Ben Kates is a Senior at University of Maryland, College Park, and is interning at Aledade, a health-tech startup, working on the product management team.
I'll speak with him today to see what he's learned about healthcare technology and product management so far.
Thanks for talking to me today, Ben. So, what’s your backstory?
Well I grew up in Kansas City where my Dad worked for Cerner, then moved to the Bethesda, MD area. went to the University of Maryland where I’m finishing up in a few weeks with a degree in Economics. While economics isn't inextricably linked to health care, there are relationships that exist there.
In terms of how I ended up diving into health care - my Dad has been in HIT his whole career and it seemed pretty interesting to me. But there were two things that really pushed me over the edge.
The first was reading the 'Checklist Manifesto' by Doctor Atul Gawande who I ended up meeting at Aledade. I read that book and said ‘I would like to be involved in this somehow, and my grades are not good enough to be a doctor’.
Then I was thinking back and reflecting, and, you know how many people come home from work and complain about their job? My Dad was always enjoying what he was doing, being challenged intellectually and doing things he was excited about. So I talked to him to learn more and eventually got to talk to Edwin Miller at Aledade and the rest really was history: I’ve been working on the Product Management team there for the better part of a year.
Was that kind of the first time you’d hear about Product Management?
Yes and no. I had certainly never heard about the Product Manager role before but my Dad pointed me that way a bit and said that is a place I might thrive based on my skills and experience.
"A Product Manager is the quarterback of the product"
I didn’t know what a product manager was, I didn’t know what a product manager was responsible for or their role in a tech company. Looking back now, it was the right place to go.
— It often feels like people just stumble into PM doesn’t it?!
Yeah I really think it’s kind of tragedy that this job isn’t as well socialized as it could be. There are definitely people out there that could be really good product people, whether as PM’s or UX researchers and they just don’t know that these jobs exist
How would you define Product Management?
What I tell people is a Product Manager is the quarterback of the product, and they’re responsible for communication between engineering (people building the software), users (people using the software) and the business leaders (people focussed on outcomes). You’re sitting in those three circles and managing expectations for all those groups and frequently disappointing one or two or all three at the same time to build compromises. But, it’s a really important person at a company.
What parts of the product are you working on now?
Aledade has an application, a web-app, and I’ve basically been working on all aspects of it. My focus has been on userfacing issues and changes, so more UX and design, things to fix support tickets. Digging into the workflows and changes that these requests effect, and why people want those changes has been a huge part of my work so far.
So, what was the hardest part about jumping into health care? (Other than the acronyms, of course)
Haha well the acronyms are always a challenge. We actually have an internal running sheet defining acronyms. I still look at it all the time.
But, what was difficult. Well, learning and understanding the policy: Medicare Shared Savings plans, how that legislation really opened up avenues for this business model and then how that functions on a day-to-day, month-to-month and year-to-year basis is super complicated. You have to really get patient risk, and benchmarking and quality reporting and you could fill thousands of pages but there’s always something new to understand. AND this stuff is changing! Because it’s based on dynamic legislation.
And coming from a less technical background, what have you learned so far that’s been really helpful as a PM on a software product?
Well really just learning how it works and about agile and sprint methodologies was important. It’s similar to staring down the barrel at these health policy programs because you have to learn a lot of acronyms, a lot of jargon like ‘stand-ups’ and ‘scrum’ and there’s a lot of it and it’s in your best interest to just dive in and spend hours on
Medium at night and read about everything because it really does make you useful, to have an idea of what’s going on elsewhere. But, it’s stuff that you can pick up. It’s exciting and fun once you do.
What’s been the highlight for you at Aledade so far?
So I’ve been asked this question a lot, and I never knew how to answer until recently. We brought in a Bay Area Product Management consultant named John Cutler, and he’s still with us. And what we did was we were having problems with throughput, with getting things build in the product and really getting the most important things built.
So, all the heads of tech, engineers, PM’s, corporate leadership and I locked ourselves in a room for about ten days with John and covered the room with post-it notes and whiteboards and used games and all types of discussion to create this new process of software development involving ‘1-pagers’ and ‘Work in progress limits’ and basically completely overhauled how Aledade builds product. I got to witness this transformational process and it was definitely the most influential time I’ve gone through while here. I almost felt like I learned more in that ten-day session than I have in my entire undergraduate education so far.
Do you often get to talk to users?
I get to talk to users pretty regularly, yeah. And even when I don’t get to talk to users, I’ll be interfacing with people on our team called Practice Transformation Specialists who are responsible for a dozen or few dozen clinics and have a really great understanding of users opinions. They will tell me ‘Oh, all the care managers hate that screen’ or ‘They want to see this another way’ and I’ll get feedback there.
Are there other parts of health care you read about that you’re really interested in?
Of course I really love reading about medicine and learning about pharmacology and surgery. We have medical journals floating around that I pick up when I have a chance.
If you had to leave Aledade tomorrow and move to a new part of health care, what is most attractive to you?
Part of me has really wanted to get more training in emergency medicine and to be an EMT. I mean I’ve always thought it would be really cool to be an EMT on a helicopter.
What have you read recently about health care that you really enjoyed?
So I’m reading an Atul Gawande book called ‘Better’ and another called ‘Being Mortal’ which is about end of life care, which Aledade deals a fair amount with. I have about 20 or 30 books I’ve bought because I keep getting
recommendations so I have quite a backlog to work into. Like I mentioned, I also spend far too much time reading 5-minute snippets on Medium; I love being able to get all these different perspectives and little ideas that can help you on all types of things you’re working on.
What would you recommend someone else jumping into health care?
It’s extremely useful to be fluent in the language of health care and medicine, I mean even just watching Doctor House for a few hours. Even something as simple as reading a book by a Doctor can be really valuable
But really just come into it with an open mind and you really have to want to do, but once you’re excited about it it’s not a problem. I spend so much time learning more about it in addition to my work, and that really is fun but also helps you be successful.
Thanks so much! Let's talk soon, Ben.
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