Building great products is hard work.
The fact that it’s not easy is also what’s exciting about it! Being at the forefront of solving real-world problems with technology is one of the reasons why the product manager role is so attractive to a lot of people. But always remember, once you get that coveted PM role …
One of the most challenging aspects of being a product manager is finding a way to successfully collaborate with the engineering team. Think about it. As a PM, you need to take this very abstract business idea/objective (e.g. I want to be able to order a taxi by pressing a button on my phone) and make it into a tangible “thing.” However, you’re not the one actually building the “thing.” The engineers do that. You, somehow, have to make the team build the thing your company envisions. But let’s not forget — you aren’t actually their manager.
So how do you, as a PM, make your life and your engineering team’s life easier in order to build successful products?
Here are some ways I have been able to collaborate with engineering teams in my product management career over the years.
First things first. As a product manager, you have to build trust with your engineering department if you want them to build the product you envision. Spend time getting to know each member of the team and their role within it. Provide and explain the information they need as to why certain product decisions were made. This information can take the form of flowcharts, tables, wireframes, user stories, etc. That context will allow them to understand the bigger picture.
So, how do you start building trust? Try to connect on a personal level. One tactic is to find a common interest. This can help jump-start conversations with team members and start building these critical relationships.
Get them involved
Another path to successful collaboration is through … actually collaborating with the engineering team! Engineers are not just “coders.” Engineering careers are built on solving problems — very technical problems at times. That does not mean they can’t give good insights on a UX problem or a conversion optimization issue. Try to include engineers in the ideation processes of upcoming product efforts. Give them an opportunity to voice their opinions and share their knowledge. And be sure to make them feel welcome to express their ideas or propose solutions.
After all, two heads are better than one. Even though the PM will have to make the final product decisions, you’re losing out if you’re not sourcing ideas from your engineering team. So, provide that forum, whether that’s through ideation meetings, Slack channels, or simply via shared wireframes or specs.
Speak the language
Although you do not necessarily need to have an engineering background to be a product manager, the best PMs learn how to be technical enough to get the job done (and get some brownie points in the process 😀). This means you should propose technically feasible solutions, be familiar with the APIs or other tools your engineering team uses, and hold technical discussions with them. Doing so also shows the engineers that you care about the technical aspects of the product (which they are responsible for), like performance, and not just coming up with a pretty app.
Be open and available
To collaborate successfully, a product leader needs to be humble and adaptable enough to welcome all types of feedback. No two engineering teams are the same, and as the team scales, you will need to come up with new ways and processes to communicate. Be open to different ways of doing things and available for your team whenever they ask for your time. Give your engineers the time to go through spec documents or flowcharts, then answer any questions they have. In the end, the build process will result in the product you envisoned.
Use optimism as a motivator
Last but not least, when things go wrong (and they will at some point), focus on motivating the team with your optimism by being solution-driven and looking ahead. For example, avoid playing the blame game of a missed product launch and work with the team on tightening up processes to prevent this from happening again. As the great Bob Iger, CEO of Disney, said in his book, The Ride of a Lifetime:
“One of the most important qualities of a good leader is optimism, a pragmatic enthusiasm for what can be achieved. Even in the face of difficult choices and less than ideal outcomes, an optimistic leader does not yield to pessimism. Simply put, people are not motivated or energized by pessimists.”
These actions are all things that will make you a successful collaborator with engineering and the rest of your team. As you can see, all of this can be boiled down to not just giving orders, but also giving back to your teammates. Figure out a way to improve communication so that at the end of the day, regardless of what each person is working on, everyone’s rowing in the same direction.
Now, remember, Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither are successful products or teams. The key is to keep striving to improve and iterate on your approach until you find what’s best for you and your teammates. Good luck!