In the 1930s, a combination of severe drought, over-plowing, wind erosion and unsustainable farming methods led to the massive dust storms\u2014known as "black blizzards" or "dusters"\u2014that defined the Dust Bowl. Congress authorized the Federal Crop Insurance Corporation (FCIC) as part of President Roosevelt\u2019s New Deal to help sustain the agricultural sector by providing farmers with crop insurance.\nToday, the FCIC is maintained under the auspices of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Risk Management Agency (USDA-RMA), and CIO Chad Sheridan acknowledges the historical legacy of the agency while working diligently to digitally transform for the future.\u00a0\nFor Sheridan, being an effective IT leader starts with a sense of mission and purpose.\u00a0\n Courtesy of the U.S. Department of Agriculture \nChad Sheridan, CIO, USDA-RMA\n\n\u201cThere was a recent study that showed the economic impact of crop insurance for the local economies in four states in the Midwest,\u201d Sheridan said. \u201cThe study showed that crop insurance preserved nearly 21,000 jobs across those four states during the 2012 drought. [It\u2019s about] seeing what happens in a year like 2012, where there\u2019s a historic drought in the Midwest and farms survive, [and] producers survive because of what we do. ... For those people who struggle every year to keep their farms afloat, especially in bad times, crop insurance keeps farmers farming.\u201d\u00a0\nDigital has helped expedite the speed with which producers receive essential reimbursements.\n\u201cOne of the major benefits of insurance versus, say, other disaster-related programs is the speed at which relief is provided to somebody who has experienced a catastrophic loss," Sheridan explained. "In the past, it took literal acts of Congress to get disaster programs funded, whereas with insurance, the insured files a claim, the claim is adjusted and we\u2019re talking weeks.\u201d\nEnhancing the customer experience\nDigital transformation has also allowed Sheridan and his team to transcend the transactional nature of crop insurance to focus on a more personalized, convenient and dynamic customer experience.\n\u201cOne of the things that\u2019s required as part of our authorizing act is that we make available a list of agents, by location, to the public,\u201d he pointed out. \u201cIf I\u2019m a producer, I want to know who sells crop insurance in my area.\u201d\nTo make this information available, the USDA-RMA long ago evolved from paper-based systems to a tabular electronic interface, but Sheridan and his team still saw room for improvement. By employing a Google application program interface (API), the USDA-RMA was able to deliver a searchable, map-based system, allowing for faster interactions between the insured and the agents who assist them.\n\u201cIf I type in my location,\u201d Sheridan explained, \u201cit looks as if I were searching on Google and I\u2019ve got a map of where all those agents are located, and I have the ability to click for directions.\u201d\nDriving digital with data\nIn an environment such as the USDA-RMA, Sheridan says \u201cit\u2019s the data that matters.\u201d And when working on reinsurance settlements with the 16 individual companies that sell and service crop insurance, transparent and actionable data is essential. Historically, the agency has relied on standard, rote PDFs as data outputs. They were the product of specific, transactional queries made by a select few \u201cSQL slingers\u201d within the organization who maintained a \u201chefty knowledge of querying,\u201d as Sheridan put it.\nIn recent years, however, a significant investment in data warehousing support has allowed for more accessible and usable data. Making the data sets more malleable and flexible has, in the process, made the format appropriately subordinate to actionable information.\n\u201cAs part of our transformation,\u201d Sheridan explained, \u201cwe have made available to everyone working on this, the logic behind these calculations and how the data is organized. It\u2019s transparent. It is real. And it\u2019s being used to train people.\u201d\nFacing fear to move the organization forward\nSheridan said the number one barrier to creating a culture of innovation is fear. The antidote to fear in IT, he explained, is accountability, coupled with the freedom to act.\n\u201cWe\u2019re accountable for results,\u201d he said, \u201cbut it\u2019s OK to stumble, make mistakes, and learn along the way, provided we hold ourselves [accountable].\u201d\nDuring the implementation of the Agricultural Act of 2014 (also known as the 2014 U.S. Farm Bill), Sheridan and his team focused on effective execution. A major focus for the USDA-RMA is tracking whether or not citizens, due to insurance judgments, other federal programs, or legal decisions such as debarment, are ineligible to receive crop insurance. The bill mandated provisions around late payment of debt.\nTo execute effectively, IT partnered with the business product team to develop a methodology around ineligible tracking system capabilities and subsequent integration with a late payment of debt capability. The business team, Sheridan said, worked very efficiently with the entire IT team to avoid stop-gap solutions amidst a flurry of deadlines, focusing instead on long-term, holistic delivery.\n\u201cIt was almost like watching\u2014I hate to use the term \u2018magic\u2019\u2014but the magic of accountability, ownership, and skin in the game,\u201d Sheridan said. \u201cEverybody could see that the development team, my management team, the business management team, and subject-matter experts, were all committed to this approach [and] to this outcome. And any issue that came up was resolved because of that.\u201d\nThis accountability has been reinforced through the agency\u2019s adherence to an agile methodology.\n\u201cThe impetus was that we were spending six months planning a six-month job,\u201d he explained. \u201cThat\u2019s a waste.\u201d\nHe stressed the emphasis his team has placed on communicating changes to project sponsors, while also maintaining the balancing act between providing transparency and avoiding getting dragged into a mire of needless communication at the expense of execution.\nDuring these transformational moves, every expenditure is necessarily scrutinized. Sheridan must encapsulate the direct business value of the dozens of projects that come across his desk, while making effective governance and smooth implementation his top priorities. The emphasis is to communicate in terms of business outcomes and turn technical jargon and security speak into opportunities.\nIn short, Sheridan needs to constantly reinforce what makes sense from a business standpoint in terms everyone can appreciate.\n\u201cWhat I think our biggest lesson has been is that you cannot communicate enough,\u201d he said.