'Domains' Help USCIS Enhance Agile, Fast Mission Delivery

'Domains' Help USCIS Enhance Agile, Fast Mission Delivery

The agency's tech leads saw operational efficiencies in a reorganized IT infrastructure that is adaptable to change.

When U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services CIO Bill McElhaney assumed his position in March 2018, IT offices within each directorate were very siloed across the agency. Repetitive processes and excess IT spending impeded mission delivery speed and inhibited effectiveness and efficiency.

Since reorganizing IT operations under a new domain-driven approach, the agency's tech leads say there was an increase in efficiency and security and optimization of resources. 

“IT integration is always the challenge,” McElhaney told GovernmentCIO Media & Research about his and CTO Rob Brown's domain approach. “Instead of each of the many many case management systems across the various directorates, we just started talking about case management as a domain. Once we identified those constructs as domains, we identified existing best practices and services within each of those. ... We started using a pattern to move from these monoliths to stop talking about systems and start talking about domains. That helped in and of itself with the integration.”

Deputy CIO Yemi Oshinnaiye said the domain approach to IT revolutionized DevSecOps teams at the agency and how they worked.

“In a domain structure, these are folks who have worked on payments, or whatever their focus area is, understand the nuances, and do this thing over and over,” he told GovernmentCIO Media & Research. “It also brings in better understanding. Developers have to analyze the problem and come up with a solution. Doing multiple things at one time starts to dilute the efficiency. If you focus on your area, you can put better quality out there.”

Brown said domain-driven design “has been around for a long time,” but federal agencies have an opportunity to take advantage of it in a unique way. Oshinnaiye likens USCIS’ platform management to the Air Force's Platform One.

“What's new is, how do we start to couple this with the sociotechnical aspects of working with those teams?” Brown said in the interview with GovernmentCIO Media & Research. “Delivering faster, increased quality code, understanding the problem sets. ... It addresses challenges in those business domains, and that's pretty critical and crux to all of this. We do throw the term Conway's law around a bit, we were really top-down money-driven in these directorates instead of thinking about the business value and functions.”

USCIS uses artificial intelligence and machine learning to streamline application development, which McElhaney said creates more stability in IT functioning throughout the agency. Since automation tools are only as good as the data given to them, Oshinnaiye cautioned, focusing on good data processes is key.

“You can automate an error and automate it over and over again and destroy your environment,” he said. “We want to make sure the infrastructure is sound and understand the objective and then automate it. We make sure the algorithms we have can learn in a way that we're going to get better and faster. When we glean something from that, we go ahead and input it back in so we can get smarter, better, faster, and use our brains for things that are more analytic and solve bigger problems.”

Relying on AI, automation and machine learning ultimately supports USCIS’ domain-oriented IT structure. It even encourages outsourced application development.

“Stitching that together with AI and domains ... they become an autonomous but standardized platform,” McElhaney said. “The way to manage that is to integrate those with your pipeline. ... We're standardizing the domains related to stacks with a pipeline, and that enables the developers to focus on building the application more so than all of the gates and authorities necessary for them to publish in our environment, it helps us implement DevSecOps by following that practice.”

Almost all IT functioning at USCIS comes down to domain management, including supply chain risk management practices.

“From insider threats to infrastructure, we monitor the environment — it's something you do from development all the way to product,” Oshinnaiye said. “There's a hardening routine that takes place, from every device or environment, to ensure we're up to standards.”

Going forward with a new administration, the USCIS executives are confident the agency can handle any mission or IT changes due to their flexible, agile domain-focused IT model.

“My philosophy is we're never done in IT, we're constantly in that state of change. By becoming more domain-oriented, we become far more flexible and adaptive to change,” McElhaney said.

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