Oct 01

Healthcare.gov is a Technological Disaster


Related Blog Posts:
Who Thinks the Relaunched Healthcare.gov Performance Metrics are Acceptable?
Too Big to Fire: How Government Contractors on Healthcare.gov Maximize Profits
Creating a Healthcare.gov Web Site that Works
Media Coverage for Changing the National Discourse on Healthcare.gov
Testifying Before the House Committee on Homeland Security about Healthcare.gov
Designing a Data Entry System Properly; Overhauling the Healthcare.gov Web Site

Finally Here

October 1, the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) website http://www.healthcare.gov finally went live today.

I was eager to personally review what was being offered and cut through the hoopla and criticism. I had previously written, FMS Receives Health Insurance Premium Refund from the Affordable Care Act, so my expectations were high.

From the previously published rates for Virginia, the cost of insurance premiums for individuals and families was considerably lower than what FMS currently pays for our group plan. Business plans aren’t available yet, but the individual plans should be a good indicator. I wasn’t interested in the subsidies; I simply wanted to know the prices for the different plan options.

Applying for Coverage

So I went online to Healthcare.gov around 5:30 AM to apply for my family and see what it would cost. As expected, you create a login with email confirmation, and fill out a Wizard to select the options. It’s similar to many other instances I’ve applied online for credit cards and other forms of insurance. How tough could it be? Technically, it’s a very simple data entry application that should generate a quote at the end.

What a Mess!

Unfortunately, what should be a simple process is a complete software technology disaster. The logical flow of the application to register, login, and fill out the data for a family was horrendously inefficient. It seemed like the person who designed it, had never used it. Or maybe didn’t have a family which required filling out the same information for each member of the family.

Just the initial process of creating a login required multiple secret questions and other unnecessary data for getting a quote. Sure that may be necessary for the final acceptance, but it’s a complete waste of time and web resources initially. The system should expedite the process as much as possible to get people a quote without subsidies, then ask for more information to calculate the subsidies if desired. Since I later discovered it never generates a quote, it may not really matter anyway. What were the designers thinking?

Overly Complex Data Entry

As for my family, I not only had to identify my spouse, my two kids, their relationship to me, but also their relationship to my wife, and even their relationship to each other! What? Given the prior information, obvious defaults could be offered. The selection of race was also more complicated than it should be. Here’s an idea that may not have occurred to the designers: Maybe the kids should default to inherit their parents’ races. That’s how inheritance works. And does race impact pricing? If not, why ask?

The system crashed several times for me and had problems when I logged back in. It seemed like the system wasn’t even tested. Here are some screenshots:

Screenshot 1: Gibberish

(click the graphic to see an enlarged version)

What the hell is that? How could that get through testing much less production?

Screenshot 2: Error form with no data


Having error handling to catch unexpected crashes is a Best Practice in application development. It should tell the user what went wrong, what to do next, and gracefully exit the system. This page does none of that. The error message and error number are blank. Who knows what went wrong? Useless and amateurish. They do have a Live Chat button. I wonder what I would chat with them about with this crash.

Screenshot 3: Cascading errors


In this screenshot a series of errors appear to be triggered without meaningful explanation. Embarrassing.

Logging Back in and Repeating

If anything, I’m persistent. I not only had my original goal to see the premium prices, I was now intrigued to discover how poorly designed, developed and tested this application was. Eventually, I was able to finish. Took about an hour.

However, rather than receiving a quote immediately, it’s now being “processed”. For what? It shouldn’t be held up for pre-existing conditions which ACA eliminates. I would expect it to be some mathematical, logical formula that would generate the results. I presume it’s because that part of the application isn’t built yet. Although my application is submitted, given the crashes, I’m not sure what data it has. We’ll see.

Authors of Healthcare.gov

A few months ago, I read this article about how the site was being built and was impressed: Healthcare.gov: Code Developed by the People and for the People, Released Back to the People

In hindsight, it appears the authors have a philosophical bias toward OpenSource and “people power.” That’s all fine and dandy if it works, but this site doesn’t. To deliver such low quality results requires multiple process breakdowns. It just proves you can create bad solutions independent of the choice of technology.

Technical Software Conclusions

What should clearly be an enterprise quality, highly scalable software application, felt like it wouldn’t pass a basic code review. It appears the people who built the site don’t know what they’re doing, never used it, and didn’t test it.

I actually experienced many more problems than the screenshots I captured. Had I known I was performing a Quality Assurance assignment, I would have kept better documentation of typos, unclear directions, bad grammar, poorly designed screens, and other crashes. My bad!

It makes me wonder if this is the first paid application created by these developers. How much did the contractor receive for creating this awful solution? Was it awarded to the lowest price bidder? As a taxpayer, I hope we didn’t pay a premium for this because it needs to be rebuilt. And fixing, testing, and redeploying a live application like this is non-trivial. The managers who approved this system before it went live should be held accountable, along with the people who selected them.

Custom Database Software Application Development

Our Professional Solutions Group has created many mission-critical, custom software applications where scalability, reliability and quality are paramount. For instance, we built the Logistics Support System for International Humanitarian Relief for the United Nations where lives are dependent on accurate, timely data on a global scale.

Link Analysis with Sentinel VisualizerWe’ve also created a database link analysis program for the intelligence and law enforcement communities.

I know what’s involved in creating great software, and this ain’t it. Healthcare.gov is simply an insurance quote system. As a software developer, I’m embarrassed for my profession. If FMS ever delivered such crap, I’d be personally inconsolable. This couldn’t pass an introductory computer science class.

Overall Conclusions

This is going to be a huge public relations mess that could doom the whole initiative. Maybe they can blame the problems on too many users even if that weren’t the real cause, but it’s not going to be fixed with a few weekend tweaks and throwing more hardware at this. The application process asks too many unnecessary questions and repeatedly crashes. Since 9 AM and as of this evening, the site no longer lets you apply. I presume it got overloaded or someone finally discovered how broken it is and pulled the plug. Given what I experienced, it needs to be offline until it’s corrected. Meanwhile, I’d be highly concerned about the security of the data people enter given all the crashes I encountered.

Of course, software problems with the application process are not the reason to abandon healthcare reform. As a small business owner, we face the highest premiums for the lowest coverage. I applaud the efforts to reform health insurance and look forward to working in a constructive, rather than destructive, manner to improve this. I presume once these issues are resolved, I’ll have more options for my company and employees than I did before. In the big picture, this website is much easier to fix than health insurance. We’ll see.

Because I don’t like to complain without providing solutions, I added this blog post on October 14th:
Creating a Healthcare.gov Web Site that Works

New Attempt on October 5

I thought I’d give it a new try on October 5th to see if my initial impressions were wrong. I decided to create a new account to start all over. I had forgotten how difficult it was to simply create a login.

First it requires an overly complex login name that: “must contain a lowercase or capital letter, a number, or one of these symbols _.@/-“, which is confusing based on how you apply the OR clause. A clearer and simpler instruction would be to say: “must contain letters AND at least one number”. The unclear instructions cannot be blamed on too many users.

Then, it required three secret questions just to create the login. Not sure why any would be necessary. On Day 1, I got an email to confirm my login. Today, I got this screen after the last screen: Your account could not be created at this time. The system is unavailable


It lost all the data I entered. This is a clear web interface and database design problem if they didn’t store any of my information from multiple screens prior to the Finish button. A basic rule in database applications is to never lose data. Maybe you can lose data if the current screen crashes, but there’s no excuse for losing data from previous screens….unless of course, you haven’t thought about it before.

Another Attempt on October 7

I must be a glutton for punishment. I went back in to create my login. Unlike two days ago, I didn’t get the system unavailable message. It told me it was sending an email to confirm my login information, and I actually received the email. Woohoo!

Unfortunately, because I’m trying to run a business, I didn’t respond to the email until 30 minutes later. When I clicked on the link, I got this Oops. You didn’t check your email in time message:

Oops You Didn't Check Your Email in Time

Are you kidding me? It would have been nice to mention that in advance. Did they really invest programming resources to design and implement a feature that requires a response to the email confirmation right away? How user hostile can we get? Most sites would offer at least 24 hours or FOREVER to respond since nothing secure has been entered yet. I need to re-enter everything again. This just adds to their user load.

Application Status

FYI, my submission on the Healthcare.gov site on October 1st remains IN PROGRESS. No price quote, no email. Nothing. Just the same status online:


October 15th: I visited the site again and saw the same screen. I didn’t realize it, but if you click on the text to the left of the status, it’s a hyperlink that brings you to another page:

Healthcare Application incomplete

Imagine my shock to read “Your application is incomplete”. Darn! Could I have missed something on the first day that required me to re-enter or add more information? I don’t consider “Incomplete” the same as “In Progress”. It should have emailed me if it needed more information and certainly shown it on that screen.

I clicked on the “Continue Application” button to see what was missing. It turns out the same irrelevant, time consuming questions were asked for myself and each family member. I also found a few more bugs with problems going backwards, and selecting the address of each family member from a growing list of identical addresses. I also encountered new questions asking whether I am a Native American, and some strange question about my children’s relationship to each other (asked for each child) that I still don’t understand:


Can I get a sponsor for my child? I didn’t bother to investigate the definition of each of those terms before selecting “None of the above”, but it was bizarre and confusing. I definitely don’t remember answering this before. Eventually, I got to the end and was able to submit the completed application with a digital signature page I didn’t recall before. So maybe my application is going to be processed now. I went back to the status form and saw that I was “In Progress” again.

Then I clicked on the hyperlink next to the left of the Status and discovered the same “Your application is incomplete” screen. Did anything change? I think the message should say “Our application is incomplete”. Ugh!

Update for October 28th

My application is still “In Progress” but also incomplete. I went through the process again. Some bugs appear to be fixed since the last visit (duplicate lists of addresses are gone along with misnumbering family members). Still had many unnecessary screens that were shown but could not be edited (for instance, relationship between family members).

The administration has announced that the system will be fixed by the end of November. My belief has been that if the right team were in place and they could control the end-to-end process and design, this system could be built in a month. I hope they get it right and their families understand why they won’t see them over the Thanksgiving weekend. Good luck!

Jul 03

Inspection Software for the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA)

National Archives and Records Administration (NARA)With the upcoming 4th of July celebrations, we at FMS are proud to have worked with the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) over the past year to help them better maintain and preserve the important documents of our nation. Here’s what we did in our new case study, Inspection Software for the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).

About the National Archives

The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) is the record keeper for the United States. Of all documents and materials created in the course of business by the United States Federal government, only 1%-3% are important enough for legal or historical reasons that they are kept by NARA forever.

Natonal Archives Building in Washington DC


To ensure the quality of work performed by their Facilities Management service providers, the National Archives and Records Administration performs both random and targeted inspections of completed work orders.


Inspection findings were documented on paper, which ironically, wasn’t efficient for the NARA. Reports were manually created to generate the service results. This manual process was time consuming and prone to human error.


FMS was selected to create a professional, multiuser system to collect the inspection results electronically and generate a variety of management reports.Within two months, we deployed our solution which offers data entry screens to replicate a variety of existing forms and many new management reports. An intuitive user interface made it easy for users without requiring extensive training. More importantly, we established a solid database foundation to improve NARA processes both today and into the future.

Operational Impact

  • Stores inspection results into a shared database
  • Increases efficiency and accuracy of the collection and reporting process
  • Gathers information and performs statistical analysis in ways that were previously not available
  • Eliminates the need to maintain paper files
Apr 25

Boston Marathon Bombing and the Use of Social Network Analysis (SNA) Software

Sentinel VisualizerWhile we at FMS are best known for our Microsoft Access add-in products, we are also a leader in the Big Data analytics world with our Sentinel Visualizer product from our FMS Advanced Systems Group.

Sentinel Visualzer helps analysts mine their data to find hidden relationships among people, places and events. Built with Visual Studio .NET on a SQL Server database, Sentinel Visualizer provdes advanced data visualization through link analysis, geospatial mapping, timelines, social network analysis (SNA), advanced filtering and decluttering, and many other tools to maximize the value of data.

MIT Technology Review Article on Social Network Analysis and Boston Marathon BombingAs the rampage and manhunt in Boston, Cambridge, and Watertown transpired, MIT Technology Review published an article that mentioned our Sentinel Visualizer product. In the April 19, 2013 article, David Talbot describes the rise of technology to detect the activities of criminals over the Internet and connect seemingly unrelated people, places and things. For more information, visit Building a Picture of the Boston Marathon Bombing Suspects through Social Network Analysis.

Sep 27

Leveraging Technology to Enhance Teaching for the 21st Century

For the last few years, I’ve had the honor to serve on the Fairfax County Public School Superintendent Dr. Jack Dale’s Business and Community Advisory Council. It has given me an opportunity to learn about the challenges of leading one of the largest and best public school systems in the country with a budget of $2.2 billion and 180,000+ students.

Last week, we had our first meeting of the school year. Our existing education system remains tied (some say hobbled) to early 20th century techniques, yet students need to be prepared for the 21st century. It’s not easy to create and apply new teaching techniques on real children. I was pleased to witness a presentation on FCPS taking a leadership role in trying and testing new teaching techniques incorporating new technology. FCPS is forming a partnership with the George Mason University School of Education to create a “laboratory” to test these ideas to see what techniques are effective at providing the services without increasing the budget. This is well beyond the discussion stage. The Academy is being created at Lake Braddock Middle School with an initial group of 200 students. The principal, teachers, and parents met over the summer to plan the changes which are expected next school year. A lottery will be created for admission which is expected to be open to everyone.

Here are my impressions. First, I think it’s great that FCPS is revamping education for the 21st century and adding technology to help. That’s important to teach more effectively and the reality of future budget constraints. Second, I’m impressed that FCPS is willing to attempt such an entrepreneurial venture. Education is a very risk averse culture, and with good reason since the futures of children are at stake. It would be easy to continue to repeat what has worked in the past and change gradually. Instead, innovation is being embraced with a willingness to fail since not every new approach will be successful.

But applying technology effectively is not easy. We have had great advances with technology over the last few decades without students making similar advances. Yet, technology can be used to provide personalized learning with immediate feedback. We also need to teach 21st century skills and not use technology to teach 20th century skills better. Here are some future trends I think we need to consider and address:

1. Facts are Available Instantaneously, Everywhere
People can already look up information on Wikipedia from their smart phones; this has already changed the way people argue. Future technology will search information automatically on a device that is already monitoring the conversation or what you are reading (think smart glasses). The implication is that the memorization of facts will be much less valuable. Knowing where to get it, and how to validate it will be more important. That means teaching history must be focused on WHY and not what events occurred. Life is turning into an open book test, or more accurately open Internet access. This transformation is similar to the advent of the written language which eliminated the need for elders to orally pass information to others.

2. Science is Multi-Disciplinary
I applaud the effort to teach subjects in multi-disciplinary ways. This makes the content relevant. Science is often taught in a cold, isolated manner that is difficult to connect with the real world. We need to transform teaching science from word search (looking up specific facts in book) into active synthesis and idea generation. Hopefully, they’ll also include computer science as part of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) or at a minimum, allowing computer science to fulfill the language requirement, since this is relevant to all fields in the future.

3. Babel Towers are Crashing
This is where I feel the proposed academy is short-sighted. Teaching “world” languages is a great pre-21st century skill. English is THE world language today. It’s not like Thomas Jefferson needing to learn other languages because everything important was written in non-English languages. Being able to read other written languages is a challenge already solved for free by Google Translate, Microsoft Translate, and many other providers. No one can learn all the languages these online services offer instantaneously. Writing in other languages is also becoming a commodity. Speaking remains a challenge, but it is a matter of when, not if, this is solved. We can then be trained and speak in all sorts of languages one phrase at a time. There’s no need to waste thousands of dollars and hours to train a child to perform worse than what a free device will provide for a dozen languages before they graduate from college.

On a related note, requiring all high school students to devote 3 years to learning another language is a huge waste. People say it’s important to learn other cultures. I don’t dispute that. If that’s the goal, let’s teach that rather than memorizing the narrow vocabulary and grammar of one language. If we really wanted to teach cultures through language, then make it a year each of Chinese, Hindi, and Spanish to cover most people in the world rather than being mediocre in one language and ignorant of most.

4. Non-STEM Subjects are Important
STEM subjects are important, but that’s not all our society needs. Writing and public speaking are critical for conveying one’s ideas and influencing change. Fields that let kids push their individual limits such as playing an instrument, art, and drama should also be available. Analyzing philosophy, ethics, and moral reasoning are critical life skills, highly analytical, and important. Middle schoolers will make dumb decisions. The question is whether they learn how to recognize those situations in advance, to minimize them in the future.

5. Online Teaching is Good and Getting Better
More and more high quality online teaching is available for more and more subjects. Much of this is free, and it’s getting better and better each year. Being online, the content is available 24/7. This trend will not reverse. In fact it is accelerating. Over time, school districts and traditional teaching cannot be competitive with this online content. Whether it’s the Khan Academy or edX and its Harvard and MIT content, students can watch and practice on a platform that’s much more interactive and comfortable than classrooms.

Local schools can also leverage this. Numerically half the teachers (and students) are below average. There are good teachers and great teachers. With the dropping costs of video, storage, and transmission, schools should be recording their best teachers’ instructions so they can be replayed later and shared. It is not fair for students who are not assigned a great teacher to lose out on the experience. It’s not the same as being in the classroom, but kids in other classes and schools should be able to benefit. Other teachers can also learn from them.

For a teacher to provide the same content year after year, is a huge waste of time and resources. Why not do it just once or just have the best teacher do it once for everyone?

6. Teachers are Evolving into Coaches
Recording great instructors and replaying them scares some who think this will replace teachers. That will not happen. Teachers remain critically important, but their roles are evolving into coaches in a world where information is freely available. Online training will only provide a portion of the solution. Just like teleworking is not replacing offices and face-to-face interactions, online teaching will not replace classrooms. Teachers can help and motivate students in a way that impersonal online videos can’t.

Teachers should supplement technologically provided instruction (facts) with hands-on focused refinement that can’t be provided by a recording. Technology does not support social interactions and the skills necessary to present ideas and convince others. It is also very weak in supporting creativity. One could argue it actually prevents creativity.

No football team is considering eliminating the role of the coaches. Technology helps them take their instructions to a higher level. Over time, this trend may even help teachers earn more because they can be more productive by delivering more value and serving more students.

7. We Cannot Predict Future Careers; We Need to Teach the Tools to Achieve Success
Many of the fields today’s middle school students will work in probably don’t even exist today. My whole career (PCs and later the Internet) didn’t exist when I was in college, so it’s hubris to think we can predict what middle school kids today will face. What’s important is a child’s ability to set high expectations, a willingness to try new things, and understanding that failing is a key part of learning to be successful. No one gains self-esteem and confidence by being told they did a good job when they know they didn’t. Self-esteem comes from working hard, overcoming obstacles, and achieving goals. Kids do this very well with video games. We need to transform academic instruction similarly. Rather than focusing on a particular mistake, it’s the response to the failure that’s most important and helping students learn from them. Teachers/coaches play a critical role in helping students achieve higher than they originally expected. That’s what is critical to life and acquiring a resiliency that prepares youths to confidently face challenges their parents and teachers never

Overall, I think the attempt to revamp educational delivery with technology is a move in the right direction. Creating a separate academy is the correct method since it shouldn’t be squeezed into the existing system. Applying existing technology and anticipating future technology that will impact and improve teaching is very critical. I’m concerned that the STEM emphasis will prepare kids for today’s tech jobs at Northrop Grumman, Microsoft and IBM. Nothing wrong with that. Unfortunately, the future jobs are being created at technology companies like Apple, Google and Facebook where non-STEM skills have played a prominent role.

Will those companies remain leaders in two decades? We want our students to be engaged and successful in fields that don’t exist yet. We want them prepared to analyze and adapt so that when opportunities arise, they recognize them and are willing to try, fail, and succeed. There is lots of work and many issues to consider. Our country spends over a quarter million dollars to educate each student through high school. Coming up with innovative ways to gain a higher return on those taxpayer investments is critical to our country’s future. I’m glad to see our county playing a leadership role and taking action. What we learn from the academy should be quickly shared across the county, state and nation.

Sep 20

FMS Receives Health Insurance Premium Refund from the Affordable Care Act

Without stepping into a political quagmire beyond this topic, I just wanted to share our experience at FMS related to the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare.


I’m sure small businesses can do much more with that money than padding the pockets of the executives and shareholders of the big insurance companies. We still see healthcare costs rising, but it’s good to know the rise is tied to actual increases in services being provided rather than profit margins. We look forward to the insurance pool that Virginia is creating for local businesses. From my contacts in our Republican governor’s office, Virginia is not resisting this initiative like some other red states and is moving forward with ways to reduce our cost of doing business here. Practical decisions like this keep Virginia business friendly.

Overall Impact

For companies like FMS that already provide health insurance to its employees, the obligations created by the new legislation don’t impact us since we were already doing them. We also don’t qualify for the small business tax credits which are targeting firms with lower compensated employees. I really like the lifting of the lifetime cap because after all, that’s when you really need insurance and it wasn’t an option previously available to us. I dreaded the idea that one of our employees would have faced a terrible health problem with financial ruin even though they were insured. I also like the moves to reduce the number of healthy people who choose not to buy insurance, yet end up using healthcare services we subsidize. Overall, it’s looking like a win-win for FMS and our employees. It certainly doesn’t solve everything, but it’s a good first step from our experience.

Luke Chung, FMS President

Follow Up

For our experience using the Healthcare.gov website the first time it launched on October 1, 2013, check out: Healthcare.gov is a Technological Disaster

Apr 02

Impact Aid Survey Form Software for Federal Education Funding

Software System to Manage Impact Aid Suvey Forms for Department of Education Funding

See how our Microsoft Access database application is helping the Washington DC Public System (DCPS) more efficiently and accurately secure their Impact Aid funding from the US Department of Education.

What is Federal Impact Aid for Primary and Secondary Education?

US Department of Education

Many local school districts across the United States include within their boundaries parcels of land that are owned by the Federal Government or that have been removed from the local tax rolls by the Federal Government, including Indian lands. These school districts face special challenges — they must provide a quality education to the children living on the Indian and other Federal lands and meet the requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act, while sometimes operating with less local revenue than is available to other school districts, because the Federal property is exempt from local property taxes.

The Impact Aid law (now Title VIII of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965) has been amended numerous times since its inception in 1950. The program continues, however, to support local school districts with concentrations of children who reside on Indian lands, military bases, low-rent housing properties, and other Federal properties, or who have parents in the uniformed services or employed on eligible Federal properties. The law refers to local school districts as local educational agencies, or LEAs.

To secure this funding, school districts send survey forms to their students’ parents, collect the results, and submit the claim to the Department of Education.

Helping the Washington DC Public School System Process their Federal Impact Aid Survey Forms and Secure Funding

As you can imagine, the federal government has a lot of workers and property in Washington, DC that don’t pay local property taxes to fund education.

The Washington DC Public Schools (DCPS) consists of over 100 public elementary and secondary schools and learning centers. Each year DCPS sends out survey forms to determine the residential and parental employment status of their students. This information is used to determine Impact Aid funding for students who live or have parents who work on federal property.

Database Software Solution

By automating a process that was previously performed manually, FMS helped DCPS achieve increased efficiency and accuracy with an easy-to-use, easy-to-deploy, and easy-to-support, multiuser Microsoft Access application.

Professionally designed and deployed, FMS created reports and processes to help DCPS identify a larger number of federally connected families, and file the forms to obtain federal funding.


The application increased funding which more than paid for our services and allows DCPS to devote more resources to their classrooms. The payoff will continue year after year.

Let us know if your school systems could benefit from claiming these Impact Aid funds with our database application.

Related Information

Feb 23

FMS Participates with Virginia Governor’s Declaration of 2012 as the Year of the Entrepreneur

Yesterday, FMS President Luke Chung was invited by the governor’s office to participate in his proclamation of 2012 as the Year of the Entrepreneur. Luke stood behind Governor Bob McDonnell and Lieutenant Governor Bill Bolling during the press conference and participated in a day-long event supporting entrepreneurship, small businesses, and job creation.

Commerce Secretary James Cheng led the events. Participants were able to hear from successful Virginia business founders and learn from each other through a luncheon and Entrepreneurial Town Hall. Examples of agricultural, technology, manufacturing, and craft businesses showed the diversity of Virginia firms offering products and services for in-state, national and international customers. It was also interesting to trace the roots of the founding of Virginia in 1607 as a high-risk entrepreneurial enterprise that eventually led to success after many failures.

All parties recognized the value and responsibility of seasoned entrepreneurs helping newer entrepreneurs, and how fundamental this was to the success of our state and nation. Activities will occur around the commonwealth over the year where government representatives and entrepreneurs share their ideas, experiences, and resources. Already recognized as one of the most business friendly states in the country with one of the lowest unemployment rates, Virginia continues to foster business success in a bipartisan manner.

Noteworthy was the inclusion of Education Secretary Laura Fornash in the activities stressing the importance of public education as part of a healthy business climate. This includes having great K-12 education and the many higher education institutions across Virginia. Those institutions attract bright students from outside Virginia, create entrepreneurial opportunities around them, and give us the ability to keep them in Virginia for life. FMS and Luke Chung are honored to be a part of this initiative.

For more information visit:

Jan 18

Teacher Performance Task Force for Fairfax County Public Schools

This blog was referenced in Jay Mathews Washington Post article on February 2, 2012:
An outsider’s wild teacher-evaluation idea

We at FMS have always been passionate about education and have provided a wide range of software solutions for the education community at all levels. Over the past several years, I’ve served on a Business and Community Advisory Board to the Superintendent of Fairfax County Public Schools. The public schools in Fairfax County are among the best in the nation with 180,000 students, making it larger than 12 states (by student population). I currently serve as the school board representative on the county’s Information Technology Policy Advisory Committee (ITPAC) to the Board of Supervisors where we review major technology projects for the county.

Tying teacher performance to student achievement

At the beginning of the school year, I was appointed by the superintendent to participate in the county’s Teachers Performance Evaluation Task Force. I’m one of two outsiders on this committee of 35, which includes some of the best teachers, principals and administrators across the county. To meet the waiver requirements of the Federal No Child Left Behind statute, the State of Virginia is requiring teacher performance to be tied to student performance. The state department of education is recommending a 40% weighting. They are not defining on what to base student performance, but state standardized test scores immediately come to mind.

As an outsider who has never been evaluated as a teacher, you can imagine my surprise to discover that while principals were judged by their school’s student performance, student performance is not part of a teacher’s performance evaluation in our county (and probably state). 0% Are you kidding me?

I’ve learned that there’s a lot of angst around this. We all recognize that not all students are equal, and we don’t want to have a system where teachers are evaluated solely on student performance because the incentive would be to only want to teach good students. Good students may perform well in spite of bad teaching, so raw scores are not a good indicator of performance. The fairest testing evaluation system seems to be the concept of “value added” measurements. That is, as a teacher, you’d have students coming in at a certain percentile, and leaving at another percentile at the end of the year. If your students move up, you’ve added value; if they’ve moved down, they would have done better with an average teacher. Sounds good in concept, but this has practical problems such as kids moving in and out of classes within the year, impacts on kids outside teacher control, whether the test is a good measurement, multiple teacher collaborative environments, etc.

That said, 0% is still not acceptable. Nor is scrapping the whole concept based on a few outliers or issues. Especially compared to the current evaluation system where a principal or administrator sits in a classroom for less than an hour each quarter, and huge challenges removing under-performing teachers who don’t improve with training.

What have I learned?

I have been very impressed by individuals on the committee who get it. They understand that it’s in their best interest and that of their profession to set high standards and meet them. Failure to do so not only harms students but undermines political and taxpayer support for public education. Change is coming from the federal level down, and taking a leadership role has long-term benefits.

In our fast-changing software world, we need people to constantly gain new skills and improve their productivity. Performance with old technology last year may not be relevant this year. We can’t rewind each year and evaluate people on skills, client relationships, projects, etc. since so much changes each year. However, in education, the inputs each year are essentially the same (it’d be nice if student performance continually improved but that’s not changing significantly).

In spite of all the shortcomings, there are actually lots of objective measurements available to judge teacher performance. Almost all academic courses have existing pre-tests and post-tests for classes, and of course there are standardized tests. Those opposed to tying teacher performance to student achievement tend to be the ones least interested in providing any measurements for doing so. Propose alternatives if the existing ones are not acceptable. We can’t treat teaching like an art that can’t be measured.

As I pondered the issues around teacher performance, it always boiled down to philosophical issues. What does it mean to be a good teacher? Average class performance? Performance of the best kids? Raising the weakest kid? What if you can’t get a kid to engage and be interested? Whose fault is that? We’ve always known there are great teachers who many people love yet others passionately hate. Who’s best to judge, the students, administrators, peers, parents? Everything has shortcomings.

Who benefits and pays the most for good or bad teaching?

Over the holidays, I started thinking of teaching in a totally new way by considering: Who benefits and pays the most for good or bad teaching?

  • Well, the students do of course, but no one is eager to have students evaluate teacher performance directly due to the many conflicts of interest.
  • Parents? They certainly have a stake but being a parent myself and being around other parents, I would hardly consider parents qualified to really know what’s going on with individual classes — they should stay focused on evaluating their own children.
  • Bureaucrats? Whether at the federal, state, or county level, I think they’re hard pressed to come up with specifics for evaluating a particular teacher. They can design what should be taught and offer resources and training, but evaluations taking into account each school and class’s unique situation is too detailed to do with broad requirements.

An alternative paradigm: ‘Teachers are the Customer’

I’ve now come up with a whole new way to look at teaching. Essentially, a teacher receives kids from upstream, trains them, and then passes them off to their next downstream teacher. Looking at it more like a production line, the teacher is a huge beneficiary and victim of good and bad teaching, more than anyone else in the system other than the student. Teachers should be empowered to define expectations and evaluate their upstream teachers for their performance. Done properly, this creates a positive feedback loop and automatically addresses any unique issues within a school. After all, doesn’t every teacher want to grow and deliver the best batch of students to their colleagues? Looking at it from this perspective, the teachers I discussed this with all knew exactly which teachers upstream from them they thought were good or bad overall and for different types of student personalities. In fact, several said there were teachers they would want or avoid sending their kids to. Wow, wouldn’t it be great to include the input of downstream teachers in a teacher’s evaluation? Isn’t that an important person each teacher is serving? I felt I made a mental breakthrough.

Feedback from the administrators

So I introduced this to the Teacher Performance Task Force last week. And while they appreciated my new perspective, I didn’t receive an immediate endorsement. They raised some issues such as teachers were not trained to do this, and how new teachers could properly evaluate more experienced teachers. I took their feedback under consideration.

At last night’s meeting, I mentioned my idea to the superintendent. He liked my approach and asked how it was received within the task force. It then occurred to me that the feedback there was not acceptable. The concept that more junior downstream teachers would evaluate more senior upstream teachers may be too foreign and frightening for some to accept, but that’s a resource which should be utilized. Training to do it properly is just training. You have to serve your customer. I’m not saying a teacher’s entire performance is based on that or that experience isn’t a factor (it is), but the next teacher plays a unique and important role in evaluating performance.

What’s next?

Overall, I appreciate the committee welcoming and encouraging my feedback and treating me as an equal, given my never having been a teacher. We all share a goal of improving public K-12 education with a fair teacher evaluation system, and I recognize I’m naive about these actual evaluation processes. They’ve asked for my out-of-the box thinking and applying best practices from outside the education community. That’s how I reached my teacher focused paradigm. Teachers have the most at stake with creating an evaluation system that at the very least, identifies and removes poor performers that training fails to improve. Teachers are very concerned with the new evaluation system, so empowering them in the process should be positively received. In the end, teachers pay the highest price if improvement doesn’t occur. First in their day-to-day classroom efforts dealing with under-prepared students, and longer term their professional reputation and taxpayer support. Removing under-performing teachers, doesn’t even reduce headcount. It gives an opportunity to someone who is eager to teach in the school system and has above average promise (if not, that’s a recruiting problem). Beyond that, the evaluation system should focus on professional development to help teachers identify areas of improvement. There will probably be a different process for evaluating rookie teachers who are expected to gain skills initially versus more experienced teachers who should already have those skills and falling back to “rookie” level would not be considered acceptable.

We have a few more meetings before the task force needs to finish and make its recommendations. They are hoping to put the new system in place for next school year. Wish me luck.

Luke Chung
FMS, Inc.

Sep 16

Participating on the Senate Finance Committee’s Small Business Roundtable

Senate Finance CommitteeI had the privilege and honor to be one of 18 small business owners from across the country to participate in the Senate Finance Committee’s Small Business Roundtable yesterday.

Convened by the senior tax policy advisors of the Senate Finance Committee’s two chairmen, Senators Max Baucus (D-Montana) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), it was their desire to learn how tax policy helps, hurts, and influences small business owners.

The meeting was held in the Dirksen building of the Finance Committee room with the big elevated dais under the Senate seal. We were sitting around a rectangular set of tables on the floor of the chamber with the staffers on one side and the business owners around the other three.

Rather than politicians, these were the senior staffers of the Senators and were the people actually responsible for understanding the issues and writing the legislation that gets passed.

Unlike the political rancor by their bosses the last few months, these people from both parties were sincerely interested in crafting legislation that would benefit small businesses. After all, every politician has small business constituents, and wants to help us create more jobs. They were also delighted to hear our perspective which is very different from the interests of large and multinational businesses that dominate lobbying efforts on Capitol Hill.

Led by Holly Porter and Jim Lyons, we discussed how tax policies impact our businesses and what we would like to change. The meeting lasted for three hours and was very interesting. It was a nice cross-section of American businesses. The 18 businesses came from 11 states. Among us, three were technology firms, there were a few manufacturing companies, retailers, industrial services, and professional services firms. Most of the firms, like FMS, have been around for decades.

Because of the diversity, different businesses wanted and needed different types of tax legislation, but overall there was general agreement:

  1. Business owners are too busy trying to generate revenue and deliver services to focus too much on tax policy and special credits or incentives.
  2. The tax code is too complicated and no one understands what’s in it. Our accountants file our taxes and whatever benefits or credits exist, we may capture them if we’re lucky, but well after the decisions were made. As a group, we’d prefer lower tax rates with fewer deductions.
  3. The cost of compliance is too high and too complicated. Personally, I’d like to see a national sales tax and never have to file a tax return again. After all, companies use government services even if they don’t make a profit — or a profit in the United States. Just dreaming here….
  4. The incentives added to the tax code get changed so often that they are hard to know and use. There were requests to have whatever policies implemented to be permanent or at least have a three-year life so that people can understand and actually make decisions to use them. The staff immediately mentioned this wasn’t possible because today’s Congress can’t constitutionally obligate a future Congress. Hopefully they’ll recognize the maybe you have it or maybe you don’t legislation doesn’t help businesses with long-term planning.
  5. Due to significant changes in income or losses from year to year, and investment/sales cycles that don’t fit neatly in a fiscal year, it would be desirable to average income across multiple years. That would be fairer and more aligned to long-term growth in a progressive tax system that assumes relatively level annual incomes.
  6. For more asset intensive businesses, the small business rules (Section 179) for immediate expensing of equipment that would otherwise be depreciated is important for cash flow and creating jobs. For those who aren’t familiar with this, when businesses purchase certain “long-life” equipment, the amount paid can’t be immediately deducted from income and have to be deducted and depreciated over time. The problem is that the company has to pay taxes on income which doesn’t deduct all the money spent on the equipment. Basically, you have to pay taxes on income that was never received. Section 179 helps with that. While in our firm, hardware is a small portion of our expenses so the impact is minimal either way, in manufacturing, it’s often critical. Personally, I’ve always hated the idea of paying taxes on money that wasn’t received even though you make it up in the following years. Just seems unfair when one is investing in the future of our people and company.
  7. Finally, there was a sense that no matter what legislation is passed, the big multi-national corporations are the primary beneficiaries of all the deductions with their teams of lawyers and accountants. And that small businesses end up footing the bill. Why should we pay higher taxes than General Electric? Far better to reduce the complexity and deductions, and give us a lower tax rate. There was also a general sense that large companies aren’t paying their fair share, shipping jobs overseas, and not investing in the local economies. One gentleman suggested that there should be preferential capital gains tax rates for investments directly in real businesses versus financial speculation on the stock markets. Makes sense to me.

They asked us if there was anything they could do with tax law to directly decrease unemployment and we didn’t offer many suggestions. In fact, the feedback was overwhelmingly negative on some of the attempts to improve employment such as the HIRE Act and reducing employee FICA taxes. They were considered to have zero impact on any hiring decisions. The consensus was that we need increased demand for our products and services, and that we’ll create jobs if we see opportunities to increase profits. Unfortunately, that may beyond the power of tax legislation. Anything they can do to reduce the complexity of compliance and tax rates would be welcome.

Overall, it was a great experience to meet the people who craft the legislation we live under, and help them better understand what really impacts our businesses. I’m glad to see they reached out to small business owners and hope they’ll do what they can to help us remain competitive and successful.

May 16

Luke Chung and Members of ITPAC Tour Fairfax County Public Safety and Transporation Operations Center

Luke Chung and the other members of the Fairfax County Information Technology Policy Advisor Committee (ITPAC) toured the county’s Public Safety and Transporation Operations Center. Combining state-of-the-art emergency response technology, this secure facility is ready to respond to human and man-made disasters. The blast resistant building houses the county’s 911 response center with police and fire dispatchers, the traffic monitoring and management team, an emergency command center to coordinate really large responses, and the police forensics laboratories. Thanks for keeping us safe and a great tour of your operations!