The Key to Remote Collaboration Between Product Managers and Engineers

It’s one of the most important relationships in tech. Here’s how these companies are managing it from afar.
Quinten Dol
October 15, 2020
Quinten Dol
October 15, 2020

It’s one of the most fundamental relationships in tech: big-dreaming product managers meet “art of the possible” engineers. Collaboration between the two is rarely as simple as PMs passing briefs on to engineers, who then build the product. Instead, constant iteration is required to balance the artful designs and innovative vision of product designers against the capabilities of an organization’s tech team and resources. 

Like all relationships within tech companies across the country, that collaboration has now been virtual for more than six months. We checked in with PMs and engineers at three large tech companies across the country to learn how they’re keeping the magic going from afar. 

 

lifesize
Lifesize

Lifesize

What they’re building: Lifesize builds video conferencing and audio communications software, along with digital whiteboarding technology and conference room outfitting. This summer, the company acquired digital collaboration software company Kaptivo. 

Who: Co-directors of Product Management Andy Bird and Chiara Menesatti, plus VP of Engineering Greg Crabtree. All three answered our questions collaboratively.

 

What tools have been most impactful for helping you recreate activities like whiteboarding or sprint planning in a remote setting?

Platforms like Lucidchart and Jira have been exceedingly valuable for planning and project management, and of course, we use our own Lifesize video conferencing and Kaptivo digital whiteboarding tools on a daily basis for virtual meetings, collaboration and brainstorming.

 

How are your product and engineering teams communicating differently now that everyone is remote?

With team members residing in multiple countries around the globe, we were already doing quite a bit of collaboration online and via video. Our use of chat messaging has increased, both one-on-one and with broader teams, while ad hoc and standing video meetings have replaced in-person conversations to find resolution with outside stakeholders, debug and conduct code reviews.

 

What we lose in hallway conversation we make up for with better discipline in how we work remotely with our teams.”

 

What’s the most important practice your team follows to ensure successful remote collaboration between your product and engineering teams? 

It has been incredibly important to maintain consistency in planning and follow-up, as well as err on the side of over-communication in goal setting and building requirements. When stand-ups, regular updates and ad hoc video interactions consistently provide the information critical to those processes, what we lose in hallway conversation we make up for with better discipline in how we work remotely with our teams. This allows us to continue product development and engineering without skipping a beat.

 

 

rachel knaster asapp
ASAPP

ASAPP

What they’re building: ASAPP’s artificial intelligence analyzes sales representatives’ calls, then leverages that information to help other reps improve their own approaches. The company raised $185 million in funding this May, at a valuation rumored to be more than $800 million. 

Who: SVP of Product Rachel Knaster

 

What tools have been most impactful for helping you recreate activities like whiteboarding or sprint planning in a remote setting?

Whiteboarding as a process has definitely changed. We try to do more asynchronous work in advance of meetings for brainstorming and whiteboarding sessions. For this, we use shared documents and allow people to collaborate for several days to understand open questions, problems to solve and so on. For live brainstorming sessions we then use some combination of Figma, Zoom drawing, screen sharing and drawing on tablets for further collaboration.

Our sprint planning process hasn’t changed much. We have a tight process using Jira as is, which accommodated our multiple offices.

 

How are your product and engineering teams communicating differently now that everyone is remote?

We’re doing more asynchronous collaboration through shared vision documents. This has been an effective way to get many people to align on what a given problem is, and the best solution for it. It has allowed us to figure out where there are any gaps more effectively than trying to do that all live in a meeting.

 

The most important practice that we’ve maintained is our strong commitment to documentation.”

 

What’s the most important practice your team follows to ensure successful remote collaboration between your product and engineering teams? 

The most important practice that we’ve maintained is our strong commitment to documentation: product requirements documents, technical design documents, feature release notes, meeting notes. Our most important new practice has been doing more asynchronous collaboration on documents ahead of brainstorming sessions.

These practices have been helpful in allowing us to solve problems faster when we can’t all get in a room together. We’ve been able to accelerate our pace of development, customer launches and new innovation all while remote due to both the great practices we already had around sprint planning and documentation, as well as evolving to incorporate more asynchronous work.

 

Struggling With Productivity While Remote?We’ve Got The Definitive Guide Here

 

otter products
Otter PRoducts

OtterBox

What they’re building: Otter Products’ range of brands make products that protect our valuables, from OtterBox and LifeProof’s mobile device cases to Liviri’s e-commerce delivery containers. 

Who: VP of Engineering and Technology Mark Rau

 

What tools have been most impactful for helping you recreate activities like whiteboarding or sprint planning in a remote setting? 

Most of our groups have been using Stormboard for remote learning. For meetings that are going to be more than a couple of hours, we have also rolled whiteboards outside and used social distancing procedures to hold “in-person” meetings.

 

How are your product and engineering teams communicating differently now that everyone is remote? 

For meetings, all interactions are either through WebEx or Teams so that we can get some “face time.” When sharing examples of products, we have been using high-end cameras to take pictures and sharing them in meetings to get to a granular detail as to what they look like. We are all working remotely through the end of the year at least, at which time the company will revisit return-to-office plans and policies. Until then, these tools have been necessary to effectively plan and design.

 

“Over-communication is critical to ensure collaboration between the teams.”

 

What’s the most important practice your team follows to ensure successful remote collaboration between your product and engineering teams? 

Over-communication is critical to ensure collaboration between the teams. Without the capability to drop by someone’s desk to talk, we’re relying more heavily on video chat. We have text communication tools, but those have not proven to be as effective as a video call. The impact is that there are many more meetings scheduled than before, because we don’t have the ability to stop by and have a 5-minute chat.

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