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Product management at 18F, part 2 - Acquisitions

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

In the previous post, we wrote about how product management works in Path Analysis and Experiment & Iterate phases. In this post, we’ll discuss how 18F product managers support our partner agencies who are procuring the services of industry contractors to help achieve their mission.

Many government programs don’t have the in-house staff needed to deliver modern digital services, so they depend on outside contractors. The process of bringing in these external resources is called acquisitions. 18F helps build the government’s capacity to identify the right contractors and work hand-in-hand with them to deliver the best products using agile, human-centered, and open source methodologies.

Our team of government acquisitions professionals work to design government contracts that support an agile approach to digital services. We advocate for a “modular contracting” approach — small, short-term contracts that allow us to build prototypes, test hypotheses, and iterate, rather than big, risky, multi-million dollar contracts that require a waterfall approach.

When they work on these projects, 18F product managers play a different role than when they’re building a product for a partner. A primary difference is that besides defining a problem and scoping a Minimum Viable Product (MVP), we’re also developing a contracting strategy. This means figuring out what skills we need to look for in a contractor, doing market research to find out what contractors are capable of, and determining how we’re going to evaluate contractors who bid. Our acquisition experts will lead on this work, but product managers might be involved in drafting an RFP (Request for Proposal) that details the scope of the work and the skills needed. They may also sit on the evaluation panel to review potential contractors.

Once a contractor has been selected, the build begins, and the product manager role might look similar to what was described in the previous post. We will be focused on coaching the Product Owner at our partner agency and developing their skills. Critically, we’ll also be providing oversight of the contractor, and ensuring they’re delivering the best possible work to our partner agency.

When we coach a Product Owner, we work hand-in-hand with them to develop their roadmap, manage their product backlog, surface obstacles, and review product increments before they’re shipped. Coaching also includes helping the Product Owner to work well with the vendor. This might mean helping them understand the purpose of sprint ceremonies and their role in them. It likely also means providing input on vendor performance and advising the Product Owner on how to deliver feedback to the vendor.

Serving as a product manager on an acquisitions project can be profoundly satisfying work. The folks we work with at our partner agencies are incredibly savvy and experienced when it comes to program delivery and government contracting. Partnering with these terrific public servants to bring modern practices to their digital service delivery work is an inspiring and rewarding way to serve the public.

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