Author: Joe Nelson
I came to Omdena in Fall 2020, as a lawyer and machine-learning student anxious to learn more about AI and eager to give back. After discussing the role, I was excited to get started, but I still didn’t have a complete picture of what a project manager was. I did my own research, and discovered that I had worked in several roles that bore some resemblance to a traditional project manager (PM).
Soon after starting, however, I learned that in the context of Omdena’s bottom-up, collaborative model, the PM role was a little different. Since my first experience, the PM role has evolved; PMs now grow as Product Owners (POs). Being involved in an Omdena project is a very special and enriching experience.
Below, I will go through each of these steps, and along the way, hopefully convince you to explore PO opportunities at Omdena.
So What is a Project Manager, Anyway?
In a nutshell, PMs assist in the planning and production of the anticipated deliverables by managing the team and keeping the project on time and on budget. They also act as a liaison between the different players in the project. To be sure, I am greatly over-simplifying project management; there are so many considerations at play, which vary industry by industry. An excellent resource is the Project Management Professional designation website, here.
After learning a little about project management, I realized I had held similar roles in some of my earlier positions. As a communications account executive, I managed the design, production, and dissemination of trade-show materials; and, as an attorney, I manage the team, the course and workflow of the litigation, ensuring our case stays on time and within the provided budget. In both, I exercised a great deal of discretion and control; I could push the direction of the project, control the timing and workflow, and in some cases, select and motivate the team, though these were not exclusive; others made executive decisions. Nevertheless, projects were being managed, not merely facilitated.
A New Experience: Project Management at Omdena is a Little Different
Omdena is different from traditional platforms in many ways, and project management at Omdena is no exception. The differences originate in Omdena’s philosophy and structure; Omdena is a bottom-up, collaborative platform to build ethical AI solutions in only two months. Partners work with Omdena to craft a problem statement, which is then presented to the collaborators, who create a series of tasks which will ultimately result in deliverables to solve the problem. For the machine-learning engineers, the process of starting a new project can be very different from other experiences. While some are new to machine learning and others are experts, all are empowered to start new tasks and to work together from the ground up to get the project done. In short, the collaborators run the show.
The PMs’ responsibilities were to run the weekly team calls, guide and support the collaborators, keep the partner informed, and oversee the delivery of the project results to the partner. PMs were directed to not manage the collaborators or the technical development, nor to be an expert in the problem being solved.
On my first project, I was lucky enough to be paired with an existing PM. This was great, because I was able to observe Omdena’s process and the PM’s role before taking the reins myself. Overall, I felt that the role was of a facilitator, making sure the collaborators were properly enrolled in version control, setting up and running the weekly check-in calls, and coordinating the final presentation and production of the written report. To me, my most significant contributions came from areas where I have the most experience: editing and public speaking. I worked with the presenters to keep their final presentation of the project results at the appropriate time and complexity levels, and edited the final report to ensure it reflected a cohesive voice.
A key distinction of this role was that the PM acted more as a facilitator, maintaining a hands-off approach at guiding the direction of the project. For example, at one point, I asked if I (a newer developer) could contribute to the project while acting as a PM. The guidance received was that I should feel free to collaborate, but not in any role that might suggest I was directing the project, even tangentially (such as taking the lead on a task).
Omdena’s Product Owners Take a More Active Role
Omdena continuously grows and improves, and this includes the project-management space. In 2021, the project manager role was expanded. New project managers start as Associate Product Owners (“APO”), and they then move into a full Product Owner (“PO”) position.
The APO continues with the initial responsibilities, which I’ve described as more facilitative. The APO also ensures that the ongoing project is moving toward a solution which will meet the partners’ business needs. If the project has drifted off target, the APO helps the collaborators pivot. Also, the APO should ensure that individual tasks remain aligned with the problem statement throughout the development cycle. Finally, keeping an eye on the forest through the trees, the APO should keep an eye on any potential loopholes in the deliverables, so that the collaborators can cover them.
The PO continues with all of these responsibilities, but takes further steps to proactively identify specific areas where the development team is lacking, and then takes steps to fill those gaps. For instance, the PO identifies problems with the use or implementation of tech tools, potential skill-set needs that aren’t met by the collaborator team, and any potential communication issues with the partner; they then take active steps to resolve them, such as setting up workshops with the tech tools, bringing in other Omdena community members with the requisite skill set, and actively engaging the partners. In short, the APO and PO take a more active role in managing the development of the project. However, despite these expanded responsibilities, the APO and PO are still instructed not to manage collaborators or play the role of a machine-learning expert.
How to be successful as an Omdena Product Owner
To be a successful Omdena product owner, there are a few things to keep in mind. First, projects start with a lot of great ideas before they narrow in focus. Keeping the team thinking about which tasks will contribute to the final deliverable and which are better left behind is key to keeping the collaborators’ resources efficiently allocated. During the weekly calls, the PO should do more than merely facilitate; they should ask questions about how the various tasks tie in to the problem statement and the planned deliverables — not in a critical manner — but merely to raise the issue; is there a clear path to the deliverables? Is the time frame reasonable? Are there any barriers to the tasks and the project as a whole being completed on time? The key in asking these questions and staying true to Omdena’s structure lies in not going too far; the goal is to keep these issues in the forefront, considering the relatively short project timeframe.
As a Product Owner, the expanded responsibilities go far beyond the facilitator role, and places significantly more responsibility on the project management component of the development team to help the project stay on target and to ultimately address the problem statement. I have really enjoyed the change; even though the PMs, APOs, and POs don’t design the machine learning models or the amazing dashboards, they are very much engaged in and necessary to each project’s overall success.
Check out the Product Owner growth path, and the application to become a project manager yourself, here.
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