Why I Support Vets

Photo Credit: U.S. Dept of Veteran Affairs
Photo Credit: U.S. Dept of Veteran Affairs

Bottom line: if someone volunteers to risk taking a bullet to protect me, I should stand up and help out.

This might date back to my mid-teens, towards the end of the Vietnam war. I saw returning vets getting treated without respect. At that time, I knew that was wrong, but couldn’t articulate it.

Maybe seven years ago, I was at a lunch, sitting next to a guy from the Iraq & Afghanistan Vets of America, IAVA.org. Finally, it clicked in, that this was the right way to support regular people who gave up a lot to protect us, and that includes their families.

Now, I’m on the board of IAVA, and am involved with a lot of vets and military families groups, and the Department of Veterans Affairs (I’m their official nerd-in-residence).

What are some reasons you support vets and military families?

“Saving the World” DIY Style

People ask me how I go about figuring out what causes I really believe in and what’s the most effective way to support those efforts. You can find a list of what I support specifically here. My general philosophy is to do some real good in the short run, while learning how to scale that up in the long run – to the entire planet in maybe twenty years. I’m also very committed to helping people from the bottom up, to give people a break that rarely get one, and to help give a voice to the voiceless.

When it comes to business success and money, know when enough is enough, which translates to a business model of doing well by doing good. I guess I’ve been real successful at that, and I’ve been told by a lot of startup people that this approach has influenced them.

So, in the short run, I’ve been doing what I can to help US veterans and military families, figuring that if someone will risk a bullet protecting me, I need to give back. Recently, people helped me understand that the family of an active service member serves the country while that service member is deployed, particularly in a war zone.

I’ve chosen groups to support, in government and in the nonprofit world, guided by considerations including:

  • Do they impact something I believe in?
  • Are they good at it?
  • Can I help them via serious social media consulting and engagement?
  • Can I learn from the experience how to use social media on a very large scale?
  • Just in case, does the nonprofit tell a really slick, heart-wrenching story? Have they been seriously vetted? (If not, substantial chance it’s a scam.)

So, the themes here have to do with “social impact,” probably mediated by social media, while watching out for compelling scams. (Sorry, but this is currently a huge problem in the nonprofit world.) For that reason, I engage with Charity Navigator,GuideStar, and GreatNonProfits.org. In particular, Charity Nav is making real progress measuring social impact, which is about how good an org is at serving its clients. Social media provides the tools that effective people use to work together to get stuff done. We’re talking not only Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, etc, but also tools like spreadsheets used to rank “employee innovation” efforts.

Human history suggests that change begins from the networks of individuals who work together through the social media of their times, from Caesar and Cicero, to St Paul and Martin Luther, and John Locke and Tom Paine. Consider the UK Glorious Revolution which resulted in modern representative democracy, which I frequently call the Twitter Revolution of 1688. (A great history of pre-Internet social media isThe Writing on the Wall, by Tom Standage, who reminds us that “history retweets itself.”) That history tells us that social media provides a set of tools which can effect real change. That history is one of democratization; the costs of those tools restricted them to the wealthy at first, but now the cost of entry is close to zero.

In the short term, my focus is normally on small orgs, since they can be more effective. However, I’m now working with a huge org, the Department of Veterans Affairs, around 360,000 people, and from that, I’m learning how to run large organizations – and large governments – effectively.

For the long term, I’m supporting efforts in the here and now that are fundamental to universal fairness; the intent is to give everyone a break, to treat everyone how you’d like to be treated.

One such effort involves figuring out how to get news that I can trust. I’m a news consumer, but for the past decade I’ve been getting training in media ethics and trust issues, as well as being shown how the news sausage is made. (It ain’t pretty, particularly with all the disinfo being flung around.) The theme is that “the press is the immune system of democracy” and that a good ethical framework might lead some part of the press back to trustworthy behavior.

Another effort involves voting rights in the US. While the Declaration of Independence reminds us that we’re all equal under the law, bad actors in politics can only survive if they stop certain groups of people from voting, and that ain’t right.

It might occur to you that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice,” and that is another articulation of what my stuff’s all about. You’d be right.

Photo: creative commons licensed (BY) flickr photo by USDAgov

Just a few more days to help out America’s heroes

Hey, there are just a few days left in Veterans Charity Challenge 2 and we’re raising money to help out folks who are risking their lives for us, and their families. We need your help. I figure, the least we can do is give back. These charities do some really innovative work to support vets, and other American heroes.

If you want to help these orgs out that’re supporting veterans, police officers, military families, and firefighters, now’s your chance to give to the nonprofit of your choice. Over $225,700 has already been raised for causes that are the real deal, but with the important work they’re doing, they can use as much help as we’re able to give.

so far

Folks, a few reasons you should support this Challenge:

  • All money raised goes directly to organizations supporting veterans, military families, police, and firefighters.
  • The participating nonprofits are doing good work, for example:
    • Some orgs are helping to take care of military member’s pets,
    • Others provide educational and employment services to vets who face economic hardship,
    • A few are raising the money to provide scholarships to kids of milfams,
    • Others train service dogs for returning veterans,
    • Some of the money raised will go toward providing mentors to women vets looking for jobs,
    • And a few orgs are providing books overseas. There’s so many more causes you can give to over on CrowdRise, too.
  • With your support, these organizations will have the opportunity to win the prize money awarded to first ($20k), second ($10k), and third place ($5k). But, hey, please remember that even if the org you support doesn’t end up coming in 1st, 2nd, or 3rd place, they’ll still keep all the money they raise.

Email CrowdRise with all questions and they’ll be ready with great customer service.

A Transitioning Veteran’s Biggest Challenge

DMG PhotoWhile transitioning out of the military, the greatest challenge I faced is one that many Veteran organizations don’t attempt to solve. I wasn’t wounded and I don’t suffer from psychological burdens with PTSD that keep me from chasing success, as these challenges far surpass the ones I’ve experienced.

What I’m referring to, something that I believe applies to all Veterans, was my lack of understanding about the differences between military and civilian career progression. 

Military job fairs, translating Military Occupational Specialties (MOS) to civilian skills on resumes, interview training, and other mechanisms for helping Veterans transition are valuable services that combat challenges during transition.

However, while in the military I followed a rigid career path as I was promoted to higher rank. Roughly every few years, the group responsible for career progression in my unit gave me limited options to choose from for my next military job. There were many mentors available to me who had followed a similar path to make it easier for me to make an informed decision.

If I worked hard at obtaining a specific job that was on my list of options, I could increase my likelihood of getting it.  Yet, if I did no extra work to get my next military job, the military would still give me one.

I found a very different scenario in civilian life. I was fundamentally unaware of the tactical actions I had to take to succeed, which proved overwhelming and frustrating after my career in the military. I was lucky to overcome this and find what I love to do, but am concerned that many of my fellow Veterans are not so lucky.

While leaving active duty, I often heard ex-military folks suggesting a common set of options for my post-military life: government agencies, defense contractors, medical device sales, getting that next level academic degree. I’m sure many Veterans hear the same advice, and treat those options as if they are the only ones available, falling into old habits from how they found their previous jobs in the military.

mil jobfair

But those options didn’t fit my ambitions. I realized that my true list of options was limitless, yet I didn’t have that person assigned to me to ensure I ended up in a position that suited my skills; nobody standing by to mentor me as I made a decision that would impact my family and me for the rest of our lives.

I found two key skills most valuable to help overcome this transitional challenge:

1) Networking to find mentors – Because no one was assigned to give me a job, I learned that networking was key for civilian employment. Finding a “wingman” to go with me to networking events (where I felt awkward and uncomfortable otherwise) to introduce me to his/her network was enormously helpful.

Organizations that help connect you to like-minded folks in specific civilian industries, such as Vets In Tech and Get Skills To Work, are great places to start searching for these live events and mentors.

Online social networking tools allowed me to research people who had the job I thought I wanted, and I was able to use those tools to get to more of those people than I ever expected. RockTech’s platform (tailored with content for Veterans in partnership with General Electric) can help Veterans looking to get more from LinkedIn.

The marriage of online and offline tools was overwhelmingly useful.

2) Selling my plan to my new mentors while seeking candid feedback – You never really have to sell anything in the military, especially not yourself.  You have to earn badges and ribbons, make rank, and score well on evaluations, but you rarely have to verbally sell yourself as you do in civilian life to get your next role. This concept is inconsistent with the humble professionals we are taught to be while in uniform.

Additionally, when you present your battle plan, the military teaches you to deliver it with confidence and a command presence that leaves no question in your conviction for executing that plan.

You can’t tell your troops to take a hill and then say “… er, um, unless you guys have a better idea?” Because many veterans join the service early in life, often while still teenagers, we often don’t know where to start crafting our civilian battle plan and just aren’t qualified to speak with such confidence.

We need to make a plan and ask for candid feedback from mentors who have experience to help confirm or deny whether our plan makes sense. An extra challenge here is that many civilians handle Veterans “gently”, out of respect for their service, often being too nice to provide candid feedback.

If you fall into this category as a mentor to a Veteran, realize that this Service member has likely weathered much worse than a verbal disagreement. You’re doing them a disservice if you don’t provide constructive criticism to help them shape their career.

If you know of resources for Veterans to use in their transition for these or other skills, please share them in the comment section.

5 veterans who are taking the startup world by storm

Folks, my team and I have been highlighting a lot of important startups and vets recently, and we thought it’d be a good idea to merge the two. We reached out to the community on Facebook and Twitter, and compiled a list of 5 veteran-founded startups who really have their boots on the ground.

Vets are effective entrepreneurs, and many of the skills veterans have overlap with those needed to found a startup. As this article says, “Tech startups to veterans: We love you, we want some more of ya.”

8516024027_66b2f36421_z

5 Veterans Who Are Taking the Startup World by Storm (in no particular order):

  1. Kristina Carmen, Founder of TurboPup.
    (TurboPup isn’t on Twitter, but you can find them on Facebook.)
    TurboPup was founded to create a sustainable and socially conscious business, and give back to causes in support of our four legged best friends and our country’s heroes: Veterans.
  2. Jacob Wood & William McNulty, Co-founders of Team Rubicon.

    Team Rubicon is a group of military veterans and medical professionals irrevocably committed to changing veteran reintegration and disaster response.
  3. Blake Hall and Matt Thompson, Co-founders of ID.me.

    ID.me is a secure digital ID card that allows individuals to prove their identity online. Using ID.me, online shoppers can attach attributes of their identity, such as military service or student status, to a Single Sign On so they can quickly verify to any third party that they are who they say they are. The site offers exclusive benefits and discounts for military folks and vets all in one place. ID.me was founded by 2 Army Rangers who made a long-term commitment to the military and veteran community. 
  4. Chris Hulls and Alex Haro, Co-founders of Life360.

    Life360 is a free smartphone app that helps keep families and close friends connected stay in sync throughout their busy day. With Life360, you can see where your family and friends are on a private map, stay in touch with group and one-on-one messaging, and get help in an emergency.
  5. Dawn Halfaker, Founder of Halfaker and Associates, and President of Wounded Warrior Project.
    // Halfaker and Associates 
    provides professional services and technology solutions to the federal government. According to HuffPo, this “allows Halfaker to fight on two fronts: She helps equip on-the-ground troops to fight missions and helps U.S. veterans fight unemployment.”

If you’re able, please support and follow these vets and their startups. And, I’d love to hear what veterans should make version 2.0 of this list. Please leave comments below.

Hey, this isn’t altruism, it just feels right.

5 More Ways VA is Helping Out Vets

The Department of Veteran Affairs doesn’t get the recognition they deserve. They’re really working hard to help vets. As the official VA Nerd-in-Residence, I’d like to begin 2014 by reminding folks of a few of the VA’s efforts.

  1. The VA is doing more and more to give homeless vets a hand. The move is part of the larger government-wide effort to end veterans homelessness in the next two years, and comes at a time when most federal programs are tightening their belts in an effort to deal with sharp reductions in funding. More on the homelessness efforts here and on the VA site here.

    ending va homelessness
    Photo Credit: U.S. Dept of Veteran Affairs
  2. For disability compensation, they’ve deployed something like TurboTax for veterans. It appears to be decently user-friendly, adjusted for the way that vets and veteran service orgs (VSOs) really operate. The software also accounts for all the laws and regulations, the rules that VA has gotta follow to write checks.A vet would start up eBenefits, online, click on “Apply for Disability Compensation” and go. It’s mostly drop-down menus, and many data fields get filled in automatically. It’s way easier and faster than paper forms. (More about self-service for disability claims processing here… and here.)
  3. The VBA workers are doing a whole lot for vets. Most of the workers are on the VA medical side, but there’s also a group that processes benefits payments for vets. That’s the Veterans Benefits Administration–VBA–and they work on over a million disability claims from vets each year. They deserve a lot more thanks than they’re getting.
  4. VBMS development involved a lot of waterfall stuff, but much more recently, VA people are actually directly listening to people on that and acting on that. If vets, VSOs, or VA workers find a problem or have a suggestion, they contact contact actual humans to get stuff done. (A little more on my big idea for 2014 and how to fix Washington’s approach to tech…)
  5. They’ve been working hard to get the paper claims inventory converted to digits and put into VBMS, which involves scanning huge amounts of paper into the system. That’s about 80% done. (You can view before and after photos here.)nerd-4

The Department of Veterans Affairs is doing some really good stuff for vets that no one hears about, catching up since 2009. I’ve helped, in a very minor way for several years, now I gotta do more, for VA, military families, and vets.

What do you appreciate about the VA? And what are you hoping they’ll begin to work on in 2014?

A nerd’s gotta do what a nerd’s gotta do.

Extra thanks for VBA workers from your nerd-in-residence

W-S files

(the Winston-Salem VARO before and after pictures, showing VBMS kicking in for real…)

W-S clean

The Dept of Veterans Affairs does a lot of different things for vets. Most of the workers are on the VA medical side, but there’s also a group that processes benefits payments for vets. That’s the Veterans Benefits Administration–VBA–and they work on over a million claims from vets each year. They work hard but get a lot of crap. So this is for them…

Okay, folks, I’ve seen you get the job done, with lots of extra hours, that’s appreciated!

Next steps involve lots more use of VMBS to get stuff done, those photos illustrates that around 75% of the claims inventory has gotten online. It also means getting VSOs involved, which also means connecting outside software like VetPro connected to VBMS via Digits to Digits, D2D.

This is in my role as “nerd-in-residence” at the VA Center for Innovation. (That’s my designated term, I know who I am, and have a sense of humor.) (For Washington, I’m funny; granted that’s a low bar.) (The wife reminds me that I’m not as funny as I think I am.)

Bearing witness: Shinseki does right for vets

Sometimes people in Washington do a really good job, but take a lot of crap unfairly. Sometimes it takes a “nerd-in-residence” to start to set the record straight. This is the short version; every topic below deserves longer treatment.

In 2009, Eric Shinseki took over the Department of Veterans Affairs, with the mission of doing right for vets. Back then: VA didn’t have the right software to process disability claims efficiently. Vets with Vietnam era-Agent Orange illnesses had a hard time getting claims judged properly. Some Vets and Vet Service Orgs (VSOs) felt they faced an adversarial attitude. VA line workers got a lot of unfair abuse. (Note to self: as a customer service rep, I get a lot of that also, almost every day, so I can identify.)

More and more Vietnam vets file disability claims, to get the benefits they deserve. However, it was really hard to get properly compensated for Agent Orange herbicide-related issues. Long story, but the bottom line is that Shinseki designated several Agent Orange-related diseases as “presumptive” conditions, and allowed claims to be made on that basis and approved fast.

However, that inflated the disability claims backlog, not only the current “inventory” of claims but also the “backlog.” For that matter, in the effort to do right by vets, Shinseki insisted on faster processing overall, and imposed stricter standards on quality and what counted as backlog. That made the existing backlog jump in a huge way, creating major perception problems for Veterans Affairs, which have been widely reported.

So the good news, not so much reported, but the bad news got a lot of attention. By doing right by vets, the VA looked bad. For whatever reason, the press has largely neglected good work, and emphasized bad news. (A while back I wrote a thank you note for VBA workers.)

Here’s the history of the claims backlog (courtesy of Brandon Friedman),

USE!!!

Most of the current backlog reduction is attributed to efforts like a lot of dedication and overtime on the part of VA line workers. (Thanks!) However, what VA has needed for a long time, at least since 2003, is an online system to expedite claims processing.

In 2009, Shinseki brought in Peter Levin as VA *Chief Technology Officer and others to make that happens.

Cutting to the chase, they started building the Vets Benefits Management System (VBMS.) The deal with VBMS is that claims could be processed online by VA workers, and entered by vets or VSO claims professionals. If entered by vets, the model is do it yourself, like TurboTax. If entered by a pro at a Vets Service Org,they can get to VMBS directly, or enter documents for the Vet via the Stakeholder Enterprise Portal (SEP). Pretty soon, if they have their own claim system like VetPro, they’ll be able to send from their system to VBMS. It’s like going to get help from H&R Block, or Earl, my CPA.

The first big task is to get the paper claims inventory converted to digits and put into VBMS, which involves scanning huge amounts of paper into the system. That’s about 75% done. Here’s before and after at the Winston-Salem VA RO:

(Before…)

W-S files

(After…)

W-S clean

The big shift to VBMS is just happening right now, and it also means first getting VSOs onboard with either the Portal or indirectly via a gateway called Digits to Digits (D2D).

Big software projects take time, but it looks like all this is happening very quickly for a large organization. At this point, the effort is in agile software development mode. I’m not using “agile software development” in the doctrinaire sense, rather, it’s like I started for my own stuff:

1. ask people what they want and need

2. do it

3. ask people what to improve

4. go to 1

That’s to say, people tell either their local VBMS coach (like Shannon who I met in Oakland) what’s going on, or they tell Allison (that’s actual Brigadier General (retired) Allison Hickey, who runs this part of VA) during her weekly calls with VBMS users. Then stuff gets fixed or deferred. (Note to VSOs: you got suggestions, tell Allison, or if you prefer, tell me, I’ll get ’em to the right place.)

Shineki got lots more going on, like an Employee Innovation effort in 2009, where I helped judge entries. My favorite effort resulted in Disability Benefits Questionnaires (DBQs), which turn what doctors say into numbers that can be automated via disability rate calculators. DBQs need work, that’s happening, largely due to the efforts of Beth the Enforcer. (I’ll tell that story another time.)

Claims processing can also be delayed while Service Treatment Records are transferred from places like Department of Defense storage warehouses. (The Raiders of Lost Ark Warehouse is actually the VA warehouse…)


However, efforts are proceeding to get Defense to scan in and electronically transfer treatment records to VA. (More later.)

VA is a very large organization, maybe over 330,000 people serving around 22 million potential customers.

Whether private or public, large orgs are normally dysfunctional. Me, I’ve worked at or with large orgs, like IBM, GM, and Bank of America, and seen from the inside how bad things can be; however, public orgs are normally way more transparent than private orgs. I bear witness that Veterans Affairs does really good, with exceptions.

As a nerd, I’ll help make the good better, and I’ll stand up for good people getting a lot of unfair crap flung at them.

A nerd’s gotta do what a nerd’s gotta do.

 

Big Idea 2014: How to Fix Washington’s Approach to Tech

Much of the business of Washington is based on getting info around, much of the good news has not been reported, and I’d like to get the word out to make things better. This is the short, oversimplified version, based on 37 years of direct observation in both private and public sectors.

This is mostly about doing software based on actually listening to people and then acting on feedback, with a focus on the “ground truth” and what we can learn from that.

I think it was 1969 when some guys at Bell Labs started inventing something called Unix. It was a simple, very effective operating system, which could be ported to most any computer, since the source code could be checked out by outsiders, then adapted. It was in the spirit of what we now call “open source,” but the code was AT&T proprietary, limiting its use. Key to its effectiveness was that it was built in modest increments, by people who’d use it, both at Bell Labs and at the universities and labs who built Internet tech.

Note those elements: Built with real humility, talking to people, piece by piece.

Back then, software was most often developed starting with requirements or specifications docs. These were written by managers or people in marketing, the popular kids, who didn’t so much as talk to the people who’d run the software.

Once the docs were written, they tossed it to the people who’d write the code.

If the software actually got developed, it would frequently be late, over budget, and sometimes bought by no one except people who had to. (That’s like a lot of Federal software projects.)

In Washington, this is called the “waterfall” approach, since the docs are kind of tossed over some barrier which limits the ability of coders to talk to people, and which meant the software was frequently built as a big, complex monolith.

gov
I saw this approach used to develop the first operating system for the IBM Series/1 minicomputer, great hardware, in the late seventies. Whenever I asked why the software was so hard to use, I was explicitly told by the developers that usability wasn’t a requirement. (I’m not making this up.)

Bell Labs asked us about porting Unix to the S/1, and my recommendation is that we could do better, but why fix what’s not broken?

Turns out that a modest, maverick effort at IBM Research resulted in S/1 Event Driven Executive, which I feel was much better than the official product. For the matter, two versions of Unix were built for the S/1, both too late.Otherwise, the history of the whole industry could be different.

Years later, Linus Torvalds figured that Unix was pretty good but too proprietary, so he started building what’s now called Linux. It’s pretty much a Unix clone, but it’s open source in the sense that anyone can build stuff on it.

(Special props to Linus, who initiated this global, grassroots effort. Linus, like Jimmy Wales and Craig Newmark, is not an Internet Billionaire.)

That worked in a really big way, and much of the world runs on Linux, not only servers but our phones. Specifically, the Android operating system is a tight version of Linux, and it runs on hundreds of millions of phones. Even though developed in a large corporate environment, Google, it’s a pretty modest effort, based on what people need, rather than the imagination of the popular kids.

For the most part, government software is done using the waterfall approach, in isolation from the people who’d use it, even as much of private industry has moved on. However, there have been efforts which go against that grain.

Long ago, clinicians at the Department of Veterans Affairs realized they needed a really good health records system. Without permission, they built something called VistA, built by the people who use it, ground up. It’s perhaps one of the largest, and most effective health records systems around. No waterfall requirements, just a very modest approach.

Now, Veterans Affairs got the Veterans Benefits Management System, VBMS, just in recent months. It hasn’t been reported, but the piles of paper you see at VA offices has been disappearing dramatically after they were scanned in. Vets’ claims are just starting to get processed this way, and it looks good so far. We need to get Vets Service Orgs like the American Legion, Vets of Foreign Wars, and Disabled American Vets directly involved, via the Stakeholder Enterprise Portal, or vendor software via Digits to Digits.

VBMS development involved a lot of waterfall stuff, but much more recently, VA people are actually directly listening to people on that and acting on that. If vets, VSOs, or VA workers find a problem or have a suggestion, they contact contact actual humans to get stuff done.

Terminology: the antithesis of the waterfall approach is usually called “agile software development.” I’m not very smart, and the version of it that I’ve practiced is this:

repeat forever:

  • listen to people
  • do stuff based on that

Please permit me to call that “agile”; seriously, I’m kinda simple-minded, that works for me.

(Seriously, people can contact for specifics. I’ll act in my capacity as the official VA “nerd-in-residence”, hold me to that. Email craig@craigslist.org)

So, here’s the deal:

  • small, modest efforts by programmers get stuff done, they can ask for forgiveness later.
  • listen to the people who use the system.
  • even systems started by the waterfall approach can become much more agile, with commitment from the boss.
  • open source approaches get stuff done, often a lot better than proprietary approaches. Can cost less, get done faster, possibly more reliable and secure.

Programmers who get stuff done this way, well, we’re nerds. The alternative to the Federal government’s waterfall approach to software development? Get the popular kids, for the most part, out of the way, and let the nerds get stuff done.

Photo: AFP/Getty Images

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