This is part four in a series of posts about building product management capacity in government agencies. The series explores the process of helping agency staff transition into product management roles. For this post, we chatted with Bill Laughman from DOJ’s Civil Rights Division about his experience as a product owner on Civil Rights reporting portal. These are Bill’s opinions and are not the official views of the Civil Rights Division or the Department of Justice.

Bill Laughman of the DOJ Civil Rights Division (CRT) spoke about collaborating with 18F to streamline their civil rights violation report intake process and establishing case management processes in order to improve and modernize IT systems within the Division.

Thanks for taking the time to chat with us Bill. Let’s begin with your background at DOJ’s Civil Rights (CRT) Department prior to the 18F engagement.

Bill: I’ve been with the Civil Rights Division for about 20 years serving various roles, with my latest role in leading complaint intake and processing violation reports for the Administrative Management Section. I’m the primary correspondence liaison for Division-wide report triage. I also serve as the main point of contact for congressional inquiries to the Department.

Bill, let’s go back in time to Jan 2019, when the 18F team submitted their recommendations around modernizing your intake process and a new case management system. What was your initial reaction and your thoughts around 18F’s proposal on agile, user centric, outcome oriented product development processes? 

Initial thoughts:

  • Wide-eyed! Everything seemed quite overwhelming and new. Initially, these concepts seemed great ideologically, but we didn’t know what practical implementation would look like. Also, there were a lot of initial meetings until we finalized a strategy and created outcome statements and a roadmap.
  • So many acronyms! Product management was indeed a learning curve. The 18F team used new acronyms that I was constantly searching these terms online and learning. I was hesitant to ask what the terms meant because I didn’t want to seem unqualified. For example, I’m a sports person and to me, an MVP as a ball player is different from an MVP in product development.
  • Skeptical! Prior to this project, our legacy systems were developed in a waterfall manner and iterative development was new. I wasn’t around for the original development of the legacy systems, but I did take part in testing updated versions just prior to release. The testing window was so close to release that, absent any major bugs, you were testing the finished product – “What you see is what you get”, leaving no room for feedback or edits. We asked for some previous projects that 18F had successfully implemented so that we could collectively set expectations.
  • Not having a project plan or an anticipated output or timeline was confusing and daunting! We conducted a lot of research before we started development. Stakeholders’ pain points were documented and they were excited by the prospect of a new system that addressed most of them. We had to temper their excitement by assuring them the product will not be released until it performed as expected and met the user needs. Although there wasn’t a project plan, the entire team was comfortable after functionality was steadily delivered every two weeks. It took a few successful sprints and positive feedback from users to adjust to not having a plan. 

How did your perception and comfort with these practices change over time?

  • Show value: We worked on a small increment, collected feedback from users, launched the functionality and continued until our short term roadmap was met. 

    • With no predefined project plan to feel comfortable with, we started off with a “thin slice” product roadmap. The thin slice was a list of absolute must-haves our users needed in the product to derive value once deployed. This roadmap was our guide post to iterate upon, rather than an estimated timeline.
  • Feedback: Shorter feedback cycles with the general public, intake teams, development and design teams helped us validate our progress, which was huge! Our notion of a team is redefined. Our team now included end users invested in making the portal useful and valuable.
  • Pivot if necessary: After developing on an initial tech stack for about two months, we hit roadblocks preventing us from progressing further. We revisited the vision, conducted risk/benefit analysis and decided that investing in a new stack would allow us to be scalable and resilient for years to come. Although it was a tough decision, our stakeholders weighed on the consequences of developing further on a legacy stack and decided to pivot toward a modern tech stack even after spending significant development time and effort. 
  • Embrace failure: We celebrated all milestones together. Success and failures remained a part of the process and we used feedback from blameless retros to guide our practices and deliver results.
  • Overall uptick in morale! Our division worked as a collective team rather than individual sections. The 18F team established open communication and transparency while sharing information at all times, which helped build trust amongst internal DOJ teams, stakeholders and 18F teams. 18F teams facilitated a lot of discussions allowing for inclusive conversations where all team members participated to provide feedback, rather than a few voices who got their requests incorporated. 

You were a key player in developing and launching What do you account this success to? How were you supported in your growth as a Product Owner (PO)? 

  • Supportive and invested stakeholders: Our stakeholders were extremely aware and invested in learning about user (both internal and public) frustrations/needs and were completely on board with the process. Our senior leadership team met with the product team every two weeks to learn about the progress, limitations to clear roadblocks and help make decisions for teams to stay focused on the development and launch of the portal.
  • Reallocation of resources: With leadership support and their willingness to re-allocate my time to fulfill my new duties as a product owner (PO), my team had to take on a good portion of my existing duties. My success was absolutely a result of collective team effort across the Administrative Management Section.
  • Patient and knowledgeable mentors: Having mentors who coached me on Agile and product practices was key. Everyone learns and develops at their own pace and having support via coaching from 18F helped me build the confidence I needed to succeed. COACHING IS A MUST!
  • Personal drive and dedication: Having internal benchmarks/internal compass and believing in what you are doing is a must. Reassessing yourself often and ample self care is an absolute priority. In order to be successful, you need to be persistent and dedicated to learn this new craft.
I never want to accept the status quo. How can we make anything better?
  • Trusting Agile: Once you buy into the Agile methodology, you have to sell the rest of your team on it as well. Momentum increased as we continued to incorporate user feedback into our development. Our end users are empowered throughout the development process and now recognize the value of an Agile approach. 

What traits/skills did you pick up as a product owner during your engagement with 18F? How are you sustaining these skills?

  • Decision making: We make decisions that seem great, but then, being able to prioritize and say “no” to certain things was necessary. Retrospectives always helped us learn if a wrong decision was made so we could adjust and iterate. 
Get comfortable saying ‘no’
  • Empathy: Being user centric meant we stand in the users’ shoes to understand and empathize with them. I learnt that extending empathy not just to users, but also your teams keeps teams healthy.
  • Empowerment: Our leadership empowered me to make decisions and helped clear roadblocks as we learned of them so I can focus on taking the product forward. Entrusting me with decision making and seeing my decisions materialize helped me gain confidence in sharpening my PO skills further. 
  • Technical complexities: Everything involved in developing an idea into a feature — I had no idea! I was always an end user but didn’t know much about developing a product. Understanding all the levers that are involved in developing and launching a product in the government from ATO’s(Authority to Operate), compliance tasks — Paperwork Reduction Act, compliance with Section 508 and privacy, incident management, etc was new to me! Users don’t necessarily see everything that happens in the background for a product to function. For example, one functionality at times can equate to about 20 mini user stories that need to be worked in sequence so the feature is complete.
  • Outcome driven thinking permeates beyond product development: I’ve learnt that I am using my learnings from agile and outcome driven thinking across the rest of my work outside of portal work as well as my day-to-day activities. 

Finally, what would you tell a new agency team trying to identify a product owner to manage new product development? What qualities should they be looking for?

Product management is novel in the federal government, so finding someone with prior experience is difficult. When identifying a new product owner, I would advise to focus on these qualities instead.

  • Do-er/multi-tasker: Someone willing to get jobs to done. Be ready to wear a lot of hats!
  • Jack of all trades: Don’t need experts to become product owners. Anyone with enough knowledge to understand the inner workings of a group at a federal agency is ideal.
  • Knows someone who knows someone: A successful PO will have a lot of contacts at the agency. If they cannot get the job done, they will need to be able to figure out who can help get the job done. 
  • Consistent/persistent: All of this takes a lot of work! 
  • Coachable: Always be open to coaching! Coaching doesn’t always have to be top down necessarily, but being open to coaching from your peers as well.