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The Toughest Job I’ve Ever Loved

MyDHS - Leslie Hope, Information Technology Field Services Chief, United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS)
Podcast Series: 

Leslie Hope, Information Technology Field Services Chief, United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), talks about the joys and challenges of merging 22 components into one functional agency.


Please welcome to the stage, Information Technology Field Services Chief Leslie Hope, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Secretary Nielsen, Deputy Secretary Duke and honored guests as well as my DHS colleagues, good morning. Thank you very much for the honor and the opportunity to share some of my experience these past 15 years at DHS with you. When 9/11 happened, like all Americans, I remember exactly where I was. I was a supervisory IT specialist for legacy INS working out of the tech world building over in Chinatown. I'll never forget when someone came into my office and said that a plane had hit the World Trade Center and I remember distinctly this picture in my head was a little private single-engine plane and I thought maybe someone – a pilot – had like a medical emergency and accidentally crashed into the – into the plane. It wasn't too long before someone else came in and said that a plane had hit the second tower and I knew that we were under attack. So we went looking for a TV, which in a government office wasn't all that easy to find in those days, and we turned on the news and started to look at the pictures that were forever burnt into our minds of those planes hitting the World Trade Center and it was about that time that we felt the ground rumble and could see the smoke from the plane that hit the Pentagon. My instinct was to run like everyone else in Washington. The streets were gridlocked and everybody was grabbing their things and running out of the building and I suddenly realized that I couldn't go anywhere because I was the Director of IT Operations and that I had a building full of staff and helped us to run and that I probably wasn't going to be going anywhere for a while and in fact, I didn't. We spent four days staying at the hotel right behind Tech World working 12-hour shifts so that we could run data scrapes because the bombing names were starting to come up. I was happy to do that work and felt proud and still do working for the Department of Homeland Security. It was one that – when I was asked to give some thoughts about this. One of the things that really amazed me was the feelings that came back over me. I hadn't – it’s not that you ever don't think about 9/11, but to really sit down and think about “Wow, what happened in the beginning?” and stuff. There were so much feelings that that went through me when the 9/11 happened. It was 11 days after they put the new Office of Homeland Security together. But it was almost 9 months until the legislative proposal to create the Department was introduced, and 5 more months until the Act was signed in 2002, and then for 4 more months, we work tirelessly with the Executive Office of the President to get ready for Day One activities. For me, a new agency meant breaking up INS, and of course, the personal stuff goes through your head: “Will I have a job? Where will I work? What's my responsibility is going to be? Who will my boss be?” And then the enormity of the mission hit. The Department of Homeland Security, we're gonna provide security to our homeland. How could we possibly do that? How would we organize? How can – how could you set up tight security in a free society? And would I be able to add value to that work? Would I be capable? The sinking in of the new normal was starting to happen.? At first, there was a lot of rumors during these months about what was going to happen to INS. Information was slow to come, but eventually, things started to take shape. We learned that Customs and Border Protection was going to be where the Border Patrol and the inspectors went. We learned about Immigration and Customs Enforcement where investigators would go and the detention and removals would be accomplished. We learned – we learned that the OIT employees that were INS at the time were staying with ICE. I'll never forget our first INS ICIO. He was an agent and the first meeting I had with him, he crossed his legs and had an ankle holster on with a weapon on it and I knew life was different. Shortly after that, we learned about the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services where the administration of immigration services and benefits would be. And about six months after DHS started, they dropped the word Bureau and the agency became U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services as it is today. The first DHS assignment I had from the Executive Office of the President was to ensure that all 22 components had addresses on the first email addresses on the first day that we started. Of course, I had to have that done with no money and or very little money and they're in and it had to be done on time. Boy, did I learn lots of lessons quick. Talk about getting dumped into the deep pool. Many of them, the hard way. One of the things I did was I got all the points of contact from the 22 organizations together and tried to get them to agree on an approach to do something, eh-didn't work, start over. I learned quickly that the way to get things done in this Department was going to be to come up with a good plan and then get the people in the room to try to nail it out and get an operational concept together too so we could go ahead and implement and that's exactly what we did. Even though it was a very difficult time and people were having – it was hard when you had grown up in an agency and you were being thrust into this new DHS where nobody really knew where the boundaries were. What was gonna happen and people – they wanted to do the right things, but sometimes it got hard and people, people got very emotional and very protective of their worlds so I really really appreciated all those all those IT people coming together and being willing to let go a little bit of their control. It was a reward, it was a really rewarding experience and the one thing I started to see doing that was there was – ah, it’s not necessarily all bad change. There could be opportunity here and this might be something that could be fun and so then I got my second assignment at DHS and that was breaking up the INS OIT baby as we affectionately called it. I had to work with DHS and CBP and ICE IT Executives to determine where the employees, the infrastructure, the resources we're gonna where they were gonna go and what each component was gonna have, responsibility for. That was an excruciatingly difficult time. Everything felt personal, but it wasn't. And it needed to be professional. But it was so hard to get out of that mindset. I learned some valuable lessons during that assignment. I learned how to put those emotions aside and do the right thing for the country. I quickly learned how to work with people with many opposing points of view and calm intense emotions. I learned the art of compromise, and sometimes it was difficult. But I also made lifelong friends and mentors and met incredible professionals. I have never worked with more incredible professionals in my life than I have in the Department of Homeland Security. Soon, leadership at USCIS asked if I would be willing to come up and set up IT operations in USCIS. And I figured how hard could it be? I broke up the baby, and they didn't get anything so there wasn't much to operate so I accepted the challenge. Kidding aside, one of the best things about working for DHS is the opportunities and depending on your interests and what you need for to support your lifestyle. There are endless opportunities here. Several times, I've been asked to step up and take positions where I initially felt inadequate or unprepared. And the life's that unprepared. But the agency needed someone to step up. What I found was that leadership supported me, they mentored me, and they helped me grow until I was comfortable to take the reins and go myself. It provided a road for an incredible journey. Eventually, I became the Deputy CIO of USCIS and was Acting CIO for a number of years where I served with several DHS CIO Councils in some of the best technical leaders in government. When I needed a break from IT, USCIS provided me opportunities where I could continue to make a difference and at and have a change of pace. For several years I ran the Biometrics Division where I honed my management skills and put servant leadership into practice. When I worked myself out of a job and my team could take over, I was able to take on a new challenge helping to set up a new Service Center, the Potomac Service Center. Imagine starting a large organization from an empty building. I was the second employee in that position. I learned so much about leading people, about the business of immigration. It was such an honor and after working on the business side for about seven years, I'm now back in IT leading the IT Field Services Division. Learning to lead in USCIS and working with incredible people has been one of the greatest joys of my life. At USCIS, I'm honored to work with people who tirelessly devote themselves to ensure that we provide the right benefit to the right person at the right time. Now as I look forward to retirement in a couple of years, I'm the one who's providing encouragement and mentoring to the next generation of leaders. In summary, I just want to say that working for DHS has helped me become a better leader, a better colleague, a better friend, and a better person. Taking on the challenge of bringing 22 components into one functioning agency is incredibly difficult. It's complex and very frustrating at times. It's also been the opportunity of a lifetime. In the past 15 years through the storming and norming, the ups and the downs, the successes, and the not so successes, I look back gratefully at an incredible journey this truly has been the toughest job I have ever loved. Thank you all very much. [Applause]
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