The Engineer to Product Manager relationship is probably the most important relationship a good Product Manager can have. Sure, there are many important stakeholders to keep an eye on; leadership, marketing, other tech teams with high dependencies or who own services that are upstream from yours, and more. However engineering should be your top focus when investing in relationships as a Product Manager.
Above and beyond just being a good fun human to work with, significant effort must be invested in getting to know your engineering partners to understand their preferences, as well as strengths and weaknesses. A good Product and Engineering relationship can result in a few things:
Higher quality work. Without a strong partnership, there is no trust. And without trust between Engineering and Product, your team can’t take as many risks, tech debt can be ignored, or prioritized too much and you can’t have healthy arguments to drive to the best possible solution for the customer.
Positive impact that you can drive to the end customer. A strong partnership between engineering and Product will over time result in more value being driven to the end customer. Constantly questioning whether or not the team should be doing what they are doing is the primary responsibility of the Product Manager, but on healthier teams everyone questions it.
Increases your fun and enjoyment. Besides the time you spend asleep in bed, you spend the majority of your time at work. That is a time that you should enjoy! Unhealthy ways of working can breed stress, a lack of sleep, and eventually health problems!
So how do you know what kind of working relationship you have with your engineers?
The private slack room.
I’m assuming your company uses slack, but even if you don’t, any chat program will have a private or unlisted rooms feature. All engineering teams that are using any sort of chat will have a private room where only engineers will be allowed. Of course the team will have a completely separate slack room that includes product, design, and any other people that might be involved in the daily scrum.
But engineers, while they will discuss “above board” things in that public slack room with everyone there, the real work, (venting, or intense frank discussion) happens in the private slack channel.
Truth: Know that every engineering team will have a private slack channel. It makes sense! They want to have a safe place and for many new-to-team product managers, they might not feel that is possible in more public rooms.
Here are the stages of trust built between product and engineering that you can benchmark yourself against and strive for as a product manager looking to build a strong working relationship with your engineers:
Stage 1: You have no awareness of a private engineer slack room and it is never mentioned
Stage 2: An engineer drops a reference to the slack channel in some way, whether it is during a meeting, an off handed chat, etc.
Stage 3: Engineers will confirm that a private slack channel actually exists, but no way in hell would you as a Product Manager be invited
Stage 4: Engineers start to joke that maybe if you do XYZ they might just let you into their slack channel
Stage 5: YOU GET THE INVITE. It will happen randomly, maybe the engineers talked to align about whether or not you should get in beforehand, maybe not. There is no ceremony, no fireworks, but you have been brought in to the team at a whole new level
It is critical to know, when you get brought in to the “private” slack channel, there will already be another, even more private slack channel created for just engineers. This is always the case! Don’t be offended. Engineering and Product will always have differences and there will always be a need to align independently.
But once you make it in, be proud! You have built a whole new level of trust between you and your engineers. This will bring a higher level of work, transparency, and bluntness to the table that will increase the quality of work your team produces which is a great thing.
Want a shortcut? Why not create your own private room and invite the engineers? WRONG. The key here is not to have a method to communicate, you already have that in public slack channels. What this all boils down to is a level of trust. The private chat room invite is a clear indicator you have gotten to the next level. For something like this, you MUST wait to be invited.
Not there yet? Maybe your engineers haven’t even mentioned the existence of that room. Don’t worry. The last thing you want to do is pressure or investigate. Let things happen naturally, but just know if you’re looking for a barometer on how healthy the product to engineering relationship is, think about your slack rooms.
About the author:
Ben Staples has over 7 years of product management and product marketing eCommerce experience. He is currently employed at Nordstrom as a Senior Product Manager responsible for their product pages on Nordstrom.com. Previously, Ben was a Senior Product Manager for Trunk Club responsible for their iOS and Android apps. Ben started his Product career as a Product Manager for Vistaprint where he was responsible for their cart and Checkout experiences. Before leaving Vistaprint, Ben founded the Vistaprint Product Management guild with over 40 members. Learn more at www.Ben-Staples.com
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