After almost a decade on the frontline of technological transformations at the Agriculture Department, Chad Sheridan’s official last day with the agency is Friday—but he might not be gone for good. He’s leaving, “well, for now, [but] the door’s always open” to return to federal service, he told Nextgov this week.
In his last post, Sheridan led service delivery and operations for Agriculture’s Farm Production and Conservation, or FPAC, Business Center. He’s spent countless hours over the years modernizing IT efforts across the massive agency and helping create farmer-focused tools—the most notable being the still-evolving farmers.gov portal, which aims to act as producers’ main entry point to a range of ag-related services. During his final week at the agency, Sheridan spoke candidly about his experiences introducing change from within, the emerging technology he believes could rapidly metamorphosize agencies’ productivity and new details about what his future may hold.
“I’ve been doing this for a long time—26 years—and I’ve never worked on anything but hard jobs,” Sheridan explained. “I’m a lightning rod for change and when you’ve been driving change like I have … the cost of being the lightning rod can be very high.”In June 2011, Sheridan joined Agriculture as the chief information officer of its RIsk Management Agency, where he revamped the IT program and supervised many tech-focused efforts. In early 2018, the agency underwent a reorganization that established new business centers and consolidated each of the mission areas and their supporting functions. In April of that year, Sheridan was pulled in to help lead the consolidation of IT efforts for three agencies that now make up the Farm Production and Conservation, or FPAC mission area. In October 2018, the FPAC business center was formed and he assumed his current role as the chief of information solutions, service delivery and operations—“which is a mouthful,” he admitted. That position falls under the information solutions directorate, which he said is the IT organization in FPAC. There, he’s responsible for development and operations, “so roughly 65 to 70% of the people and 80 to 85% of the spend—I’ve got all the fun stuff. I build and operate everything in my large organization. And I’ve got a great team,” he said. That team is now made up of more than 200 people, and 10 report directly to Sheridan.
But before joining Agriculture, Sheridan spent about 18 years of active duty and civilian service with the U.S. Navy in the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Directorate, or Naval Reactors. “So I grew up building aircraft carriers and designing nuclear propulsion plants,” he said. “I’m actually a nuclear engineer—I used to design nuclear powered aircraft carriers and submarines and build them.”
When asked if enhancing Agriculture services through the development of customer-friendly tools like farmers.gov was tougher than his work as a nuclear engineer, Sheridan laughed. “Oh, absolutely,” he said. “What we’re being asked to do, it’s not the impossible, but the improbable.”
Sheridan began working on what would become farmers.gov in October 2017—though when he first started it was the “FPAC portal.” A branding team member recommended the simple title because it connotes the core mission to be built for farmers, by farmers and Sheridan said farmers.gov really started to stick over time—after everyone made jokes about its similarity to the dating site, farmersonly.com.
“And I don’t think anyone is as crazy as we are in trying to craft an informational and transactional capability that tries to bring the business of 40-plus programs across three agencies, six, seven lines of business, to a unifying customer experience, where we can be and show all of us to the farmer and the farmer can bring all of themselves to USDA,” he said. “We haven’t completely achieved that vision yet. But that’s what farmers.gov is about.”
Farmers.gov aims to be a one-stop digital shop where farmers and ranchers can access a range of services and tools the agency offers. But producing the site did not come without a few troubles and detours along the way. “We did things that weren’t done before in terms of timeframes—and boy did it hurt,” Sheridan said. The farmers.gov creators had an initial vision for all the capabilities to include in the buildout, but early in their work agency leadership directed the inclusion of other elements, like accessibility to a broad-based disaster assistance program and tools supporting it and later, a market facilitation program they were asked to launch on the site—in five weeks. It was an incredible feat, he said, but then insiders “tried to get back to the point of what we wanted to build towards the tail end of 2018. Then we had this thing called a shutdown that impeded us.” Since then, officials have continued to create and launch new capabilities through the site, and even more are in the works. Sheridan said having a secretary “that understands the potential value that technology can bring into how we do business” was instrumental in these efforts and beyond.
He also had a front seat introducing robotic process automation capabilities to alleviate some of the manual burdens Agriculture personnel frequently face. He said RPA is fast to build and an extra benefit is that the nascent technology captures process flow and requirements that could be used to build a system record. And because “every agency has a ton of data and a little bit of knowledge,” insiders should be applying artificial intelligence and machine learning to their heaps of data to free up personnel from “the drudgery of trying to make the data sing for them,” Sheridan said. “It’s the human—plus the machine—that I think is amazing. I start to take away the painful aspects of a digital environment and I start to unleash the intersection of human and machine. I don’t even think we’ve scratched the surface of that yet.”
His passion for public (and customer) service resonated in all that he said, but when pushed about why he’s exiting federal service now, Sheridan made it clear that he’s been burning himself out. He’s headed to NetImpact Strategies to serve as chief information officer of the IT-driven business. Still, Sheridan said that he’s open to returning to a federal agency in the future. “I’ll never say no to the right opportunity, if it came along and it made sense,” he said. But he added that he views himself as a “bureaucracy hacker,” and it would have to be a role in which he was creating solutions. “I’ve got to build stuff. If you ask me to come back into a policy role, I’d struggle,” he said. “I am a doer. I love doing stuff.”
Looking back on all his work at the farm agency, Sheridan said one of the most critical lessons he hopes to leave behind is to let go of fear.
“Everything’s going to go wrong. Everything’s going to break. It’s going to be hard. You’re going to fall and it’s going to hurt. You’ve got to do it anyway,” he said. “It’s daunting. It’s exciting. It’s wonderful. But it hurts—it really hurts.”