In my 7 years in the industry, I have seen that the relationship between the product and engineering teams can make or break the product, and the whole business around it. Product management is about building the ‘right‘ product while Engineering is all about building the product ‘right‘. However, in a business both are equally important and myopic views about any one of them will end up hurting the business in the long term. This hold more true for startups and internet based companies than for established and growth companies where the ‘right‘ product is already identified.
Part of the Same Team
Product management and Engineering need to work together as they are part of the same team, while having very different roles. It is critical that the two see themselves as peers, and on the same side of the table. In most companies these two teams sit far away from each other, limiting interaction, which is critical especially in the beginning stages of any product. It is important to understand that out of PM and Engineering, none is subordinate to another, and steps must be taken to introduce a cohesive working environment between the two to enable better understanding and co-operation.
Make Engineers Understand the Customer
Most of the times engineers are unaware of why they are building what they are building. Their focus is on getting the requirement spec from product management, and then working on implementing that. But without an intricate knowledge of why they are building that product, and for whom, they can never get a complete understanding of their place in the whole company and fully contribute to it. In my view, making each and every developer in the engineering team aware of why they are doing what they are doing is critical to discovering problems in time and preventing frustration and despair later on.
Encourage Engineers to Come Up with Ideas
Your engineers are the ones who are the closest to the product, and they know the technology best. They have the best idea of what can be done and what not, and the relative complexities of implementing any two different solutions. Involving them in idea generation and encouraging them to come up with ideas can prove vital in reducing the PM-Engineering mail clutter to come up with better solutions sooner. At the same time, it also gives engineering a sense of ownership about what they are going to implement.
Product Manager should focus on Minimal Product, then regular Increments
It is often considered fancy to come up with a product plan which will take 2-3 months for engineering to build. The product team think they have done a great job detailing every feature and detail in the spec, while the engineering team devotes their best resources to doing it right. But after the product ships (or sometimes even before), the product team (together with sales and marketing) gets valuable feedback from the customer and wants to drop some features, change a few, and add a couple of new ones. This becomes the Product Spec v2. All the while engineering has no idea why their efforts of the last 3 months have gone down the drain, which leads to frustration and reduced productivity. And the cycle continues.
Another way to approach this situation could be to come up with a minimal set of features to build in the first version of the product. It is critical that both PM and Engineering sit together and decide this based on each other’s inputs. If the two work cohesively together on a minimal product, and then add small increments as customer inputs start coming in, the kind of productivity that can be generated could be awesome for both teams, and for the company as a whole.