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Engineers Must Work With Product Managers for Success

A company’s productivity improves when there is strong collaboration. So as companies grow, it’s essential to have cooperation across teams.
Sep 19th, 2022 10:00am by
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Tiit Paananen
Tiit Paananen is the VP of Engineering at Veriff. Tiit works at the crossroad where engineering and product meet. He’s responsible for product and software delivery, joining Veriff from Pipedrive where he was the Head of Quality Engineering. Previously, Tiit has also served as General Manager at Skype Estonia. He knows how to give people a nudge in the right direction and keeps the enthusiasm levels high wherever he goes.

It’s well known that product management (PM) and engineering departments notoriously clash more than most, which can be concerning considering how much they rely on each other. Miscommunication and confusion over responsibilities and job functions commonly cause rifts across teams, often at the expense of customers and the overall business.

So what can be done to help bridge this gap? Let’s dive into some of the leading factors that instigate conflict between product management and engineering, and steps that can ensure closer alignment.

It All Begins during the Interview Process

As an engineering manager (EM) involved in the hiring process, you may get the opportunity to interview PM candidates — a critical stage that offers great insight into the mind of a potential PM that you may be collaborating with in the future.

By beginning with simple questions, “What is the role of product management? What do you do,” you can quickly get a sense of whether a candidate follows the traditional definition of the role, or if they have their own set of expectations based on experiences that may or may not cause conflict down the line and shift a company’s traditional way of doing things.

For instance, a candidate may believe that their job is to represent customers. While this is partially true, for most organizations, it’s important that candidates understand that they must represent both the business and customers by balancing priorities. If the PM places a greater emphasis on customer concerns, they could trend toward offering frequently discounted prices, which, for obvious reasons, is not the preferred route for the business.

As the interviewer, it’s also key to understand the experience and skills the role requires in order to evaluate candidates effectively — and separate your personal biases from the evaluation process. For example, getting the sense of whether a candidate has B2B or B2C experience or has a good understanding of prioritization or specification writing skills. This will enable you to make an informed recommendation on whether the PM candidate is the right fit for the organization and is someone you can effectively collaborate with in the future.

Set Clear, Properly Defined Roles and Responsibilities

Roles across any organization can be ambiguously defined, especially at startups where employees commonly wear many hats. Design in engineering, for example, often has several interpretations (within the same company). Sometimes they are treated more like visual designers, expected to focus strictly on making a product look “pretty.”

This can cause tension when a PM “oversteps” by visually mapping out a product and handing it over to an engineer to just make it aesthetically pleasing, when the engineers see their role as more substantial than that. When building a feature, an engineer runs the UX flows many times, often more than the PM or designer, and gathers useful insights into how it actually works.

This situation can be avoided with quality communication; engineers and product management must work together to set and agree on role boundaries and expectations. Addressing these roles and responsibilities early on can help nip any misunderstandings in the bud and lead to stronger, more productive relationships.

Teams often struggle with vocabulary and terminology. Useless cycles can be spent on discussing seemingly very basic things while no action is taken to get on the same page. In this situation, cross-functional reading could help.

In an ideal world, PMs and EMs can strive for a form of dyad leadership, similar to the medical field where administrators and physicians collaborate to manage a group of professionals. The potential team overlap has the possibility to make the organization stronger if there is a trusted relationship between PMs and EMs, and boundaries are respected.

But most importantly, team members must adopt the mentality that they succeed and fail as a team. Individual failure is a team failure and should be addressed proactively.

Align on Goals and OKRs

Similarly, aligning on objectives and key results (OKRs) across teams is critical. A common mistake when establishing OKRs is overcomplicating them, which leads to confusion on teams and conflict between departments. Establishing simple, clear objectives and roles help to empower engineers and product team members to do their best work and innovate together.

When setting OKRs, it’s also important to remember that, as an EM, you may have additional skills outside of engineering, and your PM may have more technical skills outside of management. Use these skills to the team’s advantage, especially when you meet and decide on plans and goals for the quarter, while also respecting pre-set roles and boundaries.

In today’s fast-changing reality, there’s no way to know for certain what the future holds for most organizations. But what the past few years of the COVID-19 pandemic have shown us is that the next big, unexpected business disruption is just around the corner, waiting to make itself known. Organizations must become the most flexible and agile versions of themselves to remain competitive. For most tech companies, this begins and ends with aligning engineers and PMs for organizational success.

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