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Blog September 25, 2020

The Product + Engineering Connection: Making the Most of an Important Relationship

Kevin Yount
Kevin Yount

On the job, it’s often the unsettling, uncomfortable interactions that are opportunities to grow and clarify your relationships. I vividly remember the day my product director called my scrum master and me concerned about the execution priorities we set for upcoming sprints:

Question: “Why are we doing B in the next sprint, before you do A?”
Answer: “We reviewed both stories with the team in refinement and the engineers convinced us that doing B first will ultimately make it easier to do both stories, not to mention support a better user experience.”
Response: “Engineering doesn’t make this decision – product management does. Do A first.”

As far as the product director was concerned, that was that. Unfortunately, he didn’t realize the entire impact of his position and the true cost of that direction. As the scrum master and I conveyed the client’s final decision to a conference room full of eager engineers, you could sense their disappointment at the bitter pill they were asked to swallow. Their expertise was neither valued nor needed. Why should they bother caring at this point?

Your work world is all about the relationships you make, and let’s face it, your product management world even more so. Blending demands and constraints across technology, customer, and business, and the focus on these relationships will flex daily around users, business stakeholders, leaders, and designers. Each is important, each have their own priorities, and each can influence the product’s success. However, the rapport you build with your engineering team deserves a unique focus, specifically tailored to the technical minds that are creating “your” product.

Whose Product?

Think for a moment about how varying roles feel about the product. Your business owner and senior management is certainly devoted to the product’s success. They have allocated budget for its creation and expect a return on that investment. The customers or users are invested in a different way: they hope, even expect, that the product will make their lives easier. But to both your design and engineering staff this is often a very personal endeavor. The product is a direct and tangible result of their skills and craft. Their relationship with the success of the product is often intimate and visceral.

Your ability to communicate and establish trust with the engineering team is vital and will make your life infinitely easier. To make this happen, product management should:

1. Share strategy: Early, often and on a regular cadence
2. Share vulnerabilities: Be open and honest about what is unknown
3. Share the burden of innovation: Enlist & harness the smart people in the room

Sharing is Caring

While product strategy and development priorities naturally fall within your wheelhouse as a product owner or manager, your engineers’ ability to understand and contribute to a strategy dialog is critical to everyone’s success. Do not make the mistake of believing strategy and priority should be of no concern to your engineers, or that this conversation happens only once or twice a year.

I’ve seen businesses and product leaders make both mistakes. When those responsible for strategy and priority-setting simply negate the engineering team’s input, they risk alienating their most valuable allies, and often, their most prodigious source of innovation. More common however, is the situation where product leadership fails to keep strategy in a regular cadence of conversations with their engineers. When strategy is part of an ongoing dialog with engineering, it reinforces the reason for the team’s existence and the purpose of their creations. In my experience, you can never over-communicate goals and strategy, particularly when the team is prioritizing work or seeing new stories for the first time. If engineers say they don’t understand something, whether it’s the value to the user or the priority of doing A before B, then listen to their concerns. Seek to understand and reconcile this gap before moving forward with development. Your effort to connect the dots with them on a regular basis will pay off as a team that is aligned to the mission. Remember: the morale of engineering is very much a function of product management’s ability to engage with them and bring them along in the journey.

Engineers, by nature, are smart and skeptical. Your ability to be transparent about the direction everyone is heading and be humble about what you and the business do not know will help you build trust and enable them to become allies in your mission to innovate. With transparency, humility, and honesty in your communications, you help convey the delivery team’s true value in the ongoing strategy decisions being made.