The 6 Worst Things Product Managers Say to Engineers
September 7, 2021

The 6 Worst Things Product Managers Say to Engineers

by Brian de Haaff

Every good product manager is a polyglot. They speak multiple languages. Of course, you might not be fluent in languages like French, Italian, or Mandarin. But you speak a variety of what we could call dialects, allowing you to communicate with everyone from company leaders to customers. Tailoring your communication style to each audience is how you collaborate successfully and drive the product forward. But there is one vernacular you may be less fluent in than you think — the language of the engineering team.

No one sets out to miscommunicate with their colleagues. But over time, it can happen if you are not empathetic towards your engineering peers.

You might be thinking, "Wait, I have a pretty good relationship with the development team." You talk often and respect their point of view. And you deeply appreciate what they contribute. After all, without them, you would not have a product. But have you asked yourself if your engineering teammates feel the same way?

Even if your intentions are good, misunderstandings and small annoyances can compound over time. Maybe there is a lack of clarity about roles and responsibilities. Giving technical direction to engineers or suggesting how to actually implement a solution can read as distrust — leaving teammates feeling slighted or defensive. And if you impose unrealistic expectations about the time and effort required to code something, you can start to see why the development team might feel more frustration than fondness.

The best product managers adopt a collective mindset — you treat your engineering teammates as essential partners in the product development process.

I have often reflected on the relationship between these two roles since we launched Aha! Develop last month. Speaking with all types of engineering teams has crystallized just how difficult it can be to forge a strong partnership between product management and development.

Creating more value for customers begins with improving your own communication with colleagues. So I asked a few members of the Aha! engineering team to divulge the most irritating things that product managers said to them earlier in their careers. Take a look at what they shared so you can remove these comments from your own lexicon:

"Build it like this."

Engineers instinctively recoil if you dictate a solution before fully describing the problem. After all, problem-solving should be a collaborative process. Give the development team the context they need. Then trust them to have their own ideas about how to build features and implement new solutions.

"Just make it easier to use."

Huh? What does a vague statement like this even mean? It is fine to point out gaps in the product — but sweeping complaints and poorly defined features help no one. Get clear on the "why" before you ask developers to change something. Then write thorough requirements, create wireframes and mockups, or do user story mapping to give the team the context they need to build the right solution.

"How long will it take?"

It takes time to determine the scope of a request. Instead of asking how long it will take to build something new, give the engineering team a chance to explore the use case and req. This allows them to think through the architecture they will need to create — and determine a realistic time frame for completion.

"But it is really a small fix — can you just start working on it now?"

Responsive engineering teams drop everything to address a critical bug. But constant interruptions and one-off requests often distract from more important work. It is doubly irritating when product managers presume to know how long debugging will take. Document needed fixes and trust engineering to prioritize them according to what is most critical. Even something that appears to be minor can be technically complex, requiring serious focus and thought.

"We already committed to the customer."

Not having enough time to code well is stressful. If you commit to a deadline without engineers' participation, they will likely end up having to cut corners to get the programming done. Instead, include them in the planning. Listen to their estimates and reach an agreement on when you can deliver a new customer experience.

"Just one more thing."

You both agree on the scope and deadline — great. But adding last-minute features quickly wears down the development team. Honor the initial scope you set and put additional requests in the backlog. Your engineering peers will thank you for sticking to the plan.

If you are guilty of making any of these comments, do not feel bad. Now is the time to commit to a better way forward.

Before making a request or asking a question, pause to consider how the development team will receive your words. Have transparent conversations about your approach and be ready to adjust. Remember that you belong to the same team and are trying to make the same users happy. Each day you are building a better product and stronger relationships — one conversation at a time.

What do you do to create a better relationship with the engineering team?

Product and engineering teams perform at their best when they sync their product planning and development tools. Sign up for a free trial of Aha! Roadmaps and Aha! Develop.

Brian de Haaff

Brian de Haaff

Brian seeks business and wilderness adventure. He is the co-founder and CEO of Aha! — the world’s #1 product development software — and the author of the bestseller Lovability and The Startup Adventure newsletter. Brian writes and speaks about product and company growth and the journey of pursuing a meaningful life.

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