As chief technology officer of the Veterans Affairs Department, Dr. Peter Levin isn’t tasked with making sure that routers are maintained or seeing that the network stays up. Far from it. You could say he’s more of a technology conceptualist.
Rather than “chief technology officer”–a position at VA to which he was appointed in 2009–he might have been more appropriately titled “chief innovation officer.”
Indeed, a biography on the VA’s Web site describes Levin’s role as one where his mission is “to identify new technologies and promote innovations that will allow VA to serve veterans with higher reliability, greater accessibility and lower cost.”
“The real purpose of the office of the chief technologist is not to map technology to needs. It’s to map needs to technology,” he said.
Levin reports to Roger Baker, VA’s assistant secretary for information and technology, who manages an organization of more than over 7,500 information technology professionals and a budget of $3.3 billion. Levin described himself as an “implementer of Roger’s will.”
Levin has his own philosophical view of the process of innovation in technology, which perhaps reveals the contrarian in him. For example, he thinks a lot about the positive value of mistakes, his own included.
“I’m a huge believer in a very high tolerance for errors and mistakes,” he said. “I assume that most of the things I do are going to be wrong or somehow mistaken. So I rely on a highly iterative process, a highly collaborative process and a highly communicative process that allows me to say, ‘What about? What if? Could we try? Let’s engage each other constructively in a conversation not about why it won’t work but how it will work.’”
Levin says his aim is to “encourage the culture” at VA to “recognize that it’s much better to have tried something silly and know not what to do than to stay in the rut you’re in, knowing that you’re never going to succeed on the trajectory that you’re on,.”
“In government, frankly, there’s a premium in saying ‘no’ because if you say ‘no,’ nobody can hold you accountable for having made a mistake. I’m trying to find the ‘yeah sayers,’ the ones who say ‘I have no idea either but I know how to run an experiment.’”
Levin’s approach to innovation also encompasses a strategy to keep programs and projects manageable.
“I’m not interested in big, hairy, complicated problems,” he said. “Very occasionally, they will get solved by a genius, but mostly what you want to do is to break the problems into the smallest possible pieces and work on those.”
A case in point is Blue Button, one of Levin’s major projects at VA. A technology that provides veterans with quick and easy online access to their personal health records, Blue Button started simply, as an ASCII, or text, file. It was a “bite-size chunk” that created a paradigm for building a much broader system of electronic health records, Levin said.
“We’re going to make Blue Button better and better,” he said. “We have very ambitious plans to turn this personal health record into something closely replicates an electronic health record that is clinically complete and comprehensive.” Blue Button already has created such a splash that private-sector healthcare companies are adopting the technology.
Ultimately, Levin wants to make all veterans information available under a unified Web services platform.
“Today you have to log into a variety of different Web sites, and create user names and passwords,” he said. “It’s a clunky user experience, one that I’m personally focused on fixing. What you want is the ability to present to our users a more unified storefront so you don’t have to remember a variety of different URLs and authentication credentials.”
The catalyst that would enable such program consolidation is cybersecurity, another focus for Levin. “At the end of the day we have to have a single, unified authentication credential,” he said.
Levin acknowledges a “somewhat contrarian view” on cybersecurity. Breaches are inevitable but damage from breaches can be contained, he said. “My concise explanation is: beware of the scalable breach,” he said. “We know [we don't have the capability] to stop every single possible threat vector or to thwart every attack but we can limit the damages that those attacks do and we can do that well. So cybersecurity is important but the takeaway here is that it’s not nearly as hard as people think it is to protect their data.”
Levin credits his background in academia and the private sector with making him adroit at “knowing the art of the possible” in technology. After receiving a doctorate in electrical and computer engineering from Carnegie Mellon University, he taught at Worcester Polytechnic Institute and later served as research dean in Boston University’s College of Engineering. Currently, he is a consulting professor of engineering at Stanford University.
“The most important part of my academic training is that I’m pretty good at explaining things,” he said. “The ability to explain really hard topics is something that has benefited me tremendously in government.”
Prior to his VA post, Levin was founder and chief executive of DAFCA Inc., a semiconductor software company. He was also on the board of Astaro AG, a network-security company based in Karlsruhe, Germany, and was a venture partner of Ventizz Capital Partners in Düsseldorf.
The combination of academic and private sector experience has given Levin a formidable expertise in all facets of technology. “I know the terrain pretty well,” he said. “It’s going to be hard to throw a high, fast one by me and get away with it.”