Product Management Leadership Ft. Jen Swanson, Optum



Thank you to lucidLIFT for underwriting our new Product Leadership interview series!

Featuring Jen Swanson, VP of Digital Product, Optum.

What does Product Management Leadership mean to you?

Whenever people ask what I do, I explain that my team and I figure out which features and capabilities to make it easier and more pleasant for users to do what needs to be done on our consumer-facing websites, and then we work with technical people, like developers and designers, to bring it to life.

For me, product management is this nexus of problem solving and creation that I find very satisfying. My main thrill in life is to bring order to the chaos and I think product management does just that.

When and how did you get into this aspect of technology? What is your current company/title?

I work for Optum as a VP of Digital Product within our Consumer Experience group. I have degrees in English and Education, and went on to 12 years of working in Higher Ed. During this time I had very un-digital jobs but my curious nature meant I was always the one assigned to the technology initiatives. A big chunk of that time was spent at Capella University where I learned how software and digital experiences could be intentionally created to deliver specific outcomes for students. I also learned design thinking there, and that’s what really hooked me. I made the switch to healthcare after that, but the common thread has always been about how technology can be leveraged as a tool to drive mutually beneficial outcomes for the business and the consumer.

Why do you do it, what inspires you?

I’m a very curious digital consumer. I’m so delighted when something is easier than expected, or delivers more than what I even thought I wanted out of an interaction. That delight is what drives me; I want others to feel it, especially when they are in challenging situations (like earning a PhD or navigating a healthcare crisis). A wise woman I once worked with said “Let’s make the hard stuff hard, and the easy stuff easy” — meaning that there are parts of these experiences that we shouldn’t crassly simplify, gamify, or condescend to — but everything else should be made as simple and seamless as possible. That gets me out of bed every day.



Do your technology teams use agile software development methods, or another approach?

We use a scaled agile framework that has been customized for the Optum enterprise. It amazes me how organic and evolutionary agile can be; sometimes that is fun, but it can also feel like a constantly moving target. Overall, I’m energized by the fact that it forces everyone to say “That release went fine, but here’s how we’re going to do it better next time” and everyone is 100% bought into that idea.

How do you ensure that your efforts and objectives are aligned with tangible business outcomes?

We have been gradually adopting an agile funding framework over the last year or so. This attempts to start to force a corporate capital funding cadence (ahem: waterfall) into a more agile stance. It’s painful, to be frank, but the single best thing it’s forced us to do is get really honest and specific about the business value at the idea/capability level. We have to work very closely with our business and service channel partners to do this, and leverage our analytics to see if what we build has the effect we think it will.

Do you use any software products/services or how do technology tools come into play around your ongoing objectives?

We are big users of Aha! And CA Agile for managing our products. Aha! is our “plan” platform, and CA Agile our “build” platform, and we really like their integration points. Neither is perfect; just as our scaled agile approach evolves, so does how we use these tools. And analytics is, of course, important to everything we do. As a shared service that works across lines of business, we’re somewhat platform agnostic in terms of platform on that front.

What is the size of your team and how is it organized?

I have 7 Product Managers, an Analytics and Testing Product Manager, and a UAT specialist that report to me. Across that team we manage a portfolio of digital products that are the components of a digital experience we want to build once and allow all of our lines of business to easily consume (rather than duplicate expense and effort to build their own). We have a cadre of project managers and BAs assigned to our portfolio, and we team up with a technical organization of developers, QA, architects, and release managers that help us do the build. We also have UX designers and Accessibility experts “embedded” with each product. It’s essentially a matrix built on a matrix, so please don’t ask me to org chart it. :)

How do you see product management changing over time? What are some of the challenges and opportunities ahead?

We’re seeing Product Management settle into a bit of a rhythm now. I’ve noticed that the product zeitgeist is shifting from trying to define our work to trying to optimize our work. I think that’s a reflection that the product mindset is starting to mature and take hold at orgs beyond the startup centers of the country. The challenge will be that not all organizations are ready to make that shift – “digital transformation” has been the hot concept these last few years, but many orgs are struggling because they are trying to transform legacy operating models. As Product Management matures, we need to find seasoned product leaders who are willing to help evolve these legacy organizations, and not just gravitate to where the product mindset is native to the org’s culture.

What excites and or concerns you about where business and technology are heading?

It feels like the gap between business and technology is tightening. The integration of IT and Marketing, IT and Business, IT and Product is a very hopeful signal to me. Forced separation under “us” and “them” mentalities have resulted in billions of wasted effort and capital over the years. More and more I’m seeing Technical and Product leaders with seats at the C-Suite, and that can only result in more strategic and meaningful work ahead. The thing to watch is whether those seats are filled with women, non-binary, and people of color. Globally, the product community is full of the misfits and outcasts that don’t “fit” traditional tech and business roles (I count myself among them). But we have to hold on to that — and promote from that — so that we can lead a diversification of the companies we’re transforming.

What advice would you have for someone who wants to get into Product Management?

To be honest, I struggle with this question whenever I am asked it. I just sort of worked my way into a corner of the world and was elated to find there were people just like me calling themselves Product People, so it’s hard for me to think about how to do it strategically. My advice would be to start working your way in from adjacent roles — project management, business analyst, UX design, and development. The best product managers are those who know how to leverage the experts they have on their team, and what better way then starting as one of those team members.

What do you enjoy doing outside of work?

First and foremost, I’m a mom to two amazing kids, so I spend a lot of time talking about the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Harry Potter, and Star Wars, and trying not to step on the LEGOs that seem to be growing out of the carpet at our house. I also am active with the Ellevate Network Twin Cities Chapter, which is an organization that works to help women achieve more in their careers with the ultimate goal of closing the gender gap. I serve on the board of Adopt-a-Classroom, a crowd-funding platform for schools. I love to cook, I wish I had more time to do yoga, and I love being outside in MN (except for maybe in January and most of February.)

What do you look for in a product manager when you are hiring for your team?

I look for people that have a track record of having worked on a product (even if not as a product manager or owner, depending on the role) — I think it’s really hard to manage a product with no experience at all in this area. But also important is mindset. I ask questions that help me understand how they manage input from stakeholders (do they know when to stop asking for what to build next and start to pull business and consumer inputs together to make a compelling vision for the product?). And I try to understand from past experiences how well they do communicating big-picture ideas as well as managing small details on projects.

Are you or is someone you know a leader in the area of Product Management? []