Federal Spotlight: Chad Sheridan

Chad Sheridan

Chad Sheridan serves as Chief Information Officer for the Risk Management Agency (RMA) in the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Here is our Federal Spotlight interview:

MC: How long have you been in Federal service, and what is your main responsibility in your role today?

CS: I’ve been in Federal service for just over 24 years, including six years of active duty. I’m responsible for all the IT systems and services for the Risk Management Agency here at USDA, which supports the Federal Crop Insurance program, which is really a public-private partnership. We provide crop insurance across the country, covering about $100 billion worth of agricultural value every year.

MC: What keeps you motivated and passionate to stay in the public sector?

CS: For me, it’s always about mission. It started with my service in the Navy. My service in the Navy was at headquarters for the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program. I got the opportunity to design and build nuclear power plants for navy ships. I ended up working on networks and software for nuclear-powered ships to support propulsion plant operations. That’s been more than a decade now. Evidently, IT stuck.

I’m one of those who likes a challenge. I got to work on, and recently just got to see the commissioning of, the U.S.S. Gerald R. Ford, which is a new class of aircraft carrier. That was my job for more than seven or eight years. I was either supporting the design or responsible as the Deputy Program Manager for the design of that propulsion plant.

The Deputy Program Manager job came about from an informal hallway conversation. One day, I ran into one of my colleagues in the hallway, who was the Program Manager for the new aircraft carrier propulsion plant. She was about to be broken off into her separate section as the first female executive in the organization. I’d been working on a specific aspect of the propulsion plant design for two years. She told me that she needed a deputy. She then half-jokingly asked, “Hey, do you want to come work for me?” I replied, “Yes.” Then we looked at each other, somewhat stunned. “Did that just happen?” Life lesson: when someone you respect asks you to come work for them, the right answer is “yes.”

Two months later I started working for her. I was active duty at the time—still a junior officer. Many times, I felt I had no business there, but the mission did not care. We were expected to represent the four-star admiral in anything and everything we did. It was a GS-15 type job, and I’m running this as a 26 year old. Learned everything along the road. I got thrown in the deep end and I swam.

You only design an aircraft carrier about once every 40 years, so the opportunity I was given at a very young age to work in a program that might outlive me is something that matters. I believe that service matters and that continuing to work in the Federal government is about driving the mission, driving what we are trying to do to support our citizens.

So now I am in information technology, which was never part of the plan. I started life as a nuclear engineer. That was my life. I’m still a certified mechanical engineer in the Commonwealth of Virginia. My entry into IT came from another hallway conversation. Our CIO saw me in the hallway one day and asked, “Hey, want to come work for me on this startup-like group?” Remembering my earlier life lesson, of course the answer was “yes.”

My experience allows me to bring a different perspective to information technology. I didn’t grow up in information technology. I was never a systems administrator, I was never a help-desk support technician. I come from a business perspective. I come from a product perspective. I’m able to talk with our mission leaders and help them understand the value of technology and the value we bring to the table from a mission perspective. That’s my shtick. I understand the technology. I’m an engineer so I can learn the tech piece, but it’s not about the tech. It’s about the value we can deliver in driving and transforming our mission.

Right now, I’m working on a government-wide cloud computing group. I firmly believe that if we continue to run IT the way we’ve run IT in the Federal government, we will fail. So, I’m driving the community toward a different way of thinking, a different mindset, a mission focus, and asking questions that move us forward.

MC: What is one of your biggest career achievements?

CS: I would say it was changing our culture of delivery here at USDA. We transformed how we deliver software, but it required changing our thinking and methods across multiple disciplines. We didn’t just look at the development space, we went after the entirety of our job, from program management to capital planning to project management. What was killing us was we would take six months to go discover requirements and develop a plan for a six-month job. In a business cycle that turns every year, a technology cycle that turns every year to 18 months, that’s untenable. It wasn’t working. We were failing.

My development lead at the time had an idea for turning this around, and I didn’t agree. Let’s just say we had some very heated conversations that involved very loud voices at all hours of the night. I don’t know how many times there were threatened resignations.

What I learned was, or what it reinforced was, when you hire good people, give them a chance. Trust them. Even if you don’t believe it. The boss doesn’t have to be convinced. I thought my development lead’s idea wasn’t going to work, but I didn’t have a better answer. So, I sold his idea to the executive team, because I was willing to accept that it doesn’t matter whether or not I’m right. It matters whether or not the organization succeeds.

My ideas aren’t necessarily the best ones. It’s important to be willing to go out on a limb for your people. Unless you think that the idea is going to sink the organization. If you go to bat for your people, good things will happen.

I take the opportunity to tell my people over and over again that I was wrong. I didn’t believe this idea would be successful, but I went with it anyway because I didn’t have a better answer. I’m proud to say I was wrong—and there’s no way I can have all the answers.

It also encouraged a change for me, or a continuation or a reminder of a change, that I don’t need to be involved in every little detail, and that I can let these things go and work with systems so that I get information where I add value based on my experience and level at the right place. It doesn’t mean I don’t dive in if it’s necessary, but it means I’m not purposely diving in on every little detail. It used to be I approved every change in production. I don’t do that anymore. There’s no value for me in doing that. I’ve got people that are smarter than me at that. It frees up the organization to achieve far more because I’m no longer as much of a bottle neck.

MC: What advice would you share with young people on entering the government, or the next generation of leaders?

CS: Do the work. One of the greatest lessons I have learned was probably working for a really bad boss in my first assignment in government. You knew that there was no way you were going to get supported. You learned to fend for yourself—learn to do the work yourself.

When I look for people, I look for people who are resilient. If you’re walking down a path and you see a tall, 20-foot-diameter tree falling across your path, what are you going to do? I’m looking for somebody who says, “I could jump over it. I could dig through it. I could chop through it. I could go around it.”

The obstacle in your life defines your path. There is no clear path, ever.

At times, people come into the workforce and believe that it’s management’s job to clear all the paths for you. Our job is to remove roadblocks, but you shouldn’t expect it. You should expect that your job is to figure out a way around any obstacle that might appear. It’s a bonus if you’ve got a boss who’s also looking six months ahead and moving those roadblocks that you couldn’t possibly even fathom yet. But you should be able to do that all by yourself.

You will be incredibly valued as somebody coming into the workforce, and in fact throughout your career, if you’re one of those people, who, when they see the obstacle, they’ve got five ideas of what they’re going to go do about it. None of them involve whining about the fact that the obstacle is there. What’s in the path defines the path. The obstacle becomes the way.

I think the biggest detractor or the biggest impediment in government is a mindset of control and fear. I’m being purposefully over the top on that. I believe to my core that the natural state of any government is command and control. In other words, I’m going to direct you from on high and you are going to follow. The institutions reinforce that, whether it’s the Congress or the Executive Branch. Industry has found that that system doesn’t work.

The way to drive value is collaboration and driving things to the edge, and empowerment, and allowing people to innovate within a culture of safety. My job is to drive fear out of the equation and allow people to innovate, experiment, do the things that they are naturally capable of doing. And I provide the high cover in an environment in which they can make mistakes and fail.

I think the difficulty we have is we confuse the macroscopic and the microscopic. The macroscopic: the government can’t fail. On the microscopic level, in individual programs or in individual jobs or activities in the programs, we cannot confuse the macroscopic of, “The government cannot fail” with the, “You know what? Sometimes programs don’t meet their needs and they need to be changed or revamped.” Experiments or change initiatives failing does not mean the government as a whole fails. We confuse those two, combined with a mindset of, “I don’t want to get in the Washington Post”, or, “I’m afraid. I’m afraid of the exposure to falling down.” That confusion and that prevailing mindset inhibit people to actually learn, grow, try, and succeed.

Resilience is the number one competency on every single position in my organization. It is the most important competency by leaps and bounds over everything else. If you are resilient, then you can accomplish anything.

The people who excel, whether they choose to stay for a career or they come in to make a difference, are the people who can see that our work here is greater than us individually, and that what matters is those who we serve.

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