Blog from Oliver Hannan, Product Manager at the National Archives, formerly of London Councils.
I’ve been involved with the LocalGov Drupal project since early 2020. There’s been a decent amount written about what councils can get from the project, a fair bit of documentation on the impressive velocity developers have achieved in sprints and some videos on enthusiastic sharing of skills. All of this goes a good way to highlight the project, the ethos and the mutual benefit member councils are getting.
I thought I’d go further and outline what I’ve personally got from being part of LocalGov Drupal. I’ve worked in a range of digital roles since starting out as web content editor. I think it’s worth highlighting the job titles.
- Web content editor
- Research assistant
- Website administrator
- Information officer
- Web editor
- Ecommunications officer
- Web manager
- Digital product manager
Why is this important?
Well, they show I’ve not specialised (not necessarily a bad thing), I’ve worked in the public sector (definitely not a bad thing) and that some of these titles are quite dated (hi, public sector!).
I’ve spent a lot of time worrying about the direction my digital career is going. Worrying that I’m not keeping up with the sector, worrying that my skills are too general and worrying that I have the wrong job title. I was never a content designer, only ever a web content editor. I wasn’t researching much as a research assistant, instead, I was managing a website and web content. I never felt like a real web admin because I’m not a developer. You get the idea.
In the last few years, product manager seemed like the right title for me. There’s a lot about the role on the internet, so much so that it can start to feel life guru/cult territory. I’m not going to claim I’m a life coach on agile methodologies, product management and digital.
This blog isn’t clickbait on how to land that PM job at a start-up. So, there aren’t TEN things about LocalGov Drupal that you just WON’T believe, and this isn’t the LAST Medium article on agile gubbins you’ll EVER need.
I can say being a part of LocalGov Drupal helped me to change my job title to product manager through learning by doing.
Things I’ve learned
Building a community
Talking to peers whom I know have the same issues has been invaluable. I can drop a quick question into Slack and get a variety of responses in a few hours. This has helped my confidence immeasurably and it’s also the first step to “getting out of the building”, the next one is talking to users. Also, chatting to new and different people is nice.
Working in the open
Here’s a blog by a product manager I respect about working in the open. You don’t have to spill your guts if you don’t want to. Just sharing work and learning as you go is enough. LocalGov Drupal encourages and needs that. Being part of the group spurred me on to write my own #weeknotes.
I’m pretty sure the same product manager described writing weeknotes as a life hack, I’d tend to agree, they clear my head and document what was important and when. They are for me but if anyone reads them, even better. However, sharing work as you go is crucial as part of an agile team. Sharing what you’re doing, what went well but also what could have been better is essential for improvement. This helps all of us.
Collegiate and shared learning in a supported environment
Local government is short on resources. Training budgets are thin or, let’s be honest, non-existent. The project offers the best kind of learning: shared, supported and on the job. For example last week I worked with someone from a member council on shared user needs for a workflow feature. We both worked together on the best way to present the findings we had on user needs and user stories so developers could then pick up the work in the next sprint. This is pair product management in action.
The functionality will allow a CMS user and therefore organisations to control the flow of publishing content better. This in turn has direct benefits for citizens: the unpublishing of old content can be automated and people get the right information at the correct time.
Practical agile and scrum experience
I’m personally getting to work on an open source project developed by distributed dev teams both in house at councils and external contractors. Those devs are then working with both an experienced Scrum Master from Agile Collective and an experienced Product Lead for the whole project.
This is a multidisciplinary delivery team working on a digital service in action. I’ve been unable to get that experience in my role simply because my organisation doesn’t work like that.
Trust in the team and myself
It’s not possible for me to contribute to all parts of LocalGov Drupal and the project can’t be about one person or member council. At times this has led me to fret about the strength and validity of my contribution. One result is strong feelings of imposter syndrome that prevent me from contributing as freely as I’d like.
The project combats this by rewarding what I do put in with learning, support and shared purpose. If I can’t contribute because of pressures elsewhere there is a community that can help with the LocalGov Drupal work or those other pressures. There was a learning for me that sprints are supposed to be ambitious, not everything will get done but more importantly: stop worrying.
Applying it all back
I’m working to help my own team on better ways to collaborate, influencing on more asynchronous communication. LocalGov Drupal introduced me to the concept of sociocracy, the difference between consent and consensus and using “good enough for now and safe enough to try” in team decision making.
More specifically I’ve been applying classic product manager skills outside of LocalGov Drupal, for instance, running a tricky discovery on a problem and getting buy-in on deciding what not to do.
Where do you start?
If you’re a local government web manager who wants to learn about product management, the best way to learn is on the job. That’s a classic infinite loop: if you don’t work in a multidisciplinary team, your organisation isn’t using agile methods or you’re too busy firefighting day to day then where are you supposed to start?
Well, this project is a good place. You’ll meet peers in the same field and learn how to collaborate with them. You’ll work directly with technical teams on translating user needs into products and features in a live open source project. That experience isn’t easy to find!
Oh, and you’ll also get access to a best in class modular Drupal website built around user-centred design principles. You can take the bits you want and leave the rest.
Come and talk to us about how it works.
If you’re working in local government digital and not using Drupal, come and talk to us as well. Those shared needs aren’t going anywhere and it’s not just publishing that needs fixed.
If you’re outside of local government, we’ll get there, watch this space.
This blog was first published on Medium.