It’s not often that anyone aspires to “go slow” to reach their goals, but for Shane Barney, Acting Chief Information Security Officer for the U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services, it’s part of the plan.

“If you want to go fast, you need to go slow,” Barney said, speaking at the MeriTalk/GAI FedFocus 2018: Smart Technologies Accelerating Mission conference on Tuesday. That’s not hollow bumper sticker wisdom for Barney–it’s a working philosophy that illustrates his justifiable concern about being saddled with clean-up costs for pricey missteps.

“Technical debt is not like the debt owed to a bank. It’s more like debt owed to the mob. It will come back to haunt you at the worst possible moment.”

The battle against technical debt–the added expense of reworking a solution that initially seemed quick and/or easy–is not handily won. Nor is it always winnable, considering the futility of trying to anticipate problems that arise from technological change. That said, Barney believes “ruthlessly eliminating all technical obligations” is key to modernization.

Given the size, scale, and operating costs of the U.S. Citizen & Immigration Services, it’s only natural that it was among the first agencies within the DHS to aggressively pursue cloud migration.

The USCIS processes a staggering volume of data: Every day it answers 50,000 toll-free calls, verifies employment eligibility of 80,000 new hires, issues roughly 7,000 Green Cards, grants permanent residence to 2,100 people and adjudicates 26,000 requests for immigration benefits. And that’s just a portion of the agency’s operations. Considering the USCIS’s core mission, a certain degree of prudence was necessary as it approached technological upheaval, but in the face of change, fear of failure is almost a liability, says Barney.

“Failure is expected. In fact, it should be encouraged to some extent. USCIS has had many missteps. However, the one thing we did right in most cases, was we learned from those failures and implemented changes accordingly. Pivoting becomes an operational norm.”

Still, pivoting does not come naturally to many Federal agencies, particularly considering budgetary restrictions and suffocating regulatory environments. But it is critical, and may only be possible by instilling a culture that embraces change.

“When Mark Schwartz, [USCIS’ former CIO], stepped into the [CIO] role, we were isolated from the business. Then there was a fundamental shift in thinking. It didn’t happen overnight,” Barney says. “He aligned all our processes to it, he aligned our budgets to it, he denied projects that weren’t aligned to it. It involved changes to contract structures, it involved changes to personnel… There is no magic bullet for making it work. You have to realize it’s a long-term process. Organizations that wish to modernize must undertake significant top to bottom cultural change. It means you become more concerned with embracing change and less with your plan to do so.”

Thus far, the USCIS has reduced infrastructure costs by 75% through cloud migration. It has not been a simple or short-term process, though, and the process is not over yet.

“Nobody in the world would have thought that the government, of all things, would be going to the cloud,” Barney says. “But I’m 75% there. And we’re pretty darn close to 100%.”

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