WGU has a FinAid Agile Product Owner… here’s why

June 21, 2016 Tracy Skochil

Amy GlynnBy Amy Glynn

We’re thrilled to welcome Janie Leddy-Jones as guest speaker at our upcoming June 23 webinar. Overseeing all financial aid operations for Western Governors University (WGU) since 2012, Leddy-Jones implemented responsible borrowing initiatives that resulted in $250 million less in student loans and borrowing in the first two years. As Agile product owner for student financial services, she works with key stakeholders and her development team on backlog, release planning, and new initiatives. Read on for a glimpse at her daily role.

Leddy-Jones holds a unique role in Financial Aid. All too often Financial Aid departments find themselves at the mercy of the IT department.  This is not to say that they don’t work together, or that IT tries to avoid what is needed. Simply put, IT is trying to support an entire campus ecosystem, which means Financial Aid initiatives need to be prioritized against other departments’ needs as well. Leddy-Jones is given the opportunity to be active in the identification, definition of, and implementation of technological initiatives at WGU.  This allows for a more holistic insight into IT for her, and into the needs of Financial Aid for IT.

AG: How do you feel your role is similar AND different from a traditional product owner in software development? 

L J: It is similar in that I am the primary person who defines the requirements of the product/project, but different in that I am involved every step of the way. In traditional software development, the business owner defines the requirements then steps back from the project while it is in the development stage. There is a lot of mystery. With Agile, I know the status of each piece of the project every step of the way.

AG: What is the biggest challenge you face in your role as a product owner in financial aid? 

L J: Balancing the priorities of a number of different stakeholders. Ultimately, I have to decide which initiatives have the highest business value and move those forward. For each initiative that moves forward, there are often five more that get left behind. It’s sometimes hard to be the bearer of bad news to a stakeholder who had something that was high priority to them, but overall, not high enough value.

AG: What benefits did you see at WGU after you switched to an Agile methodology, and how has day-to-day life changed? 

L J: As a business we are more involved and in the loop on the status of our technology requests. We no longer feel like we just throw our requests over the wall to IT and sit idly waiting to hear back from them–sometimes for months on end. It has also really helped us to take more ownership of our technology requests and prioritize each item against everything else.

AG: How did your staff take to the new Agile methodology?

L J: Getting our staff to embrace agile is still a work in progress. I think one of the biggest benefits of Agile that I mentioned earlier – having the business involved through the whole software development lifecycle rather than just during requirements gathering – is also one of the biggest challenges. It is a significant effort in the beginning to sit down and create your backlog, then add to it, then continuously refine and prioritize the backlog.

Agile doesn’t work if the business – at a minimum the product owner – is not willing or able to carve out time to do their part. In our department, we treat each functional team as its own “product” with the supervisor or team lead being the “product owner.” As chief product owner for the overall department, it is sometimes still a struggle to get each team to really take full ownership of their backlog and invest the time that is needed to get their requests ready for primetime. Like I said: A work in progress. But it’s well worth the effort.

AG: Are there any resources/training you would suggest for others interested in becoming more well-versed in product ownership and agile? 

L J: I’m a huge fan of Lynda.com, and there are a few tutorials out there that are super helpful. Just search for Agile, Scrum, or Product Owner. I’ve also found a few videos on YouTube that were helpful!

CTA: Learn how to Create an Agile FinAid Office in our upcoming webinar >

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