Produced by Haallas, Parempaa bittiä (‘Better bits’) is a podcast that examines design, digital service design, and UX design from different perspectives. The podcast itself is in Finnish, but the episode highlights are translated into English and available in a blog format.
Our guest for the fifth episode of the Parempaa bittiä podcast is Lieutenant Commander (retd) Jari Holopainen, who’s career spanned 15 years in various roles within the Finnish Navy. In the military he eventually became a product owner, developing e-services.
In this episode, Matti Linna, Head of Design at Haallas, talks to Jari about the best practices to ensure a successful IT project, especially in the public sector. Why is it important for a service or product being developed to involve a vision that everyone can understand? Why does the product owner play such a critical role in an IT project? How can you use agile development and service design methods to quickly add value for the customer? And what is Jari’s relationship with open source code, and how could the e-services for military conscripts be developed in the future?
Vision and the importance of holding onto it
Jari’s core areas of expertise are management systems, digitalisation and usability. Amongst other projects, his expertise has benefited the digital development of the Defences Forces’ e-services for onboarders. In a public administration development project such as this, Jari cites that ‘vision’ plays a central role.
“Without a vision, we do not really have a direction,” Jari summarises the idea.
“When we have a good vision, we can narrow it down to one sentence. This will be what the product owner will repeat everywhere.”
A vision supports the commitment and cooperation of the project participants. In public administration projects, in particular, it’s also important to pay attention to internal sales and financers who must be kept up-to-date on what’s happening.
“The vision should be able to show the project’s direction and goal. No more than one sentence. That’s what a good vision is,” Jari says.
Summing up a vision up into a single sentence may feel difficult when talking about complex environments and challenging projects. However, Jari believes that time spent on crystallising the vision is worthwhile as a clear vision sets the course for the project and drives it forward. This vision will then in turn set the future processes in stone.
Product owner is king
To put it simply, the product owner’s role is one of the cornerstones of agile development. They are the person who is responsible for both the overall vision and doing the right things in the right order and towards the right direction. Being a product owner is a full-time role, and it requires unwavering faith and a hundred-percent investment in your own work. The person must have the authority to take the product forward and be able to break the resistance, at the same time.
“If I had to name a downside to that job, it’s that I’m thinking about work 24/7,” Jari says.
“Then again, that is also the best part of my job: I get my best ideas when I’m alone in a sauna. Sometimes, I’ve felt like calling my colleague in the middle of the night to tell them about an idea I had. In those cases, you just have to keep in mind that not everyone works the same way, and some people may even take some time off work,” he says, laughing.
Openness and data security go hand in hand
As for development, Jari roots for open source code, since it makes it clearer what is being tendered: the client is looking for a provider to build something new on an existing system. This also yields significant cost benefits while also making the operations transparent to all parties.
“In addition to starting from a system with open source code, we also get to release the system quickly. If we started building a specific system from scratch, it may take surprisingly long.”
When developing e-services for military recruits, security is one of the core elements to consider. Usually, it is also the first topic that Jari brings up with service providers.
“You need to pay attention to GDPR and the personal data of the conscripts, which are, understandably, of a sensitive nature. These are some major frameworks that cannot be forgotten,” Jari says.
According to Jari, a good product owner aims to make frequent releases and to offer their product for use as quickly as possible after the purchase. According to him, the first release and prototype of the service is the key point in agile development.
“That’s when we start adding value for our organisation and client. And that’s the be-all and end-all,” Jari states and adds: “Of course, you shouldn’t rush things. First, you have to test that everything works and is secure.”
Jari points out that the value of services should not be measured in money alone. He mentions the services of the Tax Administration as an example: here, the value is not monetary, but that the customer is saved valuable time by someone else completing complicated tax forms on their behalf.
“The value for the customer comes from saving time and paying the correct sum in taxes. For the Tax Administration, the value comes from the digital service performing all the calculations on behalf of the staff.”
In a typical procurement process, a specific service is acquired from a provider as a project. In this case, the client will have thought very carefully about what is being done and what will be done.
“In my opinion, the procurement methods of the public sector have developed,” Jari says and also emphasises the significance of vision in this context. “Of course, you can always refine the vision with the experts of the service provider, but the client itself still needs to know what they are buying.”
Jari believes that the product owner should be involved early on at this point. In the tendering phase, other factors than just money are being weighed up. A skilful product owner is able to pay attention to the expertise of the providers that have submitted tenders. The key is finding a balance between the experience and the vision, and the goals and the methods needed to achieve them.
“You have to be careful with daydreaming. Sadly, there are cases where the vision reaches too high.”
Despite his long career and high level of expertise, Jari believes that you never stop learning. He refuses to rest on his laurels and dwell on the past.
“Every day, you can learn something new. And that’s the joy in life,” he sums up his views. “Something small done today may be something bigger tomorrow.”
Jari Holopainen, Lieutenant Commander (retd), spent more than 15 years in various positions in the Finnish Navy. In the military he eventually became a product owner, developing e-services. Jari's passion is the usability of digital services and agile development methods. Jari has also been developing Taxi Helsinki's online training and has worked as a training mentor.
The podcast is hosted by Haallas' Head of Design Matti Linna. Matti has more than ten years of experience in UX design and service design in various industries in the public and private sectors. At the heart of Matti's design thinking are insights gained through in-depth user and customer understanding that can be used to create useful, functional, and easy-to-use digital services. In his free time, Matti can be met at the Crossfit Hall or on the mountain bike trail.