One of the key ingredients to building a successful product is the relationship between product managers and engineering teams.
While the engineering team is responsible for building the product, the role of the product manager is to ensure that business objectives and customer needs are addressed throughout the product development process.
Engineers Vs. Product Managers
- Engineers build the product.
- Product managers address business objectives and customer needs while the product is being developed.
Ultimately, great product managers don’t “manage” as much as they lead and influence, setting the engineering team on a path toward delivering a product that delights the customer and the business. However, product managers can’t succeed without the goodwill of engineering, and engineering teams can’t succeed if their priorities are not aligned with business needs.
Having built my own product and led product teams at Google and in my current role at VMware, here’s what I’ve learned about being an effective product manager and how to be in harmony with the engineering team — all in pursuit of building a great product together.
Knowledge and Technical Versatility Is the Primary Currency
Product managers must be the bridge to the business. They ensure that everyone in the organization understands the business objectives and shares the urgency and commitment to meeting customers’ needs. Similarly, an empowered engineering team understands why they are building what they are building and, importantly, who they are helping. This allows them to make better day-to-day decisions that support the business.
Product managers should never shy away from learning the technology itself. While you don’t need to be an engineer, you do need to be able to understand engineering practices and the technical landscape. Having this knowledge and becoming technically versed will help you establish a currency with the engineering team, and it will serve as a starting point for earning their goodwill. From there, you can establish real influence by showing that your decisions are fact-based and data-driven — and having access to information that the team values.
Encourage Experimentation and Improve When Things Fail
The engineering organization has to be a learning machine and be relentless about improvement. Building in the ability to run experiments and learn from the failures along the way creates opportunities for the team to become better than the day before. This also helps teams find mistakes as early as possible. The longer something wrong lingers, the more expensive it will be to fix in the long run.
Product managers should also foster a learning-based culture — and not a fear-based culture. By owning your missteps, you teach others to own theirs and learn from it. In the same vein, product managers should exercise good judgment to let broken things fail and move on so the organization can improve and grow.
Demonstrate Kind Directness
People often withhold information that others need to hear out of fear of hurting their feelings. But being direct allows people to learn quickly from their mistakes, and it sets them up for success. It also creates more efficient ways of working, allowing ongoing feedback and necessary information to flow between product managers and engineering teams.
But as with all good things, when taken to extremes, directness can create a toxic work environment. So be direct while still being kind. Directness should help or be productive to the end goal.
Adopt a Mindset of Shared Fate
Even if you have a well-thought-out strategy, if it’s not paired with effective execution, it doesn’t matter. If your engineering team is executing against priorities that are not aligned with business needs, then you and your team will not succeed.
As part of this shared-fate mindset, it’s important to set egos aside. No task should be beneath you, especially when it could mean saving the launch. If user-facing docs need to be written, jump in and create the docs. But don’t make it your job either. A product manager should put a plan in place so that someone who is better equipped to do the job is hired and able to take it over.
Promote Healthy Tension and Mutual Respect
In order to succeed, the relationship between product management and engineering is one that should be characterized by healthy tension and mutual respect. The role of the product manager is to make sure that the engineering team understands the key challenges that customers face — and that they are equipped to deliver the product that customers need.
At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how dialed in you are with the business and with customers if you don’t have a relationship with the people on the engineering team, because they are the ones that are writing the code and building the product. So remember: Put aside the ego, understand what you’re managing, learn from failure and be direct but kind!