IT 'Product Management' Comes Into Its Own

Data visualization of how products are managed

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Almost a year ago I wrote about another blog that had been called to my attention by my friend and Kennedy School colleague, Nick Sinai, who served as deputy CTO in the Obama administration and now teaches a digital government course here. Entitled “The Importance of Product Management in Government,” it was written by Chris Johnson and Kelly O’Connor of the U.S. Digital Service.

Their post started with a quick distinction between project management—a concept widely familiar in government, filled with its own trainings and certifications—and product management, which few in government traditionally have heard of. Project management, they wrote, is “focused on managing to a plan”—such as managing schedule, budget, risk, policy compliance and then reporting status to stakeholders.

“Success for a project manager is delivering a defined scope of work on-time and on-budget.” Product management, meanwhile, “is focused on delivering a product a user wants or needs.” Success for a product manager “is delivering a product that users love—and use to complete tasks (or in the private sector—a product customers will pay for).” If you worked for a private-sector tech firm on developing customer-facing applications, product management would be part of your everyday reality. In government, it has been absent. Management Concepts, a large training vendor in the government marketplace, offers a wide range of courses on project management, but a search for “product management” draws a blank.

Recently I got an email from Kelly O’Connor at USDS saying that the first-ever training program and certification for product management in the federal government was being launched. It is being offered by the Georgetown University School of Continuing Studies, which is the unit at the university that offers summer school, a part-time BA and more than 30 professional certificate programs, of which the Certificate in Product Management will be one.

A year ago Georgetown started offering a one-day module on product management as part of its project management training. University officials were pleased at how it did, attracting government and military folks, as well as contractors. That one-day module grew serendipitously (like so much in life) from a conversation between O’Connor and Jeremy Stanton, chief digital officer at the School of Continuing Studies, at a Georgetown volunteer event wrapping Christmas packages for homeless people in which they were both participating. O’Connor had worked with Georgetown for many years on their project management training, and at the event she started to talk with him about product management.

The one-day module, which O’Connor developed as an independent contractor to Georgetown rather than through any official collaboration with USDS, emerged as what Stanton calls a “minimum viable product” for product management training.

That module has now been offered four times. Clearly, there is growing demand in government for product management.

The new program will include six all-day (Saturday) sessions covering three areas—product management fundamentals, human-centered design, and engineering/software development. The units on fundamentals (based on the existing Georgetown curriculum) and human-centered design are being taught by USDS people (the fundamentals classes by O’Connor and human-centered design by a former USDS staffer now teaching in New York), while the engineering/software development unit is handled by staff from Ad Hoc, the non-traditional IT vendor I have featured in earlier blog posts.

Some blog readers have possibly heard the phrases “human-centered design” and “user experience.” These two concepts are at the core of product management, highlighting that product management focuses on users.

How does “human-centered design” work in practice? For many years, it has been considered a good practice in government acquisition to consult eventual users about what they want from a new product. However, aside from the fact that in reality this is often not done, the traditional government practice is part of requirements development as part of a waterfall acquisition process at the beginning of an acquisition. At this point, eventual users are interviewed about what features they might like without ever having seen an actual product. Often (as observers of such efforts have often noted) the users have little idea of what they want. Human-centered design does not use surveys but rather gives users a prototype of the new product and asks them to interact with it. The product manager watches them use things, including usability testing and funnel testing (observing how a user interacts with a multi-step application or other process, when people start giving up).

The engineering/software development unit has material with which many blog readers may be at least somewhat familiar, about using methods such as agile, Kanban, and DevOps to accelerate delivery speed. The course description notes that “most product teams know early if a product is off track, but they are not able to pivot, so they keep delivering to the plan (using project management methods). Using early prototypes and minimum viable products (MVPs) enables teams to collect usage data and user feedback early—and pivot based on that feedback.”

Georgetown sees itself as being a first mover in developing a certification for government aside from the traditional project management certifications. According to Stanton, inquiries about the program so far have matched those for new offerings that have turned out to be very successful, such as artificial intelligence and blockchain. The first program begins Oct. 19. If you’re interested in registering, the information is here.

This is a great innovation. Let’s see when we see the first job posting on USAJobs that includes the phrase “product management.”