What it’s like to be a product manager at Ad Hoc

Ad Hoc defines product management as the discipline for building the right things given goals, user needs, and constraints. It’s a mindset, rather than a singular process, for delivering value amidst change. Product management draws from other practices, like agile software development and human-centered design, to iteratively discover and shape solutions.

Product management originated in the private sector but is increasingly core to how the government thinks about the role of technology in advancing policy goals. This is due to two main trends: the increased digitization of government services and rising public expectations of these services. Today, people can manage most aspects of their lives online and with minimal friction, why should they expect anything less from the government?

Enabling this transformation will take time and a concerted effort from agencies to redefine the success of technology efforts in terms of the outcomes they enable for people and programs, rather than the output they deliver. This is as much about cultural change as it is solving hard technical problems, and product management serves as a key enabler for both.

If you’re an experienced product manager, or someone looking to learn more about the discipline, I encourage you to apply to Ad Hoc. We’re looking for people at all levels of experience who are interested in solving hard problems and helping organizations adopt more iterative and human-centered ways of working. You can also be part of a broader movement that is aimed at building a more responsive, inclusive, and outcome-oriented government for the 21st century.

Product management in government

Though many of our product managers come from government and civic tech groups like 18F, the United States Digital Services, and Code for America, we also hire folks with private sector consulting and consumer technology backgrounds to bring new ideas and fresh energy to our programs. We’re especially looking for people who can “co-create” with a wide variety of stakeholders and serve as a “trusted advisor” to customers throughout all stages of the product life cycle. We value folks who can draw on the latest tools and techniques and adapt them when necessary to meet the unique needs of government.

These characteristics are important because as a digital service company, Ad Hoc builds products with and for our government customers. This means that our product managers serve as coaches and stewards of the product development process, rather than the “CEO of the product” that you might see in some commercial technology firms. All of this requires our product managers to be skilled at setting direction and building consensus within complex stakeholder environments in order to guide decision-making towards the highest-value outcomes.

Our focus on outcomes, rather than just requirements, also makes our team and our approach unique. Whereas many other government contractors don’t even have a product management practice and are only focused on delivering what is specified in requirements, we pride ourselves on our ability to help customers shape and deliver solutions iteratively based on frequent user feedback and learning.

Illustration of a male and female waiter, and a male and female doctor, with arrows pointing to text that corresponds to the next paragraph.

One way we think about this internally is the difference between a waiter and a doctor. Government contracting is full of “waiters” that bring the customer exactly what they ask for, even if that means building the wrong thing. While delivering on requirements is important, we want our product managers to act more like doctors that rely on expertise, best practices, and related tools to diagnose problems and recommend the appropriate course of action given the situation.

Product management competencies

Ad Hoc’s product practice is organized around three competencies: delivery expertise, product sense, and consulting mindset. Each of our positions has a different mix of these core skills, and they’re important to how we evaluate candidates and promote current team members.

Timeline illustration of product core competencies from internal to external focus going from left to right, with experience levels from less to more also running from left to right.

Broadly, delivery expertise is about how you support a cross-functional team of engineers, designers, and researchers to get things done in an agile way. It’s the “how” of our work, but it goes beyond just managing against deadlines to include creating the systems and norms that can help teams achieve their best work.

Product sense is about starting with understanding the problem to be solved and building a vision based on that understanding to guide the product work of the team. This skill is a mix of strategic thinking, such as using a hypothesis-based approach to learning, and tactical leadership, such as synthesizing opinions and data from multiple parties into a coherent product vision.

A consulting mindset is that specific skill set for government product management work. It’s about coaching and leading our customers and stakeholders though we don’t own the product we’re managing. This skill becomes increasingly important in the more advanced product roles at Ad Hoc as the responsibilities are more about working with customers, leaders, and other contractors to bring the methods and values of product management to government digital services.

Here’s a more granular look at how these three competencies show up in each of the experience levels in the product practice.

Associate Product Manager

Associate Product Managers are typically at the beginning of their careers or are new to product management. They most often support a Product Manager and serve as a Scrum Master for a cross-functional team.

Responsibilities: Associate Product Managers primarily focus on using agile methods to support cross-functional workflows and the iterative delivery of features against a product roadmap.. We’re looking for people who can develop effective user stories, understand how the goals for a current sprint relate to a broader vision and direction, and are looking to grow as product managers.

Typical week: In a typical week, Associate Product Managers are focused on supporting a Product Manager as they work with the program team to guide the work. They’ll be developing artifacts such as process flows, diagrams, and business analyses that support our delivery team. They may also take part in meetings to set a long-term North Star for a product or better articulate a goal for the team.

Product Manager

Product Managers typically lead a single cross-functional team on one of Ad Hoc’s programs. They work with a customer Product Owner to define goals, measure outcomes, and manage priorities against a product roadmap.

Responsibilities: Product Managers are responsible for guiding prioritization as their team works on a product. They’re also responsible for proactively managing risks and building consensus around the product’s direction and features. Product managers work with product owners on the government side by providing recommendations for the product’s direction and backing up their ideas with data.

Typical week: In an average week, a Product Manager is heavily involved in the day-to-day work of their small, cross-functional team. They may develop artifacts such as product outlines or lead story mapping sessions with the team and stakeholders from Ad Hoc’s customer agencies. If roadblocks arise, the Product Manager will often lead the effort to remove them and get the team going again.

Senior Product Manager

Senior Product Managers typically lead an entire program, which may consist of a number of cross-functional teams, or a “team of teams.” They are experienced product managers with a track record of shipping successful products and leading teams through complexity.

Responsibilities: Senior Product Managers are responsible for developing longer-term visions and priorities in coordination with our customers. They help stakeholders reach consensus and ensure teams remain focused on the highest value work given the needs, goals, and constraints of the product.

Typical week: In a typical week, a Senior Product Manager would hold meetings with senior stakeholders to develop strategies to achieve the goals of the product and create artifacts to articulate those goals and strategies to the larger team. They may lead a training or activity around a core digital service method such as UX workflows or product strategy. Senior Product Managers also coach Associate Product Managers and Product Managers to help them grow professionally.

Staff Product Manager

A Staff Product Manager typically leads a portfolio of programs or a large team. They are seen as a senior practitioner by customers and peers and are skilled at guiding both people and programs. Staff Product Managers also typically have previous experience managing other product managers.

Responsibilities: A Staff Product Manager is responsible for the health and impact of their products and teams within their portfolio. They’re able to coach and lead other senior practitioners and set high-level strategies for large, complex teams working on critical government products.

Typical week: In a typical week, a Staff Product Manager may bring leads from other practices and organizations to solve a thorny problem or make a tradeoff between two different paths for the product. They may also check in on the health of their team and report out on product metrics to Ad Hoc leadership and customers.

Principal Product Manager

Principal Product Managers lead the product management practice for one of Ad Hoc’s business units, which consist of several programs organized around an agency. They set an overarching vision that ties together the portfolio of products within their purview and work across programs to promote quality and information-sharing across teams.

Responsibilities: Principal Product Managers are responsible for supporting the strategy for their business unit and defining standards and approaches that help our teams deliver successfully. They’re also responsible for finding and assessing new opportunities and working with Ad Hoc’s Growth team to secure new projects.

Typical week: In a typical week, a Principal Product Manager may present a new template or method to the entire product practice, complete with data from a pilot that tested the template in one program. They may conduct performance reviews and coach other senior product team members through a difficult problem. A Principal Product Manager may also publish a blog post or give a talk at an industry conference about Ad Hoc’s product practice and the outcomes we’ve helped our customers achieve.

We’re looking for skilled product managers to join our team. If you’d like to help the government adopt new ways of working and better serve the public, check out our join page to see our current open positions.