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Product management at 18F, part 1 - New engagements

This is the first of a series of blog posts that will provide a glimpse into what it’s like to be a product manager at 18F.

Product managers (PMs) play a key role at 18F. While there is overlap, the role of a PM varies significantly between organizations, even within the federal government. Sometimes PMs are focused on high-level vision and strategy, sometimes they’re deep into the weeds of implementation, and — perhaps most often — they do both. In either case, they relentlessly focus on delivering a great product for users.

At 18F, we partner with federal agencies to improve the user experience of government. We bring our product management skills to bear during these engagements to build digital services in line with our partners’ missions. Our role is to deliver working products. But we believe it’s even more important that we foster product management principles so that our partners can continue to support and evolve those products.

When working with an agency, identifying the right problem to focus on is often the first challenge. That’s why we have Path Analyses: short engagements to survey the landscape and align everyone on a path forward. Most Path Analysis projects are staffed by a nimble team of 2-3 people. During these engagements, PMs leverage their research and strategic skills to develop a broad perspective and quickly hone in on a problem statement to solve. Conducting this type of analysis requires coordinating with a broad range of stakeholders and end users, conducting interviews, and synthesizing complex organizational and technical problems into a cohesive story that our partners can use.

Once the vision is established, partners may continue to engage with 18F by experimenting and iterating on a solution. These Experiment & Iterate phases, or E&I for short, involve larger, cross-functional teams of strategists, designers, engineers, and agency partners, all stewarded by a PM. During an E&I, the team prioritizes the problems to be tackled and begins work to address those issues. Operating iteratively and incrementally is crucial for the team. Our engagements are time bound so an iterative approach ensures we’re always providing value to our users. We also ensure that usability testing findings are prioritized appropriately into iterations.

At the outset of the E&I, the PM is responsible for:

  • Building the team’s foundation by establishing its norms and processes
  • Ensuring the team understands the context and the mission
  • Removing obstacles (such as access to resources)
  • Stewarding the vision of the solution the team is building
  • Ensuring the execution of the project is aligned with 18F core values
  • Fostering the relationship between the 18F team and the partner agency through a kickoff and frequent touchpoints

As the team finds its groove and iterates on the solution, the PM shifts their focus from stewarding to coaching:

  • Pairing with our agency partners so that they can take ownership of the process and become the PM of the solution.
  • Empowering our agency partners to advocate for transparency, user-centered design, and incremental and iterative methodologies within their agency.
  • Helping our agency partners build delivery capabilities in-house through hiring or procurement.

We use the E&I phases to showcase more effective practices and to coach and embed those practices within our partner agency. An E&I should ensure that our agency partner is left not only with a working solution but also with the skills to move the solution forward.

Some agencies have the capacity to own an in-house solution. But many times, they need assistance from the private sector to help build and run the technology in the long term. In our next post, we’re going to look at the role product managers play in the government acquisitions process.

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