Wrap Up: My “digital tour of service” with the State of Colorado

Every morning I wake up to the local NPR station (KUNC) playing on my Alexa, grab a cup of coffee, lay back down and listen. It’s a preview of the weeks ahead. Working in state government puts you at the intersection of federal policy and local service delivery. Sometimes things state government builds directly impacts people, and sometimes it enables those in county and local government to serve residents and citizens in a better way.

The Colorado Digital Service (CDS), a team I co-founded with Matthew McAllister, is two years old now and I am wrapping up my “digital tour of service.” CDS is a diverse, cross-functional team of senior engineers, human-centered design specialists, product managers and procurement specialists within the Governor’s Office of Information Technology (OIT). We partner with state agencies to develop and improve human-centered solutions to Colorado’s most pressing technical challenges (and we are hiring).

Over the past two years, I’ve been incredibly proud of the work we’ve done on the COVID-19 response, with the child welfare team, and the new Paid Family and Medical Leave division. I can’t wait to see what the team delivers next.

A few lessons learned

A digital service can be an important tool for governments.

The original vision for the Colorado Digital Service was to create a small team of senior product managers, designers and engineers that would work on the Governor’s priorities and plug-in tightly with the Office of Information Technology. This has mostly played out as expected.

Why is a digital service important for your state government?
1. A digital service creates momentum for new ideas on hiring, software delivery and problem solving that can be leveraged government-wide. Publishing the Modern Software Delivery Index, creating an agile vendor pool and finding new ways to connect Colorado tech talent to government are examples of ways the Colorado Digital Service has done this here in Colorado.

2. For agency initiatives that are emerging, a digital service can be leveraged to prototype, build, ship and continuously improve upon these initiatives until the sunset or transfer into an agency program. Bug Bounty, Digital Vaccine Credentials, Exposure Notifications and Developer Evangelism are examples from the Colorado Digital Service just this year.

3. When brand new agency programs or offices are created, a digital service can help with human-centered design, rapid prototyping, product management and vendor procurements in the early stages of formation. In Colorado, we have seen a new Paid Family and Medical Leave program, Office of Early Childhood Education, and Office of Behavioral Health launch just this year.

A lot of progress has been made to improve the delivery of government services, but we still have work to do.

One of the big takeaways from the past few years in government is that some decades old rules combined with perverse incentives hamper government’s ability to deliver. Everyone wants to make government work better for the people, from tech talent who are curious about working in government, to the career civil servants that have been chipping away at problems for years.

Here are a few things that are gradually improving but need to be better.

Hiring – In Colorado, we can’t hire anyone that lives outside of Colorado, we have outdated position classifications and our product, design and engineering salaries continue to be non-competitive with the private sector.  We continue to attract great talent despite these constraints thanks to the tireless work from Colorado’s HR folks and agency directors that find creative ways to staff teams. Refactoring hiring is happening but more needs to be done such as improving how funding is allocated to these positions and competing on salary (read Tips for Finding Ways into Public Sector Work).

Delivery teams – Funding for enterprise applications can be sporadic based on a change in legislative priorities, economic climate or specifics of policy which makes it hard for government teams to hire full-time employees so outsourcing to contractors and vendors is the norm. This perpetuates a “project” instead of “product” mentality of “When will it be done?” and “We have to spend the money now.” In government, many of the technology applications that serve programs like Medicaid, child welfare and public safety are never “done”. Delivery teams need full-time government employees that can focus on delivery with a consistent funding stream over time in partnership with vendors.

Procurement – Governments can have hundreds of enterprise applications and initiatives. How government teams decide to work with contractors and vendors is a huge factor in their success. Although there has been a powerful movement in procurement reform across governments at all levels, moving to a modular, agile way of working is still new in government (watch Waldo’s talk on this). When an program team insists on developing a massive list of requirements to be delivered by a certain date for a certain price and then adds additional constraints such as a vendor having to take on substantial liability for the “system as a whole” or having a certain number of employees onsite, they think they are doing the right thing by “guaranteeing success” and reducing risk. Time after time this approach has been shown to fail (read Government tech projects fail by default. It doesn’t have to be this way).

What’s coming next for government teams is pretty easy to envision

The delivery of digital services across the government is maturing. In some Federal and State Agencies as well as local governments, you will see teams working in an agile way, using human-centered design to better understand the problems they are solving and shipping software that works on mobile devices.

Looking ahead, here are a few things that are either a growing part of a government’s portfolio or coming soon.

APIs – Interoperability between agencies, counties and community partners, open data and giving residents/citizens/patients access to their personal data is a growing piece of the puzzle for government service delivery.  We are already seeing states subject to regulation by the Federal government to provide Medicaid patients access to their health information and more of this type of regulation will come. There is also a strong demand from the private sector to access open data sets and have ways to transact with governments.

Layers of Government – For programs that span multiple agencies (CDC and CMS for example) or multiple levels of government (Federal to State to Local), a digital service can help break down silos and glue efforts together. There is already collaboration between states happening formally in monthly working groups and informally across networks of peers. Governments at all levels should be working as a portfolio in many of the large enterprise applications like unemployment insurance, Medicaid and paid family and medical leave sharing open source projects and reusing composable building blocks instead of paying the same vendors to duplicate software applications over and over for each state.

Machine Learning – Fraud detection, robotic process automation, public health outbreak prediction and so much more is coming to the government. Understanding how to manage ML pipelines, train models, and incorporate all of the ethical considerations that this technology will raise for a government into the product management process will be critical. Digital service experts that have experience training and deploying models or designing product features that leverage these models will be important. [read Digital Services to APIs to ML]


After 20 years building software in bootstrapped small businesses, venture-backed startups and large enterprises, I feel incredibly lucky to have stumbled into government and fallen in love with the work. My work-life has never had more purpose that it does now and I’m excited to continue chipping away at these problems.

Thanks to my Colorado Digital Service teammates, Governor Polis and his team, and all of my colleagues in the Office of Information Technology and within the agencies for helping the Colorado Digital Service get off the ground and become an important part of service delivery to Coloradans. I am grateful to you for giving this idea a chance.As for me, I’m boomeranging back to the US Digital Service to serve another digital tour of service taking my learnings and inspiration from Colorado to the Federal government.

Concept Videos for Product Managers

I wrote about how Product Managers can use screencasts to tell their story here. A similar technique is to create a concept video that combines screencasts and stock photography  footage to tell the story of your product vision. Not a novel concept, but here’s how I’ve been doing it.

Example: Wonk.AI

When I was living in Washington, DC, I’d take the Metro every morning to the Farragut North stop, the station for K Street (all the lobbyists) and the White House (all of the policy wonks, technologists and political folks that work in the White House complex). I was surrounded by some serious brain power and would daydream about an idea for scaling and automating knowledge I’d call Wonk.AI.

I came up with a simple value statement:

Wonk.ai is software as a service that helps you get smarter about the ideas, policy and people important to the work you are doing.

…and filled Moleskin notebooks and Evernote with ideas. For months I worked on this idea nights and weekends. I talked to my wife about it over dinner and ran ideas by friends to get their reactions.

Start Making Something

This Rework podcast episode describes ways to start actually building on your idea and breaking out of the daydreaming/note taking phase.

For Wonk.AI, I used Balsamiq Mockups to create some low-fidelity mockups originally drawn in my notebook. Next, I used TypeForm to create a simple onboarding experience and setup the wonk.ai domain to redirect. This gave me something I could send to friends to get a different kind of feedback. Did anyone actually play with it? Of those that did, what data did they input that would help me better understand how they would use Wonk.AI if it was a real product.

Creating a Concept Video

The mockups and simple form prototype was fun and positive, but didn’t tell the story about why I was obsessing over this idea. I noticed Screenflow has added a stock photography library and I decided on a whim to buy it.

I wrote a short script that combined the Wonk.AI value prop with a few use cases and some aspirational ideas then used Quicktime to record the audio. I brought that into Screenflow then recorded a quick screencast of the Typeform proto. Then, I filled in the gaps with a bunch of stock photography video clips.

Here’s the concept video. As you can see, it’s part cheese, part product vision, and part feature ideas.

Once I had this built, I published to Vimeo and set as a private link. I sent it around to a few VCs and other product folks I respected to get their feedback and further refine my thinking.

Ultimately for Wonk.AI, I wasn’t ready to throw everything I had at building it. The concept video was an important step to telling the story, getting feedback and getting from daydream to reality helping me decide on a path forward.

Product Management Tools

One of the themes I’ve seen working as a Product Manager in big enterprises like IBM Watson, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services and the State of Colorado, is a lack of tools that help Product Managers plan.  Yes, these orgs have Jira or Azure DevOps to help organize agile software delivery and Google docs or Confluence to serve as the document repository, but when it comes to strategy, planning and product roadmaps, it tends to revert back to docs and powerpoint.

Whether in the beginning stages of a project where the team is still being formed, budget requests are being put together and procurement is the next step or in the middle of working on a years old mature product heavy in technical debt with power users, the work for the Product Manager is the same.  They need to drive the vision of what the product is aspiring to create, they need to describe the product, they need to talk about how product success will be measured and ultimately how the product benefits the agency and people within the community the agency is serving.

There are now SaaS tools specifically designed for Product Managers like Prodpad and Aha! or templates designed for PMs in Confluence.  Adding this to your team helps formalize the product management planning process by giving your PM and team a way to add ideas, elaborate on these ideas over time, prioritize and attribute value to personas, understand impact versus effort and more.  This is the world a PM lives in everyday outside of the agile software delivery activities like user stories, testing and devops.  Because these PM tools integrate with agile software delivery tools like Jira, PivotalTracker, Azure Devops, etc, the hard work done by the PM is pushed into the dev tools when and only when, the time is right.  

Appreciate the processes Product Managers, UX Designers and Product Owners go through to deeply understand what users need and support them with the right tools.

Good luck!

Screencasts for Product Managers

Screencasts are easy to build and a great way to convey information.  As a Product Manager, being awesome at communication is a big part of your job.  Can you tell a great story to customers?  Are you articulating the product roadmap to your company?

I have used screencasts to:

  • Demo a “Getting Started” experience on the website
  • Show off the product at a conference booth
  • Give product updates at Board Meetings
  • Describe the customer journey for a new product to team members
  • Help sales reps communicate with beta customers
  • Announce new product features on blog posts
My setup is:
My workflow to build a screencast is:
  1. Open Byword, type out a 1/2 page script (5 min)
  2. Grab scrap paper and pen, sketch a storyboard of the screencast (2 min)
  3. Plugin USB mic, open Quicktime Player and record the audio a few times to get the pace and tone of your voice sounding right (5 min)
  4. Open Screenflow, import the audio track. (1 min)
  5. In Screenflow, click record and capture video of your screen following along with the storyboard you sketched.  Do this a few times to get it perfect.  (5 min)
  6. In Screenflow, edit your screencast adding call outs, transitions and titles. (15 min)
  7. In Vimeo, go to Create / Music Store and search for an instrumental background track.  One you find one, download it and import into Screenflow.  Adjust volume levels of your voice track and the instrumental track. (10 min)
  8. Export your screencast to Vimeo (2 min)

Total time: 45 min


In Vimeo, there are a few helpful settings under “Privacy”:
  • password protect your video to share with a select group of people
  • set “where can this video be embedded” to “only on sites I choose” if you only want the video available within your app for example

I’ve used my iPhone to record a few seconds of people around the office, people in front of a whiteboard or monitor, etc.   If you are building a screencast to tell a customer story this can work well.  Plug your iPhone into your laptop and import the clip into Screenflow.


Further Reading

How Product Managers Can Mess Around With Open Datasets

Most Cities, States and Federal Agencies are working on some type of Open Data initiatives. The most common is an “Open Data Portal” that makes it easy to grab and use datasets:


Some cities are using Open Data to publish performance metrics like the Seattle Police Department or Louisville’s LouieStat.

Civic Leaders working on these initiatives cite promoting transparency in Government, improving performance and providing data for innovation as reasons why Open Data is so important.

As a Product Manager, it’s helpful to be familiar with what’s out there and how you can play around with these datasets to better understand how your product may benefit.

Before you dive into querying APIs, checkout a few of these projects to see the end result of building something with Open Data.

500 Cities Project

Ok, now let’s dig into some datasets you can play with.

Socrata’s Open Data Network
Socrata hosts over one hundred different data catalogs for governments, non-profits, and NGOs around the world. Checkout their Open Data Network where you can search for datasets.

For example, here’s a page about San Bernardino County Employment. Click “View API” to end up on a page giving you data and an API call you can paste into your browser or Postman.

Namara has organized a bunch of public datasets into a beautiful UI. Create a free account, sign in, create a new project then click Open Data in the left column to search and add datasets to your project. You can view the table data and manipulate it or call the data using their API.


In your project settings, you can generate an API key. Then, in each dataset you can click “API Info” and get the data_set_id and version_id.

You can use ProPublica to request data about Congress such as a list of Recent Bills and Member Voting records.


You’ll need to request an API key by emailing apihelp@propublica.org then pass that in the X-API-KEY header.

For example, to query Rep. Jared Polis’s voting record:

Open Data and the big IaaS Platforms

Another approach is to checkout Public Datasets baked into AWS, Google Cloud Platform and IBM Bluemix.

This is a great example of using Google BigQuery on NYC Public Datasets.

AWS hosts a bunch of Open Data in S3 buckets.

IBM, as part of the NOAA Big Data Project, has built an easy way to download tons of data.

Additional Reading

A few hashags to search around on are #govtech, #opendata, #opengovdataand #opengov. Follow people like @Josh_A_New, @JoshData, @DataInnovation, and the @SunFoundation.

Here are a few links related to Open Data policy and relevant news.

Some history on U.S. Federal Open Data Policy

DATA Act passed in 2014, America’s first open data law. It directs the federal government to transform all spending information into open data.

Conversation on the future of Open Data as Administrations change and the Preserving Government Data Act of 2017

The OPEN Government Data Act “directs all federal agencies to publish their information as machine-readable data, using searchable, open formats and requires every agency to maintain a centralized Enterprise Data Inventory that lists all data sets, and also mandates a centralized inventory for the whole government (data.gov)”.

Open Data 500 US is an interesting survey results showing what kinds of companies use which agencies’ data.

What I Want To See From Evernote in 2017

I have almost all of my strategic thinking, articles I’ve found useful and reference material in Evernote. Their browser extension works great as does their Mac, iPad and iPhone apps. I even have the WSJ integration enabled so I see relevant news with my Notes.

It’s time for Evernote to not only store my information, but really help me be smarter and better at everything I do.

I would happily opt-in to this feature giving them access to learn from my personal data as long as I had a mechanism to “mark Notes private” which would exclude them from Evernote’s Machine Learning activity.

Given a seed list of Notes or a Notebook, I want Evernote to help me:

  • Monitor important news and activity from Companies and People I’m interested in
  • Show me correlations and visualizations in my Note data so I can better connect the dots and broaden my context
  • Suggest actions I should take based on my Note data

Evernote knows the Companies, People and Topics I’m interested in. Their browser extension could contrast my browsing behavior and work style with what I save into Evernote to learn more about me. They know my travel habits based on where I save Notes and all of the travel data I store in Evernote. They know about my kid’s activities because of the receipts I save, they know the gift idea list I’m keep for my upcoming 15th wedding anniversary.

I want to build a list of Venture firms funding healthcare companies. I know that Mattermark and CB Insights have these by segment, but I want my own list and to apply my own logic. I want to understand all the people that work there and what they are talking about. I want to know about their investments. I want to know when people leave the companies. I want to dig deeper and see trends using visualizations, etc.

I have been to the Evernote conferences, think Phil Libin was a visionary leader (#selfie) there and continue to be a paid user of the product. I’m hoping 2017 is the year that the Evernote team blows my doors off.

The First 90 Days for a Product Manager New To Healthcare

I talk to Product Managers all the time that are considering building products or features that would move them into the Healthcare space. This post is for them.

As you venture into Healthcare, you are embarking on the most TLA filled space imaginable. Talk to other Product Managers that are veterans in the space and you’ll barely be able to follow along. They are not trying to sound smart, it’s simply that the TLAs get ingrained so deep that it takes real effort to not use them.

You’ll also come across a few big topics like:

  • How regulation impacts business models
  • Selling into large Healthcare organizations
  • HIPAA and GxP
  • Healthcare and Life Sciences are very different

I began my first 90 days as a PM in Healthcare on a beach in Florida with my wife and kids on Thanksgiving break. I lounged around reading/listening to these 3 books:

Doing this gave me an understanding of the ACA, Pharma and all of the problems especially in the US Healthcare system. I was beginning to understand some of the TLAs.

My next step was to talk with other Product Managers. I had to ask a lot of dumb questions in these conversations but everyone was super nice and helpful. #givefirst These conversations helped me build a list of news, people, podcasts, blogs, etc that now make up my daily healthcare and biotech information pipeline. On a daily basis I found myself reviewing the Healthcare Top 100 and thinking about the business models of these companies. I subscribed to daily healthcare industry news from Becker’s Hospital Review, STAT and Modern Healthcare. I followed Zdogg and David Chase on LinkedIn. I listened to podcasts from Catalyze.io and a16z.

At this point in my first 90 days I was back in the office, still under a nice “you are still new” grace period and learning from everyone I could. The next step was to talk to Techstars Alumni, Denver-based Founders and friends of mine that are running Healthcare Startups. I had 50 conversations in two weeks and summarized most of them in a shared Box folder the team uses. For a handful of the conversations, I summarized and sent an email to entire team to raise awareness. This quickly established me as the expert for our “Healthcare Startup Developer” persona.

In the first 90 days:

  • Tell stories to build empathy about the people the product is trying to help.
  • Establish yourself as the voice of the customer on your team.
  • Show you are passionate and curious about the problems to be solved and the people you are trying to help.

It’s been one year since I began my journey as a Product Manager in Healthcare. I am once again sitting on the beach over Thanksgiving break pondering our Product Roadmap, Industry trends and reading everything I can about AI in Healthcare, Big Data Analytics use cases, Serverless Compute, how the ACA may change in the next Administration, CRISPR and more.

If you want help with your first 90 days, please don’t hesitate to reach out….and good luck!

Photo Credit: https://unsplash.com/@joaosilas

Using Trigger Lists in Product Management

I’m a big fan of “trigger lists”. The exercise of building them and the value they bring to a Mind Mapping or Design process have proved beneficial to me over the years. One of my favorites is David Allen’s GTD Incompletion Trigger List.

Recently, I transitioned from obsessing over providing Developers with APIs that would help them build amazing things with AI to obsessing about Healthcare and how AI can provide better care while lowering costs.

I pounded a Doppio and spent an hour brainstorming this trigger list to help me empathize with Users and better understand Actors in the crazy ecosystem that is today’s Healthcare tech.

I am a…

Healthy person
Cancer survivor
Factory Floor Worker
CRO Administrator
Product Manager
Community Oncology Clinic
Hospital CEO
CMS Employee
FDA Committee Member

And I have…

Outcome data
Clinical trials
Drug databases
Medical journals
App Store Reviews
Medical Devices
Full Contact API data
Clinical Trial Participants
Patient data
Lab results
Population data
Reimbursement data
Patent filings
Research and Health kit data
Hospital trends
Blog posts
Survey results
Internet searches
Product reviews
Instagram searches
A list of questions

And I want to…

Find Patterns
Organize my data
Filter my data
Search my data
Understand social media
Build an Android app
Surface correlations
Have access to information

So I can…

Comply with regulations
Stay up-to-date
Collaborate with a Physician
Track my progress
Get credit for a course
Be reminded of an appointment
Find cost savings
Sell an app
Make people healthier
Prove a point
Get reimbursed
Understand health trends
Track my Clinical Trial
Find a Hospital
Research and buy my medication
Predict outcomes
Make more money
Connect data together
Build a treatment plan
Find a Clinical Trial
Predict the Future
Support Meaningful Use
Make evidence-based clinical decisions
Analyze adverse events
Provide better treatment “in the field”

For those familiar with Agile, you’ll recognize the “As a User I want” format of this trigger list.

We all have so much stuck in our heads, try creating one of these trigger lists for something in your world and you’ll be surprised at how it can help.

How GTD Areas of Focus relate to Product Management

One of my favorite GTD concepts is Areas of Focus. Using Areas of Focus in your personal productivity system helps group work into context. No need to look at todos like “Get House Painted” when you’re at work. It’s better to look at only work related stuff that you want to be focused on.

For the longest time I’ve had Areas of Focus like House, Family, Marriage, Gear and Travel. I had one Area of Focus for work called PivotDesk. Inspired by a recent webinar on GTD Connect given by David Allen, I decided to refine my work-related Areas of Focus.

Old: PivotDesk

New: Product Management, Feature Development, Product Performance, Product Marketing

As I went through this exercise, I had a chance to think through the different types of work a Product Manager interacts with to get the job done.

Product Management
Idea management, sprint planning, processes, team, budgets, timelines, product roadmaps, internal communication and demos.

Feature Development
Scoping, customer interviews, idea validation, wireframes, designs, details and QA.

Product Performance
Instrumentation, A/B testing, analytics and KPIs.

Product Marketing
Product tour, blog posts, inbound channels, segmenting visitors and drip email campaigns.

I’ve found each of these areas requires a different headspace, pace and communication style. When focused on Product Management, my head is very much in business and planning mode. I’m emaliing, looking at the calendar and updating people. When focused on Feature Development, I am putting myself in our customer’s shoes, feeling empathic and brainstorming ideas. I’m staring at personas and drawings taped to the wall and getting whiteboard marker stains all of my arms and clothes. I’m far, far away from my email and calendar.

What do your Areas of Focus look like?

Building Software is Amazing

For the past 6 months I’ve had the opportunity to work on one of the best projects of my career.  This thing has all the buzzwords: big data, social media monitoring, semantic analysis, kanban, ruby on rails, github, distributed teams, expertsourcing, skype video, lean, pragmatic, platform, you name it.  The team is brilliant and highly skilled in their areas of expertise (rails programming, UI/UX development, architecture).  Each member cares deeply about their craft and is highly passionate about our project.  We argue, we collaborate on great ideas, and all stress the difference between opinions and facts.

This quick reflection just reminds me that building software is amazing.  It’s not writing up exhausting requirements that no one cares about, it’s not outsourcing all of your technology to a vendor, it’s not making stupid decisions that leads to wasting money and not shipping product.  Building software is about being creative, respecting the craft and the team and adapting quickly to a changing environment while relying on tried and true principles.  I can’t wait to see what shows up in the next “git pull”.