Best Practices

Empowering the Product Troika

As the ancient proverb says, it takes a village to build a product. Well, it doesn’t actually say that, but the point still stands. 

Products, especially well-designed and innovative ones, aren’t built by a single contributor. So, who does build them? A product manager, a designer, and an engineer. Three drastically different roles working together, or as Christian Idiodi likes to call them, the “troika” (trio) of product development. 

Christian Idiodi, a partner at the Silicon Valley Group and an experienced product leader, spoke at this year’s Pendomonium event and delved into the three functions involved in product development. During his many years in the field, he’s gathered some powerful insights on the ins and outs of product development. Eventually, he came to understand that all product problems can be boiled down to people problems.

And product managers, more than ever, need to understand where they stand among their counterparts. How do you use your role as a PM to empower and enable the other two functions of product?

Your first job as a product manager is to understand the troikas — the three core teams that build the product. 

Engineers Deliver Value

Software engineers are typically left-brained and thrive in the areas of science, math, and logic. While that generalization doesn’t encompass every single engineer, we can assume that engineers are the ones who know what’s feasible. They transform ideas into actual products. 

But software engineers shouldn’t only be thought of as people who deal with the technical infrastructure of code. This mindset implies that they’re at the end of the product development cycle — the “last stop” when implementing someone else’s ideas.

Instead, Christian believes that the best ideas come from engineers. Their technical domain knowledge and subject matter expertise allow them to know what’s possible with their available resources. Their job is to deliver value to customers in the form of a product, but that doesn’t mean they can’t help with ideation as well.

If all of engineering boils down to coding, then we’re not maximizing the genius and craft of the engineer. 

Designers Help Customers Experience Value

In contrast to engineers, designers tend to be right-brained and work best when using their creativity and imagination. 

In his talk, Christian explained that the role of a product designer is to help customers experience the product. They do more than design assets; they ideate, prototype, and conduct qualitative discovery. 

Christian mentioned cars as an example. In their simplest form, cars are tools that take you from Destination A to Destination B. Really, they only need to go forward, backward, and stop. Yet it’s the product design that helps distinguish between a Camry and Rolls Royce.

Both models help users perform the necessary task of traveling. However, the driver’s user experience is very different. And that’s where the power of the designer lies.

Product Managers, The Empathetic Glue

So where do product managers sit? If designers and engineers sit at the opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of thinking, then PMs are the bridge. Christian called PMs the empathetic glue. They understand both sides and how to communicate with them. 

And they also understand the customer. According to Christian, PMs should be true customer experts. He took us back to when he worked for a recruiting platform. He wanted to know more about the customers who used the software to find a job. His customer discovery journey didn’t start and end with a simple phone call. Instead, it lasted for months. He met with the customer, watched him fill out job applications, and even spent Thanksgiving with him.

Of course, that extent isn’t always needed, but it further solidifies the point: Product managers need to have in-depth customer knowledge. Customer calls don’t quite cut it. Customers are good at telling you their problems, but they’re not as good at telling you solutions. What are you doing to experience the product yourself? What are you doing to interact with your customers beyond 30-minute calls?

Innovation Calls for Collaboration

Christian told the audience that your product team exists to solve problems in ways that your customers love, but that also work for your business. 

Very talented people fill highly specialized roles like designers and engineers. They are rightfully the master of their own craft. However, they are not without blindspots. Product managers have better “peripheral vision” and can weave in customer knowledge as well.

The best products come from tightly coupled and dynamically aligned teams that operate as one.

Christian left us with a final piece of wisdom from SVPG founder Marty Cagan: “Point to me any product you love, and I’ll show you a strong team.”