are called increased rating appeals, which is probably 50 percent of what we do.
The other appeals are for service-connected compensation. Someone says, “I have PTSD resulting from my service.” He goes to his local office, puts in a PTSD claim, and it gets denied. He can say, “I want to appeal my original grading decision and appeal to the Board of Veterans’ Appeals.” At that point, he can have a hearing before a judge at the Board, and the Board will issue a second decision either affirming the original or overturning and granting his request for benefits or to increase his rating. Basically, it’s an appellate court.
I don’t think that I had fully understood that appeals in this context could be a case of a disability worsening over time.
At any point he can appeal his initial rating up to 100 percent disability if that’s warranted. But the appeal also involves presenting new evidence, new exams and everything. A judge reviews all the new evidence and has a hearing face-to-face or via video with the appellate and then writes a decision.
So a veteran continues interacting with this system over the course of their life?
Not every decision that the VA makes is appealed. Only about 10 percent of the original decisions made by the local offices get appealed to the Board. In 90 percent of the cases, the veteran is either satisfied with the decision or decides not to pursue the claim further.
How many appeals does the current system process per year?
Last year, they decided about 90,000 legacy appeals. When the Board was 400 people, they’d do about 30,000 a year. Now that they’re 1,200 people, they can process about 90,000 a year.
What is the increase from?
More people, more judges, more attorneys. Over the last twenty years, the board has tripled in size. The more people they have drafting decisions, the more judges they have holding hearings, the more cases they can get out the door. Basically just increased manpower.
And how does the system that you built fit into the appeals process?
It tracks all the elements of the appeal. If a veteran was in an accident, he could’ve injured his knee, his elbows, his head—so there could be different issues on appeal. He could be rated 30 percent for an elbow injury, 10 percent for a knee injury, 30 percent for the head injury. Typically, each appeal has an average of three issues. VACOLS keeps track of all the issues he’s appealing, keeps track of all the forms he has to submit during the process.
Like for the first step, he’s going to file a notice of disagreement to indicate that he disagreed with the VA’s original decision. And then there’s four or five other forms to fill out during the process, depending on how far it progresses. And all those forms are kept in the database.
Then, if he requests a hearing, it keeps track of that request and the dates, as well as any mail or evidence we get in correspondence that they sent to the VA. That gets loaded into VACOLS and tracked.
The appeal will start out at the regional office (RO) and it’ll go to the decision review officer, then it might go to the appellant’s rep at the Veterans of Foreign Wars, American Legion, whoever his rep is. The same information will go to an attorney and a judge, so there might be ten or fifteen people touching the appeal at any given point. VACOLS keeps track.
What was the process before they decided to build a technology system to handle it?
Paper. Up until about five years ago, all the claims files with all their service records and military records and everything were in these big twenty-four-inch-thick folders.
For the first twenty-five years of VACOLS, one of the main things it tracked was exactly where these big claims folders were—who physically had them in their possession. Was it with a judge, was it with an attorney, was it out in the regional office, was it with a veteran service organization? We used barcode technology to track all the claims folders. We had thousands of these moving through the building.
So that was the main purpose of VACOLS to begin with: let’s track where these folders are and who has them and the outcome of the appeal. Since then, we’ve added on module after module to schedule hearings, hold virtual hearings, and do all sorts of other things that are part of the appeals process.
Originally, the system kept track of a physical folder. Now, it’s keeping track of virtually who has the claim and what the status is and what part of the process it’s in.
That sounds complicated.
Yeah, and I’ve only touched on a few of the areas. There’s a lot of information it keeps track of.
What originally led you to computers?
I graduated from Penn State back in the ’70s. I got a business degree coming out of school. I didn’t really take any IT classes. There wasn’t really any offered back in the ’70s. I got my first job with a contractor here in the DC area and the guy that hired me worked for a small business and he was looking for programmers, but he really wanted non-technical people. He hired about a dozen people, with different backgrounds, and then he taught us how to program. My first programming job was working on COBOL applications for large naval contracts.
Did you have any experience with computers before you landed that job?
Not really. I took one computer course in college and we had to write our programs on punch cards, go to the computer lab at night, and wait in line for two hours to submit the big deck of punch cards. Then it would compile that as your program, and you’d find out that you missed a comma, so you’d have to go correct that and stand in line again for two hours. That was my initial exposure to programming: writing COBOL programs on punch cards.
Do you remember how you felt about it at the time?
I felt like it was not a field I wanted to get into.
So what led you to take that first job?
School loans, rent, all the usual things. I’d had a lot of blue-collar jobs, worked in factories, and I knew I didn’t wanna go back to small-town Pennsylvania working the factories again. So it wasn’t as much a matter of falling in love with programming; it was a matter of avoiding the alternatives. The job market was tight back in the early 80s, so if you got an offer coming out of school, you jumped on it.
At that time, did you imagine that you would do different things with your career afterwards?
Yeah, but I showed an aptitude. I was pretty good at programming, and after a few years I realized it was a growing market, so it looked like a good field to get into.
There still weren’t PCs and all that at that point, but if you had strong COBOL skills back in the 70s, early 80s, there were a lot of job opportunities. So I bounced around on a number of different contracts. One of them happened to be with the VA.
How did that first contract at the VA end up turning into your career?
After I developed VACOLS, I maintained it part-time for about five years. Then, in the early 90s, they wanted to migrate the system off their old Wang computers and onto PCs and a relational database. That’s when they asked me if I wanted to come on board and take on the project. I did that migration, and then we started developing with a rapid application development tool called PowerBuilder, which was big back in the early 90s. And that’s been the formula for the last twenty-five years. We’ve used Oracle as a database and PowerBuilder as the window into that database, to create a client-server solution.
Have you ever thought about leaving for another job or another opportunity?
Yeah, I’ve thought about it. But I feel a responsibility. I’ve always been loyal. I’ve always believed strongly in the VA’s mission. My dad was a veteran. I have uncles that are veterans. And my dad, he’s in his eighties, and still goes to the VA every month. He loves the VA. You only hear the bad stories, but there are lots of people out there like my dad. They love the care and the attention. He goes there and they give him stuff he never even asks for. He raves about the care he gets at the VA. I’ve always felt a loyalty and a strong commitment to the mission of the VA. So, yeah, I’ve thought about other jobs, but the VA treats you well.
Go It Alone
When you were first starting to build out the system, were there other good technical models you looked to, or were you just creating this thing from scratch?
No, I was winging it. I picked up PowerBuilder off the shelf and learned it on my own. It was a great tool back in the 90s, although it’s since lost market share. Sybase eventually purchased it, and I think SAP owns it now. There’s a few people still using it. At the time, it was really easy to pick up and learn.
I was working directly with the end-user base to get all the user requirements and everything—the attorneys and the judges and the admin people that held hearings and docketed the appeals cases.
We did an Agile-type development back then before Agile was the big thing. We would just go in and get the requirements and knock them out. We’d try to put something in production in a couple weeks like they do today, move on, and then add onto it a couple of weeks later.
It was a good place to work in that regard because you’re working without any constraints. Being a development team of one and working directly with the end users and being there in the same office—you could really get a lot done fast.
That’s interesting to hear, because we’ve talked with a lot of government folks who are trying to move away from Waterfall towards Agile.
Yeah, we were ahead of our time, but it worked out.
Were you still working on things other than VACOLS?
I not only did the programming, but we did all the Windows upgrades, as well as the wiring and cabling. I’d do programming on a Friday, the come in Saturday and run cables through the ceiling. You had to do everything back then.
Every shop—the Veterans Benefits Association, Veterans Health Administration, the Board of Veterans’ Affairs—all had their own IT guys, and as an IT guy you did pretty much what you wanted in terms of technology. Like, the Board was running Windows NT, while all the other organizations within the VA chose to go Windows 95, Windows 98. So even the version of Windows used within the VA was not standardized at the time. We had a lot of freedom as far as what type of servers we wanted to use.
Today, everything’s more consolidated and organized and everybody’s on the same platforms. But back then, it was the Wild West. You did what you wanted, and as long as it worked, nobody complained.
What were your responsibilities to that system? If it were to go down, were you on call?
Yeah, I’ve always been the primary point of contact if we ever have server issues or database issues.
Has that been difficult at all?
Not as long as you keep your cell phone on-hand. I always take short break vacations—don’t want to be away too long.
What about before you had a cell phone?
They had my home number back then. There is always a way to find me if they need me. We had pagers back in the 80s. I think I still have one in a drawer here somewhere.
Was it daunting to be working on that system alone for decades? It sounds like a lot to handle.
Yeah. It started out being a system just for the Board of Veterans’ Appeals, which was 400 people at the time, and now it’s grown to over 17,000 users as we pushed it out—VBA, VHA, and all these other organizations. As we developed more applications and interfaces for more kinds of users, it became more and more my baby. It became a full-time job—I painted myself into a corner.
Who are those users? Who do they work for? You said a couple of government agencies, but I’m curious what all those acronyms mean.
All the appeals start at the VBA, Veterans Benefits Administration, and then they may move to the Board, but not necessarily. About 14,000 of VACOLS users work for VBA. The appellant could decide to withdraw before the board sees it or the VBA can decide, hey, we made a mistake when we originally denied this, and they can grant benefits before it gets to the board. So a lot of things go on before an appeal ever gets to the Board. The majority of VA people using VACOLS are VBA.
Then we have the Board, which is about 1,200 people now. It’s more or less tripled in size. I also got about a thousand veterans service reps—American Legion, VFW, Disabled American Vets, Paralyzed Veterans of America—about thirty, forty different organizations that we call service organizations that have access to VACOLS. And then VHA is the fourth group. We don’t get a lot of medical appeals; there’s probably 500 or so VHA users. If you combine the VBA, BVA, VHA, and the veterans service orgs then you come up with roughly 17,000 users.
When you were working on VACOLS, was there ever a point when you said, “I actually need more people on this”?
Not really. It was client-server, so deployment was easy. It’s not like a lot of web applications today where you need a lot of people to maintain them. If it worked, it worked; you threw it out on the server and everybody accessed it from the same point. And, knock on wood, we haven’t had much downtime. We’ve been using Oracle databases for thirty years and they never go down. The hardest thing was that, a couple years ago, they decided that all VA applications had to have two-factor authentication. We learned that 17,000 users hadn’t been logging in correctly and wouldn’t be able to get into their own accounts, so I had to quickly create a new authentication database for those 17,000 users. Other than that, things went pretty smoothly the last few years.
Do you think of yourself as a craftsperson?
Yeah, I guess. It’s nice to sit back and look at what you’ve created. Right now, VACOLS is a suite of twenty different applications. There’s one for scheduling hearings, HR has their own application, quality review has an application, the intake team has their own application. The dispatch team has an application. They’re separate versions, VACOLS for the VSOs [Veterans Service Organizations], those service reps, and for the regional offices. So it’s a lot like the VA’s Caseflow software, how they’re developing different modules, sort of copying what we did. Just like there’s a VACOLS dispatch program, there’s a Caseflow dispatch program. Once they get all their apps finished, I’m looking at retirement here soon.
The Last Appeals
We recently went through a project where we were doing research on how people get Supplemental Security Income and disability insurance. Getting evidence for a claim in those cases is often an insurmountable obstacle for people. The appeals process that VACOLS handles seems even more complicated than those.
That’s why they came up with this new Appeals Modernization Act, where they’re revamping the whole appeal process to make it a lot simpler and faster. The problem with the old appeals system was that it was an open-ended process. At any point in the process, the guy could submit new evidence, new exams, so things were constantly changing. If he filed a claim two years ago, the records could be stale by the time it reached the judge. He might have to go out and get new exams. The new process is a lot tighter. You submit all the evidence up front and then you’re locked in. They try to review in a more timely manner, within six months or so, so you don’t have all these issues with stale records. They’ve streamlined it.
Has that changed over time? Now that you’re working with the United States Digital Service, I’m curious how that has changed your development process.
No, it’s still basically the same thing. There are less requirements now that VACOLS is getting ready to be sunset, but there are some new things they’re doing. Within the last couple of months, they’ve introduced virtual hearings where the veteran can have a hearing with a judge from his home, just like we’re doing here with a Skype or a Zoom meeting. We have to start tracking those for the legacy appeals. I’ll have to make some modifications just to indicate that these are virtual hearings, as opposed to face-to-face or video hearings held in the office. So there’s still a few new requirements that I have to put into VACOLS. Most of the new development is in the Caseflow system. I used to work closely with those guys, showing them all the requirements and what VACOLS did, and what they’d have to account for.
What was the most surprising thing about working on that project with them?
How young they all were. They were all younger than my kids, so that took some getting used to it. But they were all great to work with, really sharp. They came in and got things done quickly. I mean, that whole digital service thing was thrown together by Obama in his last year. The VA was one of the first organizational digital services and so far it’s worked out pretty good.
When the discussion started on your end to start replacing that system, did you indicate you wanted to retire and they were like, wait, we’ve got to replace this thing—or how did that conversation come about?
It wasn’t so much replacing VACOLS as replacing the appeals process with the Appeals Modernization Act to make it faster and simpler. They were gonna have to develop a new system for that anyway, so it just made sense. VACOLS had run its course. There’s going to be legacy appeals for another couple of years, but VACOLS can be sunset after that.
How does that feel for you?
Sounds good to me! Sounds good to my wife. She’s got a lot of places she wants to go. Get to do a little traveling, do things that you put off all these years. So long as none of the kids move back home, we’ll be fine.
That’s exciting! What is the timeline for that?
Maybe two years. The legacy appeals, there’s probably 200,000 left. And they do about 100,000 a year. They could get through most of them in the next couple of years.
One of the reasons that we’re doing this series now is because COBOL has been in the news lately with New Jersey making a call for COBOL programmers to help with their unemployment systems struggling under the load of applicants impacted by COVID-19. I think a lot of folks are realizing for the first time that COBOL systems are still a part of government technology. I was curious if you’ve heard of this happening, and what your thoughts are about that and the criticisms of these legacy mainframe systems?
I’m surprised they’re still out there. I haven’t been following the news that closely, but I wasn’t aware that New Jersey was having an issue with them. I mean, there are tons of legacy systems within VA. They have their own programming system, VistA, and they have something like 180 different VistA applications that are used in the VA hospitals and medical centers. So the Board is just a minute little part of the VA. There are a lot of legacy programmers at the VA that work on these VistA systems that have been there longer than I have, and they’ve got the same situation where they’ve now painted themselves into a corner. They’re the expert on the system and probably the only person who knows how to maintain them. Nobody’s coming into the job market these days saying, “I want to be a VistA programmer or a COBOL programmer or a PowerBuilder programmer.” But somebody has to do it.
I know the VA still has what they call stovepipe systems, which are basically standalone systems that don’t interface with anything else. That was VACOLS for a while, although now we’ve integrated with Caseflow and other systems. But I’m sure there’s still a lot of these old stovepipe systems out there. They’re probably running in some background that nobody’s even aware of.