The finalists for WashingtonExec’s Pinnacle Awards were announced Oct. 11, and we’ll be highlighting some of them until the event takes place live, in-person Nov. 30.
Next is Cloud Government Executive of the Year finalist Sonny Bhagowalia, who’s assistant commissioner in the Office of Information and Technology and chief information officer for Customs and Border Protection. Here, he talks career inflection points, primary focus areas going forward, taking professional risks and more.
What has made you successful in your current role?
We have engaged in trusted partnerships with our mission stakeholders to provide IT services and capabilities anywhere and anytime at the speed of CBP’s 24/7 mission securely and reliably.
I have 38 years of experience and have been a CIO five times at the federal and state government levels. The breadth of my experience across various government agencies and state government has provided me an excellent understanding of how to focus on mission outcomes and drive results effectively and efficiently.
What was a turning point or inflection point in your career?
After serving a 14-year career and achieving the position of a senior principal engineer at a Fortune 20 company, I joined government service at the FBI and realized the importance of the mission and public service. I secured funding to implement a program to upgrade the FBI’s mission technology infrastructure, which was a key component of keeping our nation secure after Sept. 11. This brought cooperation and unity of effort across government agencies, allowing us to bring perpetrators to justice.
What are you most proud of having been a part of in your current organization?
The size, scope and complexity of the CBP mission, and the sheer breadth and reach of CBP in protecting the American people, safeguarding the borders and ensuring America’s prosperity is stunning. It is by far one of the most important agencies that run the mission of the country. It is my honor and privilege to serve here.
What are your primary focus areas going forward, and why are those so important to the future of the nation?
I have six strategic focus areas ⏤ mission infrastructure, mission applications, trusted partners, cybersecurity, enterprise IT governance and CIO business operations. They are arranged to bring together strategic transformation, build upon tactical excellence and leverage innovation in support of CBP’s 24/7 mission. This allows us to work smarter and not just harder through data-driven decision making.
What’s the biggest professional risk you’ve ever taken?
The Bureau of Indian Affairs. After receiving a Presidential Rank Award in the FBI for my achievements and serving as the first Indian American Assistant Director at the FBI, the premier law enforcement agency in the world, I read about the Cobell litigation, which was a $52 billion lawsuit and the largest federal lawsuit for breach of trust of Native American records.
Consequently, BIA, which serves 562 federally recognized tribes, was ordered off the internet for six and a half years. This greatly impacted services to the tribes. I read about this case and was determined to help.
I joined as the first American Indian CIO for Native Americans. I left the premier law enforcement agency after documented success and recognition from my superiors, and I went to the frontlines of serving the Native American people, who are often overlooked. I found it the most rewarding experience and was able to resolve the issues successfully in nine months with court approval. I was promoted to become the first Indian American CIO of a federal department.