If a great product is the result of combining a real customer need with a solution that’s just now possible, then it’s easy to see why the relationship between the product manager and the engineering team is so critical.
The product manager is responsible for defining the solution, but the engineering team knows best what’s possible, and of course they must deliver that solution.
Product managers quickly learn that if you have a good relationship with engineering, then this can be a great job. If you don’t, let’s just say that you’re in for some very long days.
One key to this relationship is to each be very clear that you are peers. Neither should view themselves as subordinate to the other. You are responsible for defining the right product, and your engineering counterpart is responsible for build the product right. You need both or you have nothing. You need to let your engineering counterpart do what he believes necessary to build a quality product, and he needs to give you the room to come up with a useful and usable product.
That said, you can actually both be a huge help to each other.
Your engineers can be a big help to you as you work to define a winning product. Remember that they know what’s possible better than anyone. Here are three ways you can use your engineers to come up with a better product:
1. Get your engineers in front of users and customers. They will learn a great deal from seeing users struggle first hand. Not only will they get a better appreciation for the issues and their severity, but more importantly this is often the inspiration for much better solutions. You can do this easily by inviting an engineer along to your prototype testing. See Prototype Testing.
2. Enlist the help of your engineers in exploring what’s just now possible. Brainstorm the different technologies that are available or coming available, and how they might help solve the problems at hand. See The Smartest Guy in the Room.
3. Involve your engineers (or at least a lead engineer) from the very beginning of the product discovery process to get very early assessments of relative costs of the different ideas, and to help identify better solutions. One of the most common mistakes that product managers make is to come up with some great product definition, and then throw it over the wall to engineering. That just postpones the critical negotiation process until there’s not enough time to be able to make good and informed decisions. See Product Discovery.
Similarly, you can actually be a big help to your engineers. Here are three ways you can help them do their job:
1. Keep the focus on minimal product. Remember your job is not to define the ultimate product, it’s to define the smallest possible product that will meet your goals. This point alone will fundamentally improve the dynamic between product management and engineering. See Great Products By Design.
2. Do everything you can once engineering begins to minimize churn. Churn is changing requirements and product definition. Some churn will be unavoidable, and engineers understand that some things are beyond your control, but remember that this is not the time for trying out your newest ideas. See Strategy vs. Execution.
3. There will inevitably be questions that arise during implementation. Cases that were missed or weren’t completely thought through. This is normal, even in the best of product teams. However, your mission in life during the implementation phase is to jump all over their questions and get them answers as fast as humanly possible, always trying to keep to minimal product and minimizing churn.
One related note. I always try to encourage the best engineers to come try product management. I argue to them that it doesn’t matter how great the engineering is if the team is not given something worthwhile to build. And I point out the many great products and companies that have been created by an engineer that knew what was possible tackling these bigger questions of what to build. It’s great for their career development, and can be great for the product (and hence the customers and the company).