The driving forces behind the success of the Office of Information and Technology (OIT) at the Department of Veterans’ Affairs (VA) are its people, its processes, and its technology. The COVID-19 pandemic placed an enormous strain upon operations at VA, but by employing effective processes to implement technological solutions, OIT was able to not only keep up with the demand for increased resources but was able to exceed expectations in certain critical areas. For example, by quickly and substantially increasing bandwidth at VA facilities and increasing the network’s capacity to host telehealth visits, OIT not only supported its business partners in the Veterans Health Administration but, even more, the Veterans the Department serves.
But it is the people who work in OIT that make it truly successful. One of the OIT organizations that has risen to the challenge of COVID-19 is the Enterprise Service Desk (ESD), which resolves issues that VA users have with their computer systems. For example, in May ESD scored an average of over 81 percent from users in the three VA administrations and VA Central Office (VACO). Feedback from those taking the survey indicated that “[c]onsistent positive interactions have created an expectation of receiving quality service.” It was just that quality service that Angelo Alicea provided to Andre Bowser as the pandemic was surging earlier this year.
Andre Bowser had a problem. Rather, he had several, all related to his VA technology. Andre is the Public Affairs Officer at the Edward P. Boland Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center (VAMC) in Leeds, Massachusetts, in the western part of the state. But he is also a captain in the U.S. Air Force Reserve, and, after a lengthy period away on military orders, he returned to the VAMC in March 2020 and needed to get to work. Of course, to work in a VAMC during the coronavirus pandemic means being on the front lines in a different kind of war than Andre was used to. But as the public face of his facility, it is his job to answer questions from the public and media about VA’s efforts to support Veterans and even civilians during this critical time.
Trying to access his email and other computer programs in the office, he became increasingly frustrated. As he later wrote to the management of the ESD, which is part of Enterprise Command Operations in OIT, he “had nearly given up hope that I would regain access to the technologies needed to do my job in the face of a local communication crunch to inform my staff, patients, and stakeholders about steps my medical center was taking to protect against COVID-19.” Fortunately, when he reached out for help, Angelo Alicea, an ESD computer operator, responded to his call. In a follow-up letter he wrote to ESD management after the issue was resolved, Andre noted that Angelo was both knowledgeable and articulate as he walked Andre through his problems one by one. Angelo realized that Andre could not log in to his system and could not get into his email, Skype for Business, or the Talent Management System (TMS). Angelo focused on these problems one by one, fixing each and then circling back to the next one.
For example, Angelo knew that Outlook runs on cloud technology and that when a user’s Outlook is not functioning, neither is his or her email. It can take up to three hours to re-enable email after fixing Outlook, so he knew that it was necessary to be patient with the system. Angelo first fixed Andre’s Outlook and then, because Skype for Business is, like Outlook, a Microsoft program, he also had to fix that, followed by his access to TMS. After all of that, Angelo returned to Andre’s email system, which still was not running. Just before getting off the call after nearly two hours – they checked the email one last time, and this time his messages appeared on Andre’s screen. Andre later said, “I’ve never been so happy to be able to read email in my life.”
A Drive to Excel
Andre was impressed by Angelo’s persistence. He also discovered that the day before CNN had sent him a media query about the VAMC’s response to COVID-19, a message he would not have seen had Angelo not restored his access to his emails. But this dedication to customer service is something that Angelo honed over many years. He began his career during his teens, serving guests at an amusement park, believing it was his job to help parents and children have fun while they were there. In college, planning to become a chef, he majored in culinary arts, but he minored in psychology and sociology, fields that provided him with insight into how people behave and why. He later worked in various retail outlets. One day, while working at the video game store GameStop near his home in Louisiana, a customer who already worked at VA on the ESD noticed his customer service and technical skills and suggested that he consider applying for a job there.
Angelo did, and he began his work on the ESD in September 2019. His lifelong motto is that “the only person I have to be better than is the person I was yesterday.” That desire to constantly improve drove him to study articles in the VA information technology knowledge database after his shift was over. He learned how to help customers quickly and soon became the person colleagues would come to for help with difficult technical problems. As Andre said in his letter to ESD management praising Angelo’s exceptional service: “My job as a Public Affairs Officer is all about recognizing the powerful work we do here at the VA! Too often the emphasis is solely on the negative. But not today! Good job training your IT staff right!” Angelo is a brilliant example of how the right attitude, hard work, and a relentless desire to help customers can benefit VA staff and, through them, the Veterans they serve.