Hey Engineers — Your Product Manager Needs a Hug
June 30, 2013

Hey Engineers — Your Product Manager Needs a Hug

by Brian de Haaff

My engineering friends, please consider the following sentences as a heartfelt plea. I know that we are taught in business to focus on the rational and ignore the emotional, but your product manager is hurting and needs some love.

Consider this an opportunity to meet your company’s “request” that you volunteer at least once a year to help the less fortunate. For I speak for an underclass of professionals who try to converse in your language but are rarely understood and are often ridiculed. You may think that your product manager has it easy, but that is not always the case.

Before I share more, you should know how I got to this vulnerable place. It all started a week ago. I had never been so surprised as I was during the firestorm created by my last post, Hey Product Managers — Stop Pissing Off The Engineers.

People actually thought that I was a disgruntled engineer. They told me that they believed I was ranting about the twisted hell of product management and the insensitivity of product managers. It was not true. I built my career leading product and strategy and was simply trying to share a few insights to help product managers better work with you — engineering.

If you have read my other blog posts, you already know that I have a lot of respect for your efforts. Humans are unique in our ability to create, and you are the architectural force leading the Software Revolution era. It is no secret that I am grateful for engineering and what you do.

Deep respect leads to unbreakable trust and my only hope is that one day more engineering and product teams will pull for each other. And that is why I am writing again. I would like to help create a stronger bridge between you and the product team. This is not easy as trust is developed over time. But sometimes respect can start with empathy, so consider for a minute what it is like to be a product manager.

Everybody wants a piece of the product manager. PMs need to peer into the future and be retrospective about today before it is over. Sales is habitually flabbergasted that the feature that the recent prospect requested was not on last quarter’s roadmap and will not be available by the end of this quarter. Because the feature will not be available, Sales will not hit their numbers, and thus will not go to Club. And your product manager is to blame.

But that is just the start. Support is frenzied because two customers in the last 30 days have called in with the same problem. Marketing needs to know exactly when the next release will really ship yet has no idea how to position it, and Legal wants to know why there aren’t more big red warnings on the login screen and throughout the software. Design is in the building and on the product team but keeps claiming they have no idea what is coming next and needs months to design a screen that is going to be released next week. The CEO wants to understand the product strategy and how engineering resources are being allocated and the CFO keeps pressing for CAC and ARPU models. It is a great job, but I think you would agree that it is not easy.

But the hardest part of the job is working in harmony with you and your engineering sisters and brothers. For many product managers, collaborating with engineering is like earning the trust of wolves. It is scary but possible and takes a commitment from both players.

Now, I am asking you to meet your product manager in the middle. You do not need to throw your arms around the PM, expressing your love and understanding. Rather, I am suggesting a few simple behavioral changes that would really help. Consider these small “stop dos” that would assist the PM in your life. Because we all know that an emotionally-balanced product manager makes everyone’s life easier — including yours.

Stop channeling Socrates At some point during your career, you were taught that it is better to ask probing questions than just blurt out the answer (even when someone asks you a question and you are certain of your correctness). This method probably also works well because you are naturally curious and prone to debate. And darn it, it is a great form of entertainment to see in a group meeting if you can get the PM to make a contradictory statement, thus strengthening a point that you want to make. Please stop. I suggest that you just listen to what is being proposed or asked and respond respectfully with your point of view.

Stop asking for the ROI model Do not tell anyone that I shared this little secret with you. There is rarely a hard ROI for software and even when the boss makes your PM generate a model, it is based on difficult-to-measure assumptions which are then built on guesstimates. But that is not really the issue when you ask for the ROI or worse, the business case. When you do, it is a sure sign that you do not understand the product strategy and you definitely do not trust the PM. Try to get involved earlier so you have input to where the product is headed and what you need to build to get there. (And whatever you do, do not mention this “no real ROI” thing to Sales).

Stop hiding behind “technical debt” I know that you were probably hoping that I would not bring this up. Unfortunately, we need to discuss it. Your product manager really wishes that you never whispered this hideous phrase again. PMs get a little queasy every time you threaten that the business pressures will lead to the end of the world due to the consequences of poor software development. The team understands that you reach for this stick because you are under pressure to get hard work done by a specific time. They understand — but they do not care. We all make trade-offs every day and are forced to live (and often clean up) the consequences. I will make you an offer on behalf of your product manager. You can have 15 percent of all sprints to build and fix whatever you want, as long as you never utter “technical debt” again. Deal?

Stop fearing dates Now that we are all so agile, you argue, there is no need for release dates. You tell everyone that engineering is a continuous improvement and innovation machine. Your PM partially agrees. The engineering factory does a better job than it did before delivering new functionality. But your product manager needs more from you. PMs must be able to communicate with certainty when new market-impacting features will be delivered because the rest of the world keeps time. Marketing needs to line up market launches and advertising spend months in advance. Sales needs to be able to communicate with customers about new features. And Support needs to communicate clearly with customers who have a problem or desperate need. The reality is that dates can set you free. Embrace them and become more essential to the product planning cycle and gain satisfaction beyond just building the next widget.

You probably figured out by now that this is as much about helping your product manager as it is about helping yourself. You are smart. You probably understand that great product managers operate from a position of customer, market, and organizational knowledge, and that is required for business success.

The product manager’s job can be glorious one moment and exasperating the next, but you need each other. You are a team and your success depends on togetherness. You have an opportunity to make your PM shine and I guarantee that if you do, you will get to build what really matters.

Group hug.


Tweet a pic with you and your product manager with #EnghugsPM and include @aha_io and we will RT.

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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