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A day in the life of an 18F product owner

Rebecca works here at TTS. Aaron Burk is a Senior Project Manager at the Forest Service and the product owner for this project with the Forest Service.

The Technology Transformation Services (TTS) has been working with the Forest Service in an effort to move their permitting process online. We’ve previously written about how doing this work in the open can benefit other agencies with permit systems. In this post, we’ll focus on why it’s important to have a product owner, what that looks like from the Forest Service’s perspective, and why a product owner is critical to successful projects.

What makes a product owner?

Product owners are central to the success of TTS projects with other federal agencies because it gives the team one decision maker to go to on a daily basis. This doesn’t mean they make decisions in a vacuum. We keep other stakeholders involved in the process, but it does mean that our developers ask questions to one person, instead of a board of people. And there are a lot of questions to be answered, so product owners typically end up dedicating a significant portion of their 40 hour week to the project.

This person is also working hand in hand with the TTS team, not sitting on the sideline. The team really benefits from someone who is actively involved in development meetings and can advocate for the user (the public in many cases). When the team hits unfamiliar territory, the product owner can help articulate the most efficient path forward.

Having this person involved from day one is crucial to the success of the project, but we know this is a big ask when many federal agencies are understaffed and many project managers have multiple projects to manage at once.

We interviewed our product owner, Aaron Burk, for our Forest Service engagement to move their permitting process online to get a better understanding of what he does day to day and why that has been critical to the overall success of the project.

TTS: Can you walk me through what you do as a product owner?

Aaron Burk: As a product owner, my role is to ensure that our partners at GSA/TTS/18F have the information necessary to put together the appropriate solicitation documents as we start to engage contractors selected from the Agile Blanket Purchase Agreement. As we work through that process, the product owner needs to be able to weigh in and help evaluate the results of the bids we receive in relation to the work that we need done, as we have for our first two buys, the logic layer Application Program Interface and the intake module. Once we select a vendor, my role is a continued relationship with the vendor, alongside TTS, to keep the communications open to get the product that the Forest Service requires to best serve the public’s needs. I have wonderful resources from the TTS team to help with the technical aspects of the project. It’s key to leverage the resources we have but also strongly communicate the values of the agency and the users of the system.

TTS: What does your day-to-day look like?

Aaron: This goes far beyond the product owner role as a project manager for a new system that we’re still developing. My days vary widely from interacting with software development teams to briefing agency executives on project status as well as making them aware of issues where they can assist as project sponsors. I also deal with both short- and long-term planning, analysing hosting environments, developing communications strategies, and many other aspects of project management. As the project progresses, I’m also working closely with TTS to look at the three major dimensions of the requirements that shape the system: Are we bringing in more permits? Do we have more functionality and/or more forests? How do we prepare for enterprise scale-up? Building a new system also brings in a lot of security and governance aspects and it’s my job to coordinate those efforts.

Another big part of my work, since we’re working in an agile fashion, is attending all of the agile ceremonies: sprint planning, reviews, retrospectives, daily standups. We also have larger weekly meetings across the different workstreams. I want to emphasize that we work as a team. I only play one role and can delegate, but the nice thing of having the TTS team is having folks who are also doing the work so I can focus on larger, broad-scale tasks and other aspects of project work and communication.

TTS: What makes you excited about this project?

Aaron: This is a great opportunity to bring to the Forest Service several efficient ways of working and more contemporary approaches to implement technology within our organization. It could lead to many long term benefits beyond e-Permit and influence the agency as a whole.

The goal of our project is to provide easier access to the public lands through the land use permitting process. One aspect of this is to move the agency into the digital era to interact with the public and better meet their needs. It also gives us an opportunity to take advantage of what we’re doing with e-Permit to facilitate improvement of other programs and applications within the Forest Service, as well as the possibility of bringing tools and ideas to our partner agencies that also work in land use permitting.

TTS: What leadership structure above you has been most effective?

Aaron: The e-Permit effort has very strong executive-level sponsorship and is considered a high priority for the agency. I work most closely with the Deputy Chief’s Office for National Forest Systems by working with our project lead Brian Schwind, the Resource Information Manager for National Forest Systems. This project is sponsored directly by the Deputy Chief. That has been a very good relationship to help us navigate challenges that we may face. The executive leadership have been open to reviewing policy and encourage new ideas, especially as it relates to policy and technology. It’s been a holistic process and leadership promotes the idea that IT can’t be done in a vacuum. We also have great support from our director areas that we’re working with including Lands and Realty Management, Forest and Rangeland management and Recreation, Heritage, and Volunteer Resources.

TTS: How can other agencies take on a similar modernization project?

Aaron: Be cognizant of the opportunities within the federal govt where there are organizations like TTS and the U.S. Digital Service. Work with groups like that who can help leverage best practices and digital strategy to put together an appropriate strategy to find the best solution for the issue that you’re working on. Ask the question “What’s the proper technology, what discovery process should we use? Is it a technology, policy, or process problem?” You need to look at the whole spectrum when you’re looking at a potential technology solution to resolve an issue or provide a service. Agencies have to recognize that technology is only one aspect of what needs to be done. You need to have the necessary support and sponsorship across the agency to accomplish the mission.

TTS: How does your relationship to other parts of the agency help you in your role as product owner?

Aaron: It’s important to understand the landscape of your agency and all the different roles and organizations as you’re moving forward with setting up a new enterprise system. It’s important to realize there is a lot of expertise and opportunities out there, and it’s important to communicate and build those relationships to support the effort. This facilitates information exchange that may not have been available in the past. It’s important to identify these as you move forward as a product owner and know what you’ll need in the short and long term to fit the needs of your project. This is a good opportunity that can be easy to miss when you’re down in the weeds of working on a project. As a product owner, you need to appreciate the need to build those relationships. I was recently in a training for project managers, and it didn’t touch on building trust and interpersonal aspects, but that is key to being successful on a project at this scale. It aligns well with the human-centered design principles that TTS espouses.

TTS: What has been fun about this project?

Aaron: This has been a great opportunity to learn about new techniques related to requirements gathering and interacting directly with the users from the public. We get to engage with them as we work to provide an improved service for their use. It’s been fun interacting with a lot of different groups that I personally haven’t had the opportunity to interact with in the past. It’s great to learn more and hear new ideas as well as having the flexibility, being able to take what we’re learning and deliver that back to other parts of the agency.

TTS: How have you dealt with setbacks on your projects?

Aaron: We haven’t had any.

Everyone laughs.

Whenever you’re implementing a new system that’s incorporating new ideas, it’s always expected there are going to be obstacles. The way to deal with that is to accept that they will occur even if you don’t know anticipate them and start immediately working to identify how you overcome those obstacles and work towards completing the mission when obstacles are encountered. A big part of dealing with obstacles is expectation management. As a project manager, that’s something you have to deal with all the time. The team is very flexible and accepting that things don’t always go right. We look at those as not just obstacles but also learning opportunities for future projects and document them for how we won’t do it next time.

TTS: What’s a large hurdle or roadblock that you’re proud of getting through with your team? Tell me about how that happened.

Aaron: Hosting has been the biggest challenge so far. Working through and evaluating different hosting opportunities to determine what our opportunity areas are and working towards a cloud solution that will be suitable, that will create a product that will work for internal users and the public. Exploring options that didn’t exactly suit the project needs and finding an approach that will meet our needs. Our hope is that Forest Service will end up moving to a cloud or Platform-as-a-Service solution in the end.

TTS: Patience on both sides has made this doable. If the Forest Service was a less patient client or if we were chomping at the bit to only do things one way, it wouldn’t have worked out.

Aaron: Yes, having a professional and persistent team that is willing to explore alternatives and accept challenges has been a great aspect of this project.

TTS: How has your time commitment been different on this project compared to other projects you’ve worked on?

Aaron: In the past I’ve worked across multiple projects, with maybe one major project and a couple minor ones. However, a project of this scale requires nearly all of my time. It’s a good message for anybody considering this type of engagement. If you’re going to be a product owner, with multiple contracts with vendors working on different modules, it’s important to bring in someone who can commit nearly all their time to that project. They also need to have the willingness to work through some complex challenges and willing to learn from the TTS team. You also have to have cool stories to keep up team morale.

TTS: What type of mark on your public service do you imagine this project leaving?

Aaron: I look at it as not so much my mark but I believe this project has presented an opportunity to move the agency forward in providing a very good interaction with the public to welcome them to their public lands. I would also say, it’s left an opportunity to bring in ideas and people to the organization that can serve the Forest Service well beyond this project. My personal ethic is: I always believe that it’s the people and ideas that are cultivated when you implement something new that truly impacts an agency, user group, or public even more than whatever product you create. I don’t get caught up in the project when thinking about long term impacts. I do think about who have I hired? Who have I brought in or partnered with that will make an impact over time? Projects and systems come and go.

Overall, while there’s been ups and downs, it’s been a very positive opportunity for me personally and for the Forest Service to partner with another federal agency who has the best interests of the public and our agency in mind. This creates autonomy that you don’t always get with other hired services. Because 18F and TTS have a mission, you can only bend on your mission so much, which can force your client into an uncomfortable place but they have to be uncomfortable to get to a better place. You don’t just pay TTS to tell you what to do, but you push the team to where we have to reflect and think about the future so we can do new things efficiently. As a customer, you have to be ready and receptive to that concept.


This is the third post in a series on our engagement with the Forest Service. Read the first post to learn more about why discovery research matters for modular procurement and the second post about how our team took a step back to measure our progress and evaluate if we were still meeting the needs of our users.

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