Product Ownership Is a Mindset: Three Experts from Liberty Mutual Explain

Liberty Mutual has more than a century of insurance expertise — but its tech evolution is just getting started. Built In sat down with three experts to talk about how product ownership is driving innovation.

Written by Jenny Lyons-Cunha
Published on Aug. 30, 2023
Product Ownership Is a Mindset: Three Experts from Liberty Mutual Explain
Liberty Mutual Insurance
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When Jai Schniepp was six years into her tenure at Liberty Mutual Insurance, she received some insightful feedback.

“I had a colleague acknowledge that what I was doing wasn’t project management, it was product management,” she recalled. 

At the time, she was working with enterprise architecture as a project manager for the company’s emerging technology group. “I knew that everything I was doing would have longevity at Liberty,” she explained. “We were building tools — our API management solution, our runtime environments and cloud integrations — all products we still use today.”

With this longevity in mind, Schniepp’s project management tactics were unconventional. “There were no start and end dates, because these weren’t things that were going to end,” she noted. 

As Schniepp’s zoomed-out view of the holistic business and focus on customer value played into her project-management perspectives more than a decade ago, something exceptional began to emerge: Liberty Mutual’s product-minded culture. 

“That’s what I love about product management: it’s not just about those pieces or widgets you’re delivering, it’s about how those are meaningful and valuable to the organization as a whole,” said Shauna Landrum, who leads the data experience product at Liberty Mutual. 

Now, as senior director of product management, Schniepp is focused on continuing to develop the company’s product practice, which breathes life into the work of team members like Landrum and Intern-turned-Technology Associate Maria Virt — who, like Schniepp, was on a different path before joining the product team. 

“I was on the software engineering path for the first six months here at Liberty Mutual,” Virt said, explaining that she then joined the engineering experience product team to use her technical skills while also learning the new skill of product ownership. 

“A key lesson that I have learned and keep reminding myself is: ‘Value prioritization equals success,’” she noted. 
 

PROJECT MANAGEMENT VS. PRODUCT MANAGEMENT

What’s the difference between traditional project management and product ownership? Agility and customer-centric software development, said Schniepp. 

“You throw away immediate dependencies and linear delivery and become more incremental,” she explained. “You talk to customers every two weeks versus every six months — that partnership has dramatically changed the way we talk about success.”

 

Schniepp, Landrum and Virt work together in Liberty Mutual’s global digital services organization, which manages the tools employees and engineers use on a daily basis, as well as provides core infrastructure services.  

In the past five years, GDS has continued to hone its product-centered frame of mind, nurturing processes and culture-building initiatives that have become cornerstones of Liberty Mutual’s innovation. 

“We’ve really started to think about not just agility from a software development perspective, but from a business agility framework,” Schniepp said. “Where are we going? What’s the value? How do we talk more about what we’re going to do to successfully deliver outside of our internal organization?” 

Liberty Mutual’s ethos of innovation touches every facet of its business, but it shines especially bright within its culture of product ownership. 

Product ownership transcends internal processes, noted Landrum, who is a product owner III. “It’s not just about the pieces you’re delivering,” she said. “It’s about rallying the team around the vision and focusing on the value each product brings to the organization.

“As a product owner, you’re always looking for the connections that will help build something sustainable and shape the organization in the same way,” she added. 

 

WHAT LIBERTY MUTUAL DOES 

Liberty Mutual Insurance strives to help people embrace the present and confidently pursue the future. The Fortune 100 company and leader in property and casualty insurance has spent over a century creating innovative products, services and technologies to meet the world’s ever-changing needs — and make a difference for its customers and communities.

Large hall full of Liberty Mutual team members in groups with large monitors, the word “Hackathon” on a sign along one wall. 
Liberty Mutual Insurance

 

Hackathon Revolution 

You don’t need to look further than the evolution of Liberty Mutual’s hackathon to comprehend the crux of its shift to product ownership.

Nearly a decade ago, Liberty Mutual held its first hackathon, and Schniepp was the only product-focused person in attendance. Within the teams of five or six people, engineers dominated the space. Schniepp’s group was the sole team with a product leader.   

“I certainly won’t say we won the hackathon because of it,” she said, smiling. “But the work our small team did and how we talked more about the value over the technical details certainly piqued interest in product ownership.” 

As the years passed, each hackathon saw a more diverse collection of engineers, scrum masters and product owners, she said. More and more dazzling projects bloomed from the annual event. 

“A product owner is someone that is able to keep a team agile and really deliver something that is valuable,” she explained.
 

“A product owner is someone that is able to keep them agile and really deliver something that is valuable.”

 

In the sprint to deliver something of value in a hackathon setting, product owners can gather customer feedback, organize efforts and manage scope on the fly. 

“You’re doing work in three-hour increments and really driving this idea of innovation forward with stakeholder feedback,” she said. “Eight years ago, I was the only one, and now almost every team has a non-technical professional to support the team.” 

The hackathon is a microcosm of the product ownership processes Liberty Mutual has adopted in its day-to-day product development. The team recreates the magic of the annual hackathon with innovation weeks, which serve as a part of the organization’s six-week planning cycle. 

After a week of planning at the top of the cycle, innovation week commences. 

“We provide our engineering teams untethered access to do whatever they want,” she said. “What have you seen? Who have you talked to? What are some things that are nagging at you that you haven’t had an opportunity to deliver?”

The results are thrilling, said Schniepp. Innovation week often spawns new products that might not otherwise have been explored.  

For Landrum, innovation week creates a new space for creativity. 

“It’s a moment where you can look beyond the day-to-day and have some fun,” Landrum said. 

“The creativity that comes from the engineers is simply incredible,” she added. 

Technology Associate Maria Virt agreed. 

“It’s so exciting to be able to use the creativity and ideas you had in the months leading up to the innovation week,” she said. “You are creating something that’s really valuable for your business as well as nurturing team bonding.” 

 

Close-up photo of one group at hackathon working intently.
Liberty Mutual Insurance

 

‘Value Prioritization Equals Success’

Though she is under one year into her tenure with Liberty Mutual, Virt has already learned a key lesson.

“Value prioritization equals success,” she said. “I know I’ll carry that idea my entire career.” 

Virt, who started her career at Liberty Mutual with a senior product mentor who showed her the ropes of product ownership, is now able to pay her learnings forward as a part of the company’s TechStart program. Within the program, Virt mentors young tech professionals who identify as women as they embark on their careers. 
 

WOMEN IN TECHNOLOGY 

Schniepp is an active member of WiT: Women in Technology, a sub-group of the WE@Liberty employee resource group. Both employee-run groups provide a space for women in tech to network and share experiences. “How do we bring ourselves together? How do we become allies for each other? How do we make sure all women have what they need to be supported?” Schniepp said of WiT’s goals. “It’s rewarding to solve for some of the same struggles that impact women in every vertical.”

 

It’s a program Landrum and Schniepp are happy to see in action. 

“At Liberty, it’s refreshing to see diversity in the room — I can reach out and have conversations with people who relate to me,” said Landrum, who has been in the tech industry for twenty years. 

There’s a parity between professional alignment and the synergy she cultivates as a product owner. 

“If it’s not providing value, there’s no benefit to it,” she said. “As a product owner, we’re always looking for value drivers and team alignment.”  

For Schniepp, value drivers don’t always appear in the form of product development — they’re also manifested in the work-life balance she enjoys. As the proud parent and booster club member of a high school football player, Schniepp savors the opportunity to serve both her Liberty Mutual team and her son’s football team. 

“Who has the opportunity to take meetings and touch base with their team while making 15 pounds of macaroni and cheese every Friday?” she said. “There’s so much value in being able to get work done and then jump back into living your life.”  
 

Related ReadingThe Women in Tech Ushing In an Era of Empowerment at Liberty Mutual

 

Responses have been edited for length and clarity. Images provided by Liberty Mutual Insurance.

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