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So…what exactly is a product manager, anyway?

If you find yourself speaking to someone who is highly organized, curious, adaptive, communicative, empathetic, and passionate about removing barriers in order to get stuff done, chances are you’re either talking to a superhuman or a product manager.

Sometimes mistaken for a project manager, product managers are a key piece of the puzzle when it comes to service delivery with multidisciplinary teams. At CDS, we’re lucky to have a team of five product managers who lead teams of researchers, designers, and developers to build easy to use government services.

To better understand the role of a product manager (PM) in government, we sat down with them and asked a few questions:

Rapidfire: in one sentence, what does a product manager do?

Courtney: Oh God, um. Product managers make sure that the right thing gets built at the right time.

Dan: We help the team focus on what’s most important (the people, the public servants, working software) and how to get there (strategy, sprints, “agile”).

Stevie-Ray: A product manager makes sure that a delivery team is empowered to get their best work done, creates space for healthy conflict while maintaining a unified product vision that delivers value to the people that will or are using it.

Wow. Not a small task. What does your day-to-day look like to get all of that done?

Bryan: Usually, my day-to-day is consumed by reactive tasks like responding to emails, slack messages, and other one-off things. On the recurring level, I have different tasks that I relegate to different times in the sprint.

Some of those could include:

  • a couple of days of preparing the backlog for the next sprint planning
  • preparing for the retrospective, organizing, and completing the action items that come from that
  • researching existing solutions and figuring out how we stack up
  • conducting research to understand the users’ needs and make sure we are still aligned with them
  • making sure our plans are up to date with any new information we come across as we build and collect more data

Then the rest of my time is filled up with stakeholder communications and meetings!

Courtney: Okay, so my day is talking to a lot of people, some emails, usually some writing, whether that be stories, or documentation, or communications, or blog posts, things like that.

We do definitely wear a lot of hats. And I’ve heard people say it’s hard to describe what a PM role is because it’s so many things. You’re almost like a generalist in a whole bunch of things rather than a specialist in one specific thing.

Clémentine: My day makes me think of a Google Map constantly zooming in or out trying to be sure everyone goes in the same direction, from micro steps to big shifts.

Usually, every morning before stand up I try to sync with the service owner to align our focus and share possible news updates or any blockers that would make us need to adjust plans. Then there’s the stand up with the delivery team that gives updates on everyone’s progress and blockers. I focus my attention to unblock potential blockers that would prevent the team from doing the needed work. I make sure that everyone is working in the same direction and has the right support to do it.

Adding on that there’s also thinking ahead and being strategic to be sure we create a safe environment for the team to work, the partners to collaborate, and the product to live and evolve.

What is something people might get wrong about product management?

Courtney: It’s not project management. So project management is about milestones and resources, and “are we on track to be delivering this thing at the right time?” And that’s a part of product management, but that’s a little more of delivery management or thinking about how we’re doing in the sprint.

But a PM is more about being the spokesperson for the users and the stakeholders that are coming in here; are we doing the right thing at the right time?

And after we’ve shipped, the project doesn’t end. We need to do more iterations and testing that you don’t really see in project management.

Another thing is you’re not the boss of a team. I’m not a people manager. I’m just one person on this team to move something forward. I’m not the boss of it.

Dan: I think there’s an expectation that product managers hold a lot of the answers when in fact we help find the answers. This means whenever we come to a decision point we know: which team members to go to, prioritization to figure out what’s key in the decision, or (quite often) past team decisions.

I feel like people often think Product Managers do a lot of talking and decision making when in fact it’s way more listening, researching and then repeating back what was heard, and then getting alignment.

What’s the best part of your job?

Clémentine: Always trying to do the right thing, and being empowered to act on it. This is the best. The team is full of talented people and every day I get to meet really committed people. This is really inspiring.

Also being able to work in a positive environment! Accepting the possibility of failure and learning from each other is at the core of our jobs and it’s shaping a perfect foundation for deep and interesting interactions.

Dan: I like building things but I love working alongside really amazing and passionate people who are helping others, whether it’s through the things that we build or trying to figure out how to improve something. The exciting part is seeing data come in and then thinking about how to action and test on that data.

Stevie-Ray: Hearing that what you’ve built has helped someone, seeing other team members produce incredibly valuable work (given the right conditions), and having a full(er) picture of the moving pieces of a product that gets us from A to B.

Okay, now the tough one. What’s the hardest part of your job?

Courtney: Feeling like I need to know the answers to everything, and I don’t. It’s taken some time for me to feel comfortable with not knowing the answers to things. It’s very freeing to say “I don’t know the answer to that, but we can find out,” and I think other people respect hearing that.

Dan: I want to connect with so many amazing people at CDS (and beyond) but I find I run out of time.

I love helping people but some days I feel like there isn’t enough time to properly prepare and switch context. As you’re helping with one thing and then you have to jump into another, and another. One hour you are thinking through long term strategies and then the next it’s back deep into something about the current sprint or even task.

Stevie-Ray: Sometimes government isn’t ready to hear that a user need is real, or they’re not ready to prioritize it above other concerns.

Government impacts people’s lives in a meaningful way, and there is always the possibility that we could be doing harm in our interventions. This makes it a place where we can have great impact, but also one that can be very risk averse. We need to proceed with care, but good policy intentions can often act as a roadblock to doing small scale work or “the right thing.” This layer makes creating an enabling environment for the team an additional duty that is both challenging and really rewarding (when you break through).

What advice would you give people who are currently doing this kind of work, or want to do this kind of work?

Bryan: Act as a facilitator to help the team work to their fullest potential. Every team works differently so you have to figure out what you can do to offer the most benefit to your team and this will vary, and even change over time as the team grows. If you prioritize your teams needs first you will make something great.

Clémentine: Communicate honestly, react with humility, remain curious. Don’t pretend to know it all because it is not possible and recognizing what we don’t know is really important for the job. Take every opportunity to learn very seriously. CDS is a really open place and many people are ready to chat and talk more, so be curious and discover by yourself what can be.

Stevie-Ray: For getting into the PM space from government, find a team that is doing this work in a multi-disciplinary way and learn from them. It took me over a year of watching PMs do their work to start to internalize some of the principles. While I was doing that, I wish I was asking more questions and reading material to build out my own PM toolbox.

Also, let’s face it, agile is being hyped up a lot right now, and there’s a lot of training that isn’t focused on your context, work, or problems. Try to find training that promotes the principle of agility in your context, instead of (big “A” Agile) dogma.