How new Product Managers can build a great working relationship with Engineers

The following insights are from a fireside chat at INDUSTRY with:

Noel Tate, Director of Product Management at FabFitFun
@noeltate

Product Managers may be responsible for overseeing the creation of technology products — but they aren’t the ones actually creating that product. Product designers, UX professionals, and software engineers are a part of the actual creation, and relationships with all three of those groups are absolutely critical for successful product managers.

To foster and sustain positive relationships with software engineers, a new product person can start by understanding how the engineering team communicates best with the rest of the product organization. Not every engineering team communicates the same way. Understanding your engineering colleagues and their personal communication preferences is important. This isn’t about tying down a process, but more simply discovering how the engineering team and the Product Manager will work together. 

This conversation will help to create a shared structure. For example, how should stand-ups be managed? Decide when they will start, how they will be led, etc. Then, write this structure down and get everyone to agree to it. The document should not be a PDF, but a shared, editable document that is constantly evolving.

If something isn’t working, ask why and be committed to changing it. The intention should be to develop a bit of structure to the interactions between the Product Manager and the engineering team. If the Product Manager is joining an established team, ask them how they work now — and how the current process can be simpler and better. Then listen to what the engineering team says about its processes. Follow through on their suggestions to contribute to their way of working. Perhaps you’ve been hired to bring new knowledge and experience to this company.  Still, understanding the current scenario and what currently works is critical, as not everything may need to be overhauled.

Open collaboration makes it easier to bring your experience to the team. Don’t try to force the team to adopt your way of working. Instead, create buy-in. If there is no buy-in of your ideas, consider dropping it for a time and trying a new idea. 

Ultimately, what’s most important is that you develop real trust between you and your engineering team. There are no shortcuts to build this trust, but there are ways to break the ice quickly. For example, in retrospectives, consider always putting up something about your own performance. Acknowledge your mistakes first — as this helps to build trust and open communication. It’s important, though, to follow through and improve your performance by taking action straight away. Build on this process and back up what you say to build up trust.

When you’re working with remote engineering teams, things can be even trickier — but it’s also more important to make a concerted effort to build trust. Generally, it’s better to over-communicate than under-communicate — but this may not be possible if the team is scattered in different time zones. Take the time to keep all relevant stakeholders in the loop and share information widely. 

Communication is one of the key parts of the Product Manager’s role. Start by over-communicating — then you can pull back to find a level of communication that works best for the company and product organization. 

But remember that coding requires concentration. Learn when your team likes to concentrate on coding tasks (e.g. after the stand-up, in the morning, after lunch) and try not to schedule meetings or expect communications during these times.

When it comes to communicating with your engineering team, don’t be afraid to try things that may not work. Take each stumble as a chance to learn something new and gain insight on how you will be able to ultimately communicate best with your engineering team.

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Paul McAvinchey
For over 15 years, Paul has been building and collaborating on digital products with fast-growing startups and global brands, including AOL and WMS Gaming. Currently, he's a co-founder of Product Collective, a worldwide community of product people. Members collaborate on Slack, meet at INDUSTRY: The Product Conference, listen to Rocketship.fm, learn at Product Interviews and get a weekly brief that includes best practices in product management. In recent years he led business development at DXY, a leading product design firm in the Midwest, and product innovation at MedCity Media, a publishing startup acquired by Breaking Media in 2015.