What did you do as a Presidential Innovation Fellow (PIF)?

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Please read the following for context:

TLDR

  • I worked on product management training and developed a roadmap to scale product management within NGA.
  • Cultural change is hard, and you must patiently build communication channels when joining an existing team.
  • The best government folks have a mission mindset we can learn from - long-term thinking, calm building.

What’s NGA?

You join PIF inside the General Services Administration (GSA). You’re nested in there, working on the Presidential Innovation Fellows team. You are stationed at an agency. You’ll spend most of your time there, with weekly all-hands meetings back at PIF HQ.

NGA logo

I was stationed at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA). It describes itself:

NGA delivers world-class geospatial intelligence that provides a decisive advantage to policymakers, warfighters, intelligence professionals, and first responders.

A lousy description I use that engages people is:

NGA makes maps and provides analysis to help our government. It’s Google Maps for our government and allies.

This description works for me because Google Maps is software, it’s vast, and it has many features you can identify with - navigation, geographical features, business markers, Street View, and more. All that stuff makes it easy for you to find the nearby Starbucks, right?

It’s a lot of software, and so is NGA. The difference is that there are many more features to track, it’s often more real-time, and it’s not (always) consumer software.

To be clear, I’m not saying NGA is a software agency. I work with this lens to communicate why software is essential to NGA’s goals and why my role was strategic.

What was your team?

I joined CTO Alex Loehr’s office. At the time, it was just him - he was recently promoted from Deputy as the original CTO had left for the private sector. Lucky for me, another PIF, Carlos Roqué, joined the team simultaneously.

The NGA Technology Strategy covered a plan for improving software development, and we started to work on that1.

Carlos and I had industry product management experience, so we worked with Alex to attack the problem.

You may ask, “If you both have product management backgrounds, why didn’t you join the product management teams?”

And that leads to my main project.

No Product Managers?

where is everybody

NGA has been developing software for decades, and there are no software product managers. The reasoning was that there are lots of program managers and that they define the software to be developed.

Programs and products, I guess they’re the same?

But when I spoke to software teams, I heard:

Software developer:
“I don’t get any definition and am coding with little guidance.”
“The Program Manager is telling my team whether we’re on the right track, but I don’t believe they’re talking to users and prioritizing.”
“Oh, and we must deliver everything in the contract at once. No release cycles for us!”

Program Manager:
“I control the budget and communicate with the people giving us money. Is that the user?”
“I’m ensuring the software teams produce what the contract says they would. But I can’t do that every sprint cycle. By the way, what’s a sprint?”
“The software team has someone who talks to users. I’m slammed with all this program paperwork and DAWIA!”

No one was talking to the users. People were confusing the people paying for the products (customers) with those who use the products day-to-day (users). And at the end of a software release, those customers would yell, saying that the users were not more effective and not getting things done.

Introducing The Praxeum

My project became the development of a software product management training course that fits into how NGA teams work. We called it The Praxeum2 because the government loves Star Wars references. The initial participants were either unofficially performing product management or were product management curious, like software developers and program managers.

Over six months, we iterated on the class five times and had 50 of the guesstimated 200 product manager-ish folks at NGA go through it.

salute to those who worked on this

On my departure, version 1.0 was a one-hour, six-week course that walked through:

  • defining users
  • identifying useful user metrics
  • building a roadmap
  • crafting a vision

Yes, this is insane. How can you do this in six hours?

But we wanted to get these newly-minted product managers to quickly draft something for each piece of core documentation, even if it was wrong. Writing something down, communicating with stakeholders, and iterating were better than assuming people were thinking the right things.

Even better, those who found this interesting and wanted to work on it more and make it better were the natural product managers in the bunch. For those who didn’t, the course helped them understand the difference between their current position in software, program, business analysis, etc., and why software product management is different.

Did you do anything else?

Yes, many things, including process suggestions on better integrating software development into program management, contracts, and legal processes.

Oh, and there were projects back at PIF HQ and one small one within GSA, but it’s nothing to write home about.3

Did you learn anything?

The comment I get from some folks is that it sounds like I was an interim VP-Product and helped the leadership team create a structure and process to build a better product. That this was old hat, and I’d done this before.

Not really.

NGA is not a software company. It’s a mission-driven enterprise with software, hardware, science, research, and analysis teams working to keep America safe and secure in its place in the world.

Oh, and it’s over 10,000 people. So yeah, I had never really dealt with a company of this size.4

so many people

I learned (and re-learned) a lot, but at a larger scale:

Structuring teams and communication is complex. Duh!

Every organization is a snowflake. NGA has hundreds of software products with different users, different goals, different funders, and more. We had to learn who organized certain pieces of software into existing product lines and why. And then, we suggested ways to break them out of their silos into a user-oriented structure.

And if that wasn’t possible, we wanted to ensure more communication between teams so they could share user, product, and software knowledge more often and easily.

More products = more problems, and program managers theoretically help with that.

Like all the other startups I’ve worked for, Dropcam didn’t have programs.

When Google Nest acquired us, we were thrown into an environment that did. The problem was that program and product managers (or product marketers) couldn’t clearly describe the differences between their roles. It came across as a turf war in the worst case and an extra person playing telephone in the best case.

It clicked for me at NGA. It doesn’t map perfectly to all companies, but the dividing line we developed was:

  • program management focuses on customer needs and communication to deliver on time and on-budget
  • product management focuses on user needs and communication to build the right product in the most effective order

This is an academic alignment. We’ll have to see if it works out at NGA so that the program and product managers are on the same team and working on complementary responsibilities. But if I’m leading a large group, this is the defining line I’ll use.

we're not fighting, are we?

You can be nice and effective.

I have worked for some nice people during my career, and they were not effective.

I have worked for some effective people during my career, and they were not nice.5

At NGA, I got to see some effective people who were nice.

The other trait I admired was that there was a long-term perspective in government. You’re inside an organization that’s been around for decades. It’s had many ups and downs due to changing budgets and leadership. You learn to stop treating every issue as hair-on-fire and instead filter through this more comprehensive view.

It helps if your natural tendency is to be long-term optimistic if you think this way. So I need to work on that.

I saw folks like CTO Alex Loehr and CIO Mark Andress operate and communicate this way. I hope I absorbed enough of their attitudes to influence my future thought patterns.

I’m most thankful to PIF for this lesson.

teams get stuff done

Jobby job?

The PIF year ended, and I returned to Silicon Valley life here in the SF Bay Area. Living in DC isn’t in the cards for now.

But what about you?

If you are interested in the Presidential Innovation Fellowship, feel free to reach out. You’ll also want to talk to other PIFs and leadership team members - people do this through LinkedIn most.

If you are looking for government roles that allow you to flex those software and product muscles, I’m biased and would ask you to check out positions at NGA. Here are two postings that went live in July 2022:

They’re also looking for software folks, so you can search for those roles, too. If you want to talk to some folks about how things work on the inside, you know what to do!

  1. One day, I will learn about the Four Seals Memo that people pointed to as an impetus behind the Strategy. 

  2. From Fandom: “The Jedi Praxeum, also known as the Jedi Academy or the Yavin Praxeum, was an academy that was founded by Jedi Master Luke Skywalker on Yavin 4 in 11 ABY during the era of the New Republic.” 

  3. Unfortunately, it’s one of the examples of why I became slightly more agitated by government spending. 

  4. Nest went from 400 to 1000 people while I was there, and even National Instruments was only ~2000 people back in 2004. 

  5. What about me? Fair question. I think I am effective and not nice enough. I’m infamous for saying “this is a place of business” and referring to that one Mad Men scene a bit too much. 

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