Posted - 03 June 2019, Rohan Gunatillake, Head of Product
Not only is what we are making here at NDS different to how health and social care technology has been imagined and built in the past, how we are making it is different as well. That means that many of the roles that people have or that we are hiring for are relatively new to the contexts of NHS Scotland, social care, and public services in general.
Or in other words, when I tell people I’ve recently joined NDS as Head of Product, the question I get asked most, often accompanied by a quizzical look, is ‘what does that mean then?’ The quick, flippant version of the answer to that question is that while Engineering makes the thing, 'Product' is all about making sure the thing that gets made is the right thing. But you, as a wise reader of our blog, well know that a quick answer only reveals so much, and so here is a slightly more detailed dive into all things 'Product'. And the best place to start doing that is with the role of the product manager.
Making the right thing
The first roles we are hiring for here in the NDS Product team are Senior Product Managers, a role which while established in technology companies is relatively new to the public sector due to the fact that historically most software has been bought rather than made in-house. The way I define it in our NDS context is that a product manager works as part of a cross-functional team of engineers, designers and clinical leads with four main activities:
- Representing and understanding the actual users of the product –health and care professionals, as well as the people they care for.
- Prioritising what work gets done on a day to day basis
- Communicating what work is being done with relevant parties – both internal and external these can include many non-technical stakeholders
- Making sure that stuff gets done
…all of which happens in a cyclical environment of collaborating, delivering, reflecting and improving. Which importantly means that not only does the job play a key role in the initial delivery and launch of whatever products they’re working on, they also drive forward the ongoing improvement of those products over time.
This means that a product manager has what I call the twin literacy of being able to understand the technical aspects of engineering enough to work with developers at the task level, as well as the ability to speak to users either directly or via analytics or design and research methods, so that the user perspective is maintained when there might be competing pressures from the wider organisation or technology limitations/directions.
Because of all that, it’s more than and different to a project manager which is a more common role in NHS Scotland. Project managers are especially valuable when a technology project is linear and predictable and all you have to do is click through the pre-determined stages on a Gantt chart. But in a paradigm where you are working in an agile, iterative – and yes unpredictable – way, as well as breaking down siloes and having different skillsets in your team – that is when the product manager really comes into their own. It’s a wonderful cocktail of organisation, creativity, storytelling and empathy and as someone playing and translating in the spaces technology, users and the business it’s increasingly a key role in 21st century teams making things.
I also hope that product management becomes an increasingly visible role within the public sector in Scotland, since it will be as good a sign as any that our key public institutions are not only making more and more technology in-house, but also that they are doing it in as contemporary, fluid and participative a way as possible.
But first we have to recruit some to the team! As I mentioned above, our first product management roles are now live with the Senior Product Manager positions most suitable for people who have already been doing formal product management in the way I’ve described above and are interested in applying that experience to making and reimagining health and social care technology. Later in the year, we will also be hiring Product Managers where there will be more scope for people who are looking to step into the role from adjacent work they’ve been doing to date, such as technical project management, or design.
So, what do you do?
So, going back to the original question of what my actual role is as Head of Product… if an individual product manager prioritises work on a particular product, communicates its roadmap, understands users and makes sure stuff gets done, then I do the same but on the level of the NDS portfolio as a whole. And alongside product management, my remit also includes design, of which I’ll talk a lot more about in the future.