No product manager can succeed without strong collaboration with their engineering team. In the best situations, this connection goes beyond collaboration or even trust – it becomes a symbiotic relationship.
How do you build that, especially when you’re new to the organization and/or role? Do you send the engineers flowers? Boxes of chocolates? Take them out to a fancy restaurant? (Well, maybe — more on that later).
Encouraging positive relationships between PMs and engineers is something I’m passionate about. Here are the highlights of my 10-step program to earning the ‘love’ of your engineering team:
1. Build Personal Relationships
This step is particularly important if you recently joined the department or organization. Take the time to get to know each team member (don’t skip QA!) by meeting one-on-one. You don’t need to take each person out for an expensive meal — go for coffee or a quick walk instead. Also, try to be physically located as close to your team as possible; ideally, you’d sit right in the middle of the engineering group. If that’s not possible, find the next-closest location.
2. Know Your Product
You don’t have to code, but you DO have to know your product inside and out. You need to be able to install, configure, and troubleshoot the product with your eyes closed. QA should be coming to you with test coverage questions and customer success should rely on your configuration best practices! The more product knowledge you have, the more credible you’ll be.
3. Know Your Customers and Market
Who are the analysts covering your market? What are the latest trends affecting your industry? What are your competitors doing? Have these facts in your back pocket. And of course, you need to be on a first-name basis with your customers, plus have a deep understanding of their pain points. Engineering should understand them, too. Invite the team to listen to a POC call — nothing moves a needed feature along faster than a live conversation with a customer.
4. Be Super Responsive
In the days of waterfall software development and 9-12 month release cycles, taking a couple of days to respond to an engineer’s question wasn’t a big deal. With 1-2 week sprints, a delay of even a few hours could result in something not making it into the sprint. Be extremely responsive to your engineering team!
5. Shield Your Team From Distractions
There’s a reason your team members wear noise-canceling headphones all the time. Constant context switching and distractions kill productivity. In fact, task switching can reduce productivity by up to 40%.
Can’t seem to get anything out during a sprint? Check how many meetings your engineers attend. Can some be canceled or reduced in frequency? Help your engineers focus on what they do best — code — by providing them with uninterrupted work time.
6. Help Out
PMs have been getting more technical and hands-on lately. Now, this doesn’t mean PMs should do engineering’s job for them, but it does mean stepping in wherever and whenever possible. QA on vacation? No problem! Test review those bugs yourself. Tech writer not available? Write!
Scrum master/program manager not hired yet? Step in and fill the gap. DevOps too busy? Enable those LaunchDarkly flags yourself.
7. Don’t Tell Them “How”
This is, of course, the bread-and-butter of product management. Don’t tell your engineers how to code (even if you used to do that yourself). Tell them “what” and “why” instead. Bring data, share quotes from the field, provide customer feedback and, most importantly, inspire them with your vision.
As Marty Cagan says, “If you are just using your engineers to code, you are only getting about half their value.” Engineers are not order-takers — they have great insights into the product, its architecture, the latest technology trends, and more. Excellent ideas come from engineering all the time. Take advantage of them! And don’t just pay lip service to their suggestions — actually document and prioritize them in JIRA.
Communicate frequently and clearly. I recommend scheduling biweekly engineering-product syncs for sharing wins and reiterating both near-term priorities and overall vision.
Make sure every engineer knows where to find the single source of truth. The company’s long-term vision is that light at the end of the tunnel (aka your “north star”) and should be communicated to all team members. Everyone wants to be part of a great journey, so it needs to be challenging, exciting, and hopefully world-changing.
10. Advocate for Your Team
In addition to listening continuously and building those personal relationships with each member of your engineering team, constantly ask yourself this question: “What can make us even more productive?” Are there training programs and/or conferences you should be attending? Is the lack of QA resources or hardware slowing the team down? If you have ideas for professional development or discover tools to increase efficiency, share them with your manager.
I’m sure most of you are already doing many, if not all, of these. If not, it’s never too late to start. And once engineering falls in love with you, you can move on to support, sales, marketing, finance, and leadership. Hey, no one said product management is easy!