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Product management at 18F, part 3 - Products and Platforms

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

18F is in the transformation business, and our products are integral to the services we provide. While our consulting work serves the needs of a particular customer, managing one of our products means we are responsible for a shared service used by many of our partners. Managing one of the products and platforms at 18F means thinking beyond any individual customer. This work requires that we constantly evaluate market needs, ensure the product matches those needs, and support the business side of product management.

Cloud.gov and Federalist are two of these products. Together they power hundreds of .gov sites, including the websites for the Federal Election Commission (FEC) and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), as well as high profile informational sites like vote.gov, cio.gov, and opioids.gov.

With a shared service, we have to think about marketing materials and business development, as well as customer onboarding, customer support, invoicing, and a host of other issues we would not typically address in a consulting engagement. These touchpoints require as much attention and care from the team as the development of user interface and technical capabilities.

Managing a shared service at 18F is like taking ownership of a small piece of a very large web. No individual person maintains the full web, but our network of products are interconnected and support each other. Instability in one product reverberates across our suite and can have a painful impact on our partners, so we have to be cognizant of how changes impact the entire network.

Making changes to the product may involve documenting and applying special processes to ensure we are abiding by compliance requirements. This might require coordinating communication between organizations such as the FedRAMP Joint Authorization Board (JAB), and FedRAMP authorized Third-Party Auditing Organizations (3PAO).

Our products also depend on a set of available back-end tooling from industry. For example, to monitor the service and respond to alerts, a shared service needs an alert management system. Developing, operating, and maintaining our own tools for meeting those needs is not practical, nor is it central to our mission, so we delegate that responsibility to good existing products. In choosing those products, we have to strike a careful balance between picking the best available generally, and the best available to government.

We also have to absorb the risk of suddenly losing access to a system that we depend on. For example, if a provider loses their contract or compliance status, we may be sent scrambling to reimplement changes with another provider. Agile methods help us deal with these curve-balls. We often find that using open source is preferable to accepting the risk of compliance and procurement changes in a system we depend on, so we have to make these decisions carefully.

Our teams are able to run these products because of the support we receive from other TTS products. For example, the Digital Analytics Program (DAP) makes it easy for partners to find out who is searching for and landing on their pages. Search.gov provides code for a powerful custom search service for static sites. And the US Web Design System provides base interface components and page templates that help us quickly build effective federal websites. Most importantly, Federalist is only possible because of cloud.gov’s underlying Platform-as-a-Service technology.

In managing these products, we develop long-lasting relationships with our partners and teams so that together we can build a strategic understanding of the ecosystem. We’ve built team rituals to sustain our teams through many iterations and transitions in government. And we run regular retrospectives to surface issues and facilitate adjustments to our working style. We know that maintaining relationships is the most important part of the work we do because we recognize that our partners are the ones serving the public through the content they create and the services we manage.

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