At VA, cloud is still emerging tech

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The agency's CIO said that "cloud still has huge potential for us." 

For most technologists, the emergence of generative artificial intelligence is the next big thing, but for Kurt DelBene, the top tech official at the Department of Veterans Affairs, it’s the shift to the cloud. 

"Maybe I'm the old guy thinking that the trend that was the last trend isn't done yet, but the cloud still has huge potential for us," DelBene said in a TalkingTech event streamed on Thursday.

VA is seeking about a 5% increase in its technology spend this year, from $9.6 billion in 2023 to $10.1 billion in 2024. According to DelBene, continuing the agency's move to the cloud is a big part of that. The agency runs more than 1,000 systems on multiple clouds and on physical data centers across 2,900 locations reaching more than 700,000 devices. 

"We ultimately want to move every single one of our systems to the cloud," DelBene said. "We want to shut down data centers and the cloud offers us more resiliency, more scalability. So we're all in on cloud." 

DelBene also signaled to vendors that the agency is in the process of winnowing down to core cloud platforms for hosting applications.

"We have core platforms today. We need to standardize around those and then we need to show the value proposition of doing that is high, so that it's easy to have our [development] pipelines deploy in a seamless way, and able to screen code as it goes in that it has a great monitoring framework so that you get faster alerting on problems," DelBene said. 

He added: "We just need to get people that do third party development for us acclimatized to the notion that they're not going to bring another platform for us. We don't need another platform."

AI is still a big part of VA's future, Charles Worthington, the agency's chief technology officer, told reporters after the event. Right now, one key piece of AI deployment is workforce development.

"There's two different things that we need to focus on," Worthington said. "One is building out our bench of practitioners. These are the people that understand how to build and use AI tools," he said, noting that data scientists and data analytics experts fall into this category. 

But he also noted that AI functionality is increasingly embedded in commercial software in use at VA: "We need to be able to equip our staff to understand how to use that software safely and effectively.”

DelBene told reporters he didn't want to commit to a hiring goal in advance of FY2024 appropriations being finalized by Congress, but he said that he was hoping for "multiple hundreds" of new technology workers at VA's Office of Information and Technology, with AI specialists being a big part of that. 

DelBene acknowledged that even with funding and recently approved enhanced pay authorities, finding the right technologists is a challenge.

"First we need to make the VA a great place to work," he said. "I think we have a great mission already. It's easy to kind of just toss that out, but you know it is a sacred mission to be delivering healthcare and benefits to veterans….but we have to match it with things like, do you have an understandable career path" that tracks in industry as well as government. 

"We're working on that," DelBene said.