Experience, business savvy drive Vets Benefits' CIO

Despite his rise to the upper reaches of government management Newell Quinton chief information officer at the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) is one of the most unassuming federal executives one is likely to meet.

But what ultimately comes through after a meeting with Quinton is the breadth of his knowledge on each aspect of his organization's business. That can be chalked up to 14 years of experience at the agency including work at regional offices as well as Department of Veterans Affairs headquarters - not to mention 28 years of Army service.

Quinton arrived at VA headquarters in 1982 as assistant director of the VBA administrative service staff. Now as the VBA's top gun on automation projects such as the controversial VBA Modernization and the accompanying Vetsnet program - projects using automation to improve the delivery of benefits to veterans - Quinton seems genuinely taken aback at how far he has come.

"I never really expected to be in this job " he said. "I never even thought about being in this position. It requires me to draw upon all of my experience at VBA and to couple business [concerns] with information technology.

"In most agencies the information technology people have gone down one track and the business community pursues its own course. But for information technology to truly be effective it must adopt that businesslike thinking " he said.

Quinton seems qualified to voice an opinion on the IT and business sides of the CIO coin. Although not exactly a techie he did learn programming at Morgan State University in Baltimore. He describes himself at that time as "one of the weird kids" who preferred Fortran to Cobol.

Even so he said there was never any chance that he would choose computer science as a career. "I knew real early I did not want to be a programmer " he said. "I was more interested in how to use it and not how to build it."

His first hands-on experience with computers and communications came as an officer in the Army Signal Corps. "Throughout my career I've always been a [computer] user " he said. "I've never been a whiz kid but I appreciate what automation can do.

"In the Signal Corps we got into messaging systems in the 1970s time frame with automated switching systems for multichannel telephones " he recalled. "We learned how to move a lot of information over telephone and radio systems. At the time it was exciting to be able to combine 600 conversations over a phone system and separate them at the other end."

On the administrative side he gleaned extensive experience throughout the 1980s at VA headquarters where he held positions such as deputy chief benefits director for ADP systems management and director of the department's administrative services staff.

But he said his most practical experience came from November 1989 through September 1994 during which time he served as director of the VA Baltimore regional office.

There Quinton said he could see how well programs formulated at headquarters worked in the field. He also learned what the region's operational personnel needed from their systems to better serve the veterans.

"At the regions ...you see the results of all of the planning and all of the effort. That experience gave me a feel for whether we are on the right path or not."

Following his stint in Baltimore Quinton returned to VA headquarters as director of the Veterans Assistance Service. He became involved in automation efforts such as setting up a bulletin board system to provide information to Persian Gulf war veterans.

Despite the repeated criticisms of VBA automation by the General Accounting Office and congressional oversight committees Quinton said he is optimistic about the future of the organization's efforts. He said the VBA is focused on meeting "achievable milestones."

With characteristic modesty Quinton refused to take credit for any positive changes that have occurred at VBA since his CIO appointment a year ago. So what exactly does he believe he brings to the table?

"I pray a lot " Quinton said laughing.

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