Product Management and Society

By Kathy Pham and Hannah Masuga

Kathy Pham is an Adjunct Lecturer and Senior Fellow with digital HKS at the Harvard Kennedy School. Hannah Masuga was the inaugural Product Management and Society Course Assistant and MPP 2019 candidate.

Kathy Pham and Amanda Miklik, guest speaker for the “Terrible Error Messages” class on Content Strategy

Product management is one of the most popular career choices among students looking to enter the technology industry. While businesses have recognized the critical role product managers play in generating revenue, shaping software development, and delighting customers, much less attention has been paid to the impact products have on broader functioning of society. Conversely, technology projects within government have often failed due to lack of product thinking and user design.

The host of unintended consequences and crises that have emerged this year alone proves the current approach to product management is inadequate and the public and private sectors have much to learn from each other. Product management needs to put social context, ethics, user experience design, and community focus at the center of the discipline. As a step toward addressing this growing need, with support from digital HKS, we launched Product and Society, as well as a new class at the Harvard Kennedy School called Product Management and Society: Building Technology in Government and Beyond.

The inaugural class complements many of the digital and technology related classes across Harvard University and it attracted a variety of students, including the Graduate School of Design, the Business School, Harvard College, and MIT Sloan. The class was also a complement to the highly sought after Product Management 101 and 102 taught by Julia Austin at the Harvard Business School. Our goal was to not only create a baseline of familiarity with core product management concepts, but also introduce students to recent ethical concerns that practitioners have encountered. In order to achieve this, we invited a number of private and public sector practitioners to speak to the class about their experiences.

We have included details of the class below in hopes that it seeds broader development in the field. You can also find more details on the full syllabus. We only ask that you attribute if you reuse material. Please reach out if you have questions or ideas. We look forward to a broader discussion on how product management can broaden its understanding.

Course Overview

Delivering critical services to the public requires building technology that works for people. In environments like the public, non-profit, and mission-oriented private sectors, this is can be a challenge, but it is possible and necessary to build thriving societies. This course will focus on the role of the product manager in leading cross-functional teams across engineering, design, users, policy, marketing, analytics, vendors, and stakeholders when building technology products. Students will learn how to think like a product manager and how to partner with product managers. Students will learn how product managers set strategy, define products, advocate for the user, manage stakeholders, and understand market or policy factors in order to ship technology services and products that benefit people.

No experience in software, product management, or design necessary. Intended for those interested in understanding the critical role of a product manager to build technology services in the public, non-profit, or in mission-oriented private sector.

Class Descriptions

Class #1: What is Product Management [and Society]?

Product management is defined differently throughout the tech industry. This class will focus on the field of product management, its history across, and why this role is critical in delivering technology.

Class #2: Discovery Sprints

An important part of building a successful product is understanding the landscape — the problem, the stakeholders, the users. This requires understanding how to gather the information in a short period of time, usually one to two weeks of discovery. This class will walk you through starting a product with a successful discovery sprint.

Class #3: Agile, Waterfall, Extreme Programming, and other software lifecycle and product management buzzwords

There are many keywords that describe the process in which software is built. This class will go through some of the most common terms, what they mean, and how in many ways they don’t matter.

Class #4: Content Strategy

Content is one of the most critical parts of any product. Without content that people understand, a product that took a lot of money, time, and engineering resources to build can be rendered useless. This class will focus on developing a solid content strategy right from the beginning.

Class #5: Metrics, metrics, metrics

Understanding what metrics to track is not an easy feat. Tracking the wrong metrics and reporting on incomplete or inaccurate data can lead to product disasters. This class will focus on how to track metrics, and how to use metrics to better understand the people who will use the product.

Class #6: Procurement, contracting, buying things, and tying it all together

Procurement is the core of how technology gets built in the government and in places that do not have in house technical resources. The procurement process and implementation has also been the source of many failed projects. This class will focus on the role of the product manager throughout procurement to ensure better technology service delivery.

Class #7: User Experience and Design

User experience and design must be at the core of all products in the public sector. By definition, the public sector serves the public, and it is critical to understand the people we are serving, and then design for them. This class will focus on how to run user experience research, and then how that translates to design of a product. We will also focus on the design parts no one wants to do or think about initially: Accessibility, legal and regulatory compliance, user safety and privacy, and ethical considerations.

Class #8: Testing, Testing, Testing

Understanding and leading testing is a significant part of being a product manager. There are many different types of tests for different phases of a building a product: Unit, functional, user experience, A/B, quality assurance (Q/A), environment, adversarial, and more.

Class #9: Automating Inequality (title courtesy of Virginia Eubanks)

Sometimes even with the best intentions, our public service technologies do more harm than good. This class will focus on how to learn and understand the deep dimensions of inequality and the communities we serve, and how to do our best to keep that out of our products.

Class #10: Scaling through partnerships

In addition to communication, another key skill for product managers is the ability to foster partnerships. This class will not only focus on partnerships, but we will dive into how to scale to very large projects through partnerships.

Class #11: Working with Engineers

A technology product cannot be built without engineers. This class will focus on the relationship of the product manager and the engineers, and how to create a healthy, productive environment for building technology that works for people

Class #12: Tools, tools, tools

There are many different tools on the market for product management. This class aims to familiarize you with those tools. We will also discuss how not have allegiance to any particular tool, but understanding a few in detail, is a great asset.

Guest Speakers

The following experts in the field shared, or will share, their experience and knowledge with students in the class:

Lisa Gelobter, founder and CEO of tEQuitable, former Executive Director of Digital Service at Department of Education; VP Digital Product at BET; Launch Team at Hulu

Amanda Miklik, Director of Design, United States Digital Service

Clair Koroma, Digital Service Expert, Defense Digital Service; former Health and Human Services, Secret Service

Jeff Maher, software engineering consultant, CivicActions; former engineering manager and founding member, Digital Service at Veterans Affairs

Stephanie Nguyen, designer, Google X; former United States Digital Service; co-founder Landmark

Jenny Korn, Scholar of Race, Gender, and Media; Fellow at The Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University

Kasia Chmielinski, Product Manager, New Ventures, McKinsey & Company; former United States Digital Service and Scratch Project at MIT Media Lab

Marianne Bellotti, software engineer and team lead, United States Digital Service; former senior software engineer, Humanitarian Data Exchange, the United Nations

Vanessa Larco, Partner at NEA, former Director of Product at Box, founder mobile gaming start-up for kids (future semesters)

Future List of Topics

  • Accessibility: 508 Compliance and beyond
  • Security: Building security and privacy into the product from the beginning
  • Privacy: Valuing privacy from the beginning
  • Minimum Viable Product: What is it? Should you have an MVP? What does MVP mean in government?
  • Storyboarding
  • Memos
  • Product Strategy

Suggested Blogs, Books, Groups


  • Terrible Error Messages
  • Discovery Sprint Plan
  • Metrics
  • Product Critique
  • Product Requirements Document

Other Courses At Harvard

Beyond Harvard

Here is a link to a comprehensive list of Product Management courses by Francois Le Nguyen, broken down by into formal degrees, formal executive programs, MOOCs, product management bootcamps, online course, in person courses, and product owner certifications:


Many thanks to Amanda Miklik and Kate Krontiris for their invaluable feedback and input on this syllabus.

Also many thanks to the following individual for their continuous feedback throughout the development of this course: Stephanie Nguyen, Marianne Bellotti, Grace McKinney, Bruce Schneier, Jim Waldo, Janine Gianfredi, Kelly O’Connor, Kasia Chmielinski, Matt Taylor, Kerry Lenahan, Natalie Kates, Haley Van Dyck, Jennifer Pahlka, Dana Chisnell, Josh Quagliaroli, Deap Ubhi, Keith Porcaro, Salome Viljoen, Doaa Abu Elyounes, Mary Gray, Vanessa Rhinesmith, Nick Sinai, Erie Meyer, Kim Rachmeler, Emily Wright-Moore, Julia Austin

Kathy Pham and a few Harvard Kennedy School Product Management and Society students visit United States Digital Service Headquarters in Washington D.C. (Annie Donolo, Cody Pan, Jen Chen, Ori Pleban, Sophie Schick, Jessica Nunez, Anushka Siddiqui, Lifan Zhang, Elisa Mansur) Many thanks to digital HKS for making the trip possible.