Reflections from a Product Management Apprentice

Originally posted on NYC Opportunity’s Medium Channel.

I’ve just finished a five-month internship with the Mayor’s Office for Economic Opportunity as Product Management Apprentice. I am grateful for the opportunity to have learned from and worked with this thoughtful and dedicated team of technologists and builders. I hope that sharing my experiences will not only showcase this team’s great work, but also spur further attention and analysis towards the need for improving products and services in the public sector.

I was primarily drawn to NYC Opportunity’s mission: to reduce poverty and increase equity, advancing the use of research, data, and design in the City’s program and policy development, service delivery, and budget decisions. I can not think of a more noble cause to which technology should be applied, nor a better place to learn. Working at NYC Opportunity also gave me the opportunity to better understand the product management discipline and life in the public sector while finishing my MBA at Cornell Tech, a new product-oriented graduate program located on Roosevelt Island.

As a Product Management Apprentice, I mostly worked on ACCESS NYC, a web application for the public which helps benefits seekers and navigators identify, screen for, and prepare to enroll in government benefits. In the beginning, my weekly schedule merged education with practice, and looked kind of like this:

Tuesday

  • Class: Social Entrepreneurship at Cornell Tech
  • NYC Opportunity: experiment with using the UN’s Sustainable Development goals to identify proxy metrics to help measure offline success for ACCESS NYC.

Wednesday

  • Class: Leading Digital Innovation and Transformation
  • NYC Opportunity: Help research new digital identity initiatives for the team’s next product, better understand the problem that should be solved, and learn from similar products’ successes and failures.

Thursday

  • Class: Product Management
  • NYC Opportunity: Sit in on sprints and retrospectives and observe how the product team adapts those practices to the unique needs of a government product.

(My schedule did not line up so perfectly in real life, but it was close!)

Once I graduated from school, I was able to dive headfirst into setting up Google Tag Manager, Google Optimize and Data Studio for the ACCESS NYC team to help them better understand user’s behavior and flow through the site. This involved learning RegEx, sharpening my HTML, SQL and coding skills, and working with the more technically savvy fellows and developers in the office to ensure we were implementing the right scripts and formatting our tables correctly.

My personal goals–to develop technical fluency and to better understand product development and execution–were certainly achieved to the extent I had hoped for. I have not only learned about the broad role and many challenges of a Product Manager, but also met lovely and interesting people and made new friends. My biggest thanks go to Song Hia, Hilina Mohammed, Devon Hirth and Steven Aguilar who demonstrated ample patience and mentorship throughout my many overlapping learning curves.

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The Learning Curve
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What it felt like
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Also what it felt like
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What it probably looked like

Because of this apprenticeship, I’ve also come away with bigger questions that have reinforced my desire to remain working alongside the public sector for the time being. In classic PM “how might we” phrasing, below are three questions I hope to explore further:

How might we improve a product to increase benefits access for every citizen, especially those beneath the poverty line?

User journeys are critical pieces of every product’s development and success. How will the user flow through a site and achieve their goal? What is their goal, and how do we determine this? How can we make our site more accessible and for whom?

My interpretation of a user journey is heavily influenced by marketing funnels, loops and driving revenue-generation. Therefore ACCESS NYC, a non-revenue-generating web screener, proved to be an interesting challenge. From my experience, the better you are able to frame and articulate the details of each user journey, the easier it is to identify areas for improvement. How do you build user journeys when the product serves millions of New Yorkers near, at, or under the poverty line?

For ACCESS NYC the two main users are benefits seekers (residents seeking government benefits) and benefits navigators (case workers or others who assist benefits seekers). The website is translated into 11 languages and content is presented in a digestible way for every level of literacy. The challenge of further segmentation into archetypes depends on how much data you want to collect, how much time and capital you have to devote, and whether the results will move the needle in a meaningful way. All three of these challenges have additional trade-offs in government product development.

Additionally, the word “access” has been discussed in various capacities on our product team, whether it means adhering to web accessibility standards or designing an experience oriented around “constraint thinking” that often affects those living in poverty. Design tools and tactics play a large part in addressing and building solutions around these concepts. I love that NYC Opportunity uniquely has a dedicated Service Design Team who creates and employs frameworks to ensure better service delivery and product experience.

How might a government measure digital product impact and success?

One of my main responsibilities as an apprentice was defining actionable metrics that could help the product team optimize ACCESS NYC’s design and user experience. This involved first mapping out all relevant metrics along a typical benefit seeker or navigator’s journey then determining if or how we could collect that data.

Some tougher questions arose:

  • How might NYC Opportunity measure whether a user signed up for an agency benefit via ACCESS NYC when the sign up process happens offline and the agency does not track or report on referrals?
  • If there is a government shutdown and more people want to enroll in government benefits, ACCESS’s web visits increase. How do we improve the site’s usability while keeping external factors such as political, societal, and seasonal factors constant? (One answer: A/B testing!)
  • One of ACCESS’s major goals is to direct traffic to external benefit providers. In other words, away from the site. Therefore traditionally prioritized metrics such as bounce rate or pages per session are not as important as exits or referrals. How do we know users are finding and getting the most out of the content and resources ACCESS offers?
  • What is the best way to share success with stakeholders or government agency leaders who may not measure success in terms of revenue, data or graphs? Should government product teams dive deeper into tools and frameworks offered by mission-driven companies, non-profits or agencies such as B-Corp, impact investors, or the UN?

One approach to optimizing the site and reducing external factors is in the form of A/B testing. I was happy to help set up and launch the first round of A/B tests for ACCESS NYC, with the goal of helping to build the process into their product development processes down the road.

How might the government improve communication and collaboration across silos?

I’ve always loved implementing a good process, though understand that outdated processes are often the very problem with government in the first place. The ability to adapt or change quickly in a highly structured environment is difficult, thus why agile product teams often are small and cross-functional. NYCO has done a good job of creating agile teams within a government context: for example, ACCESS shares monthly metric reports across teams and with stakeholders and sprints are cycled through every few weeks. However, when working within a system with ingrained norms and systems, it is a constant challenge to overcome.

This was the topic of many all-staff meetings, with the understanding that building communication channels between teams (and even between teams within teams) can be an additional challenge.

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Often, the hardest problems are the most important to solve. I admire NYC Opportunity’s steadfast dedication to addressing questions like these, taking one step at a time to help alleviate poverty and improve NYC residents’ access to benefits and social services. Thank you to the whole NYC Opportunity team for your kindness, service, dedication, your mentorship, and I look forward to continuing to build upon everything I’ve learned here.

This post is a part of the Service Design Studio at the NYC Mayor’s Office for Economic Opportunity. The Studio works to make city services more accessible and effective for low-income New Yorkers. To learn more about our work, visit our website.

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CIVIC ENGAGEMENT: SPACE, PLACE AND UNITY AT THE WOMEN’S MARCH

On an overcast Saturday in January, my mother and I walked the National Mall in Washington, D.C. with close to 500,000 people, in awe of the of the sheer diversity of opinion and unabashed advocacy that makes America great. An eight-year-old yelled, “Tell me what democracy looks like!” to a chorus of “This is what democracy looks like!” We ogled at signs both inspirational and bitingly humorous, unifying and glaringly polarizing. The crowd moved slowly but undulated with purpose. The wide streets of Washington and patient policemen allowed for pink-hatted humans, strollers and wheelchairs to move safely. It was a peaceful march, and though perhaps somewhat unguided in its message, provided millions with hope and an opportunity to be heard.

The next day, I returned to the site of the march (this time for those rad, free government-funded museums) and was astonished to find the streets entirely cleared of debris. Not even a stray pink hat. What a city! Built and maintained to support the active, frequent civic engagement of the masses! I believe this is one vital part of American democracy that is still thriving: providing citizens with a safe space to engage in the freedom of speech.

I often find that our work at CIC and at innovation centers around the globe follows a similar model. We provide innovators and entrepreneurs with the structure to build community and to pursue one’s own dreams, to occasionally accelerate past the speed of society, and to provide that safety net (or trampoline) for failure that only comes with the bravery to try.  It was “success as usual” that marked the decline of Venice, and those who challenged the status quo paved the way around them towards exponential globalization.  

In this great age of entrepreneurship, I challenge you (yes, you!) to dwell at the intersection of civic engagement and political innovation. I believe it is our civic responsibility to challenge the loopholes of our nation that some may say has led to regression on both sides of the aisle by way of racial, economic, health, education, religious or gender equality. While you’re at it, have a full conversation with someone who does not share your political stance. We need to begin understanding each other in order to move forward.

Speeding through the National Portrait Gallery (I take free museums very seriously) the night before returning to Boston, I found a painting of Lucretia Mott, a famed anti-slavery and women’s rights advocate of the 1840s. Her portrait was accompanied by this quote: “Let women then go on–not asking favors, but claiming as a right the removal of all hindrances to her elevation in the scale of being.” I think we’ll get there, but for the sake of dear Lucretia and her contemporaries, let’s make sure it doesn’t take us 200 years.

This post was published on the CIC blog.

Wundergrund

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Photo Courtesy of Wundergrund.

Last night was the opening show of Wundergrund, Copenhagen’s annual contemporary music festival. I was invited by a friend from Hotel Pro Forma, who used to work for the festival and was able to find a last-minute ticket for me. While I came late to the opening reception, at least I didn’t miss the mirror people, who greeted guests in the staircase and  gave a mini dance-performance.

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Photo also not taken by me.

Everything was performed at the Hofteatret (Court Theater) in Charlottenborg Palace. The old royal theater has been preserved to retain it’s 1800’s feel, with candles, creaky pew seats, a gigantic balcony chamber for the queen and red velvet everywhere.

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See if you can find me! And again, I need to find the camera person who took these to give him/her credit.

The performance itself was the opposite of glitter, or mirrors, or classical aesthetics. Jennifer Walshe was the featured composer of the night, performing three of her pieces with the contemporary ensemble Scenatet.  The first two pieces were like watching a track team warm up with silently played cellos and rustling pom-poms. The last piece was 41 minutes of vocal epilepsy, brazen disharmony and disjointed visual/spoken soliloquies on church and science. The first two pieces were somewhat relaxing and even a bit funny, while the last piece was neither.  As my friend Johanna put it, “they always have to make you suffer a little”.

Thinking the show was over, I went home pretty exhausted after that last piece but happy to be thinking about and experiencing “music”. I didn’t realize until this morning that I’d actually missed the last part of the performance. Oops. That darned language barrier.

To bring in a few more things about the past week:

– What’s up at work: along with planning the next exhibition (more to come), I was able to make a webshop for Hotel Pro Forma’s books, music and DVDs: http://hotelproformastore.tictail.com/

– Copenhagen has fantastic schwarma.

– I have not yet mentioned the best invention of Denmark: pålægschokolade. Sold in very flat sheets, it’s the best way to get maximum tasting surface area of your chocolate without liquefying it or breaking it up. Today, after a failed run, I bought pålægschokolade and ate it while walking home through Assistens Kirkegaard. It’s probably the closest I’ll come to celebrating Halloween here, eating chocolate on a cool fall day surrounded by gravestones.

– Halloween is a new thing in Copenhagen. There’s a night in February called festelavn which is very similar to Halloween and involves dressing up and bothering old ladies for candy (it also involves putting a cat in a barrel and beating the barrel for good luck, one of the more creative Danish traditions).  Festelavn seemed to have been enough for the Danes until ten or twenty years ago, when someone realized the incredible commercial value of the American version of the holiday.

– At the Dome of Visions last week, I saw the first session of a series called SYNC Sessions that puts two musicians from different genres together for five hours to create a collaborative music product. A pretty cool idea!!

And some pictures to top off this week’s post.

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A fall day in the Assistens Kirkegaard
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Det Kongelige Bibliotek (The Royal Library). Also known as Det Sorte Diamant (The Black Diamond), because of its exterior.
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At Rosenborg Castle
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Copenhagen Botanical Gardens
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A room in the atelier, where we hold some of our many, many meetings, and occasionally shoot a film.

Heart of Darkness

Last night, I attended a theater production in Østerbro called “Heart of Darkness” based loosely off of the Joseph Conrad novel of the same name. I’ve read the book (under the duress of English class), so I had a vague sense that this would not bring out the best side of human nature. My friends from Vienna, Germany and Serbia had no idea what was going on, and hadn’t heard of the book. Most of the performance was in Danish, but it didn’t really matter.

We were among 30 audience members to be guided into the heart of Africa by a methodically slow-speaking and ominous woman speaking in Danish.  At least this was my guess as she drew the continent on a large piece of thin black wall, punched a hole in it, and motioned us to follow her through the hole and down black corridors. We entered a completely dark room and were introduced to seven characters who positioned themselves under misty spotlights. I suppose we were asked to choose one of the characters, but it was in Danish, so I wandered around until someone nudged me into a spotlight with another group of people I’d never seen before. When the characters asked “why did you choose me” in haunting voices, I was pretty perplexed.

Probably out of sympathy, everything switched to English as we were individually “registered” by Danes with typewriters who were seated at least four feet off the ground. Feeling small under the thumb of bureaucracy, we were moved to the other side of the typewiters where before us lay piles and piles of dirt, gloomily lit and surrounded by the smell of burning things and the throbs of a distant heartbeat. A silent actor led our group through the dark dirt field. He stopped at points to command us to literally wash him of his sins, then choose people at random to demonstrate how to kill a human (I was chosen for this one… it was very symbolic in case you’re wondering, but I was still holding a person’s neck as she struggled). We were assorted into yet another group where we slowly eliminated each other by answering the questions “Who would you save, him or her? Yourself or him?” With no time to process that I may have just told a stranger that I didn’t value his/her life, we were handed buckets of dirt and moved into an assembly line to bury an actor who was trapped in a large glass cage. At this point, people began refusing to participate. Once everyone had stepped away, the ominous Danish guide said something that was probably very profound in Danish, guided us back to our shoes, and it was over. No applause or anything, just an invitation to leave at your own will.

This description doesn’t do justice to 75 minutes of  being guided slowly through the darkness, feeling a bleak sort of wonder and growing hopelessness. Understanding Joseph Conrad’s story wasn’t important since the audience was living Marlow’s journey in the first person. Everyone entered by surprise into a world that accepted the worst parts of human nature and cooly made us face choices most of us never have to make.  In my opinion, this was theater at its best, immersive and arresting. But all I wanted to do afterwards was curl up in bed and contemplate the meaning of life.

I am curious as to whether theatrical journeys like this one, with purposefully small audiences who are forced to interact, occur as often in the USA as they do in Denmark. I also wonder if there is a way to do something similar using music as a point of departure rather than literature. Music has a narrative too, but even if the audience doesn’t understand it, is there a way to cut the crap and immerse an audience into the raw themes and emotions? There is an entirely new vocabulary to explore when the arts do what they are supposed to do- move us in ways we never expected, or perhaps have always been waiting for.

Lounge: Scratching Surfaces

Here are a few pictures from SCRATCHING SURFACES, the one-night performance, art and sound exhibition for Atelier Hotel Pro Forma’s monthly Lounge event.  It was a fantastic evening. Almost 100 people came between 17:00 and 20:00. The night was themed around the Copenhagen Cable Park, the surfing area that had been the subject of our first assignment. As the production manager, my job was to create a cohesive concept (more on that here), then market and promote it via Facebook, Instagram, flyers, a promotional video, and emails. I then created a production and installation schedule, managed the bar, made a site map with a description of each piece, did some curating, organized furniture moves, permanently installed the Ikea window shades (your welcome, Hotel Pro Forma), and made sure that everyone was happy with the end product. We even had time to order and eat Thai food together before the night began. Two weeks of preparation was just enough time to invent, create, and showcase these five pieces and a performance.

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Consider the source
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Exhibition week intern dinners!
Form of: a water droplet.
Form of: a water droplet.
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A healthy crowd
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Johanna and Magnus examining some projection art
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perhaps the best promotional material I’ve made in 10 minutes, posted on Facebook two hours before we opened.
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Lake Street Dive

Sometimes a voice channels everything I’ve ever wanted to be. It happens when I listen to Joni Mitchell, Ella Fitzgerald, Nora Jones, Aretha Franklin, and Beyonce. Sometimes it’s in  my own voice, but maybe I’m only paying attention when I’m singing to myself alone in the car or the shower. Rachael Price in Lake Street Dive definitely delivers it. I am just going to leave some videos for viewing and listening pleasure.

… and then you can watch the rest of the YouTube playlist.

I can’t quite pinpoint the feeling yet, I need to pull out the thesaurus and find a word that combines inspired, connected, happy and focused. Maybe, flow? Anyway, they’ve got the quirky jazz and funky soul that resonates beautifully.  Bonus: they met at the New England Conservatory studying jazz. Double bonus: the bassist went to Tufts. Bonus of all Bonuses: they also recently performed on Colbert. I know a lot of other random facts but have reached today’s bonus maximum.

Also, happy week before Valentines Day. Do not expect to hear from me, as I will be in a chocolate shop drowning in milk foam and impaling myself on heart-shaped linzer tortes, with every single couple in Cambridge as my witness.

La Lingua del Poder

In addition to paying my rent through chocolate, I just finished my first week volunteering at ZUMIX. They’re a kids-only music community center located in East Boston. A two minute walk from the Maverick T station, ZUMIX is both a haven for kids from the local East Boston community while also accessible to those from farther locations who want to participate.  On Wednesdays I help with the administrative work, which at the moment entails alphabetically sorting and archiving each member’s record. There are more than 1,000 currently active members between ages 6 and 18 at ZUMIX, camping out with thousands of non-active members in the filing cabinets. For a change of pace, I’ll be tutoring anyone who needs help in school on Thursday afternoons. 

With that said, I arrived on the scene on Wednesday morning with general expectations that did not prepare me for the swarm of energetic youngin’s and passionate teachers. Luckily, all I had to do was file and observe. There is no shortage of energy here, watching this microcosm of the chaos and confusion of childhood and self-identity. I have never felt more comparatively well-adjusted on a first day of anything. On Thursday, I arrived in the afternoon excited to meet a student in need of tutoring and who the staff seemed to love. Instead of the happy kid I was expecting, he trudged in, eyes red from crying, and spoke to no one. I went back to my filing feeling helpless. I don’t know what happened, but as the hours wore on his mood lifted as he helped a staff member fix instruments and as his friends rolled in.

I should note that all of East Boston falls into some Environmental Justice category (Minority, Income, Language or some combination of the three… ) and according to this article, the Hispanic/Latino population accounts for almost 53% of East Boston’s population. Crime rates are also well above the Massachusetts’ average. Almost everything that can be translated to Spanish exists somewhere in the ZUMIX office, and I’ve already run into a few language barriers and have resolved to start learning Spanish. Yet these teachers and staff are young and energetic, obviously care about empowering their kids through music, and are full of ideas and humor. I have a feeling that my young student had much more on his plate before arriving that day, which gives me a taste of how ZUMIX’s founding mission is still active, helping under-served youth and communities in more ways than one.

Little did I know that that very night, ZUMIX would perform in “La Lengua del Poder” (The Language of Power), a youth performance collaboration celebrating the Massachusetts Cultural Council’s 20th anniversary. After enthusiastically accepting an  invitation, I took a field trip to South Boston’s Villa Victoria Center for the Arts with a few staff members and a hoard of kids, arriving a mecca of not-for-profit representatives and hyped-up youths. Once all the free food was doled out, the lights dimmed and the show started. The Spoken Word Theater Troupe’s skit on powerlessness and racism gave me chills, compounded by a powerful slam poet expounding upon transgender and bisexual rights and prejudices on a very personal level. After a few other “powerful” performances by young people “freeing their voices through movement, art theater, music, and poetry”, ZUMIX’s talented band Miyagi and the Kids stormed the stage with Maroon Five and The Kinks covers,  and the night descended (ascended?) into a collective high school dance party. 

It’s amazing to these kids take control of their lives through the arts. The power of self-expression was celebrated at this performance in a way I haven’t recently experienced, by children who are braver than I will ever be. It’s spontaneous occasions like these that make me love strong people. Underneath the flaws or troubles that can accumulate, strong people keep that sense of self-identity and moral fortitude. The earlier this “lingua del poder” is developed, the stronger it becomes. No matter how insignificant my tasks at ZUMIX, I am excited to continue helping to channel this powerful form of self expression for good in the coming weeks.

I have attained chocolate nirvana

When I was 16-years-old, I gave a sermon at my Episcopalian church. I practiced and practiced and in the end gave a very convincing talk about the pros and cons of “following the flock”. Somehow, I also mentioned that it might be cool to try Buddhism. I’m not sure I won points with the conservative old ladies in the congregation, but I felt pretty great. Now, well into my 20’s and emerging from the liberal arts collegiate years that praise existentialism and humanism, I’m remembering religion.

I understand that no practicing Buddhist would equate a new job at a chocolate store with the attainment of nirvana, especially since chocolate undoubtedly gets in the way of overcoming desire. I have in fact been in a continuous state of chocolate desire since I hid a gallon container of candy under my bed when I was eight. While my container is no longer gallon-sized, this still means that I am very far from achieving nirvana in the strictest of senses. I just wanted to make that clear.

Yet working at L. A. Burdick definitely is the attainment of some sort of sensational climax.  And as my new 2013 Christmas gift present to myself reminds me, happiness has not decreased from being shared. 

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So, perhaps it’s just a mini nirvana, but working for something I love (or just like… a lot) will always keep me going. And since I work with three music masters students, four of five music/art therapy students, a couple of artists, a scientist, and other young twenty-somethings just trying to figure it all out, I’m grateful to at least be with others who are in the same boat, each taking charge and figuring things out in different ways with individual goals. People will come and people will go… it’s all just one big life analogy! SAMSARA!