How Much "Dev Speak" Should Product Managers Know?
June 29, 2016

How Much "Dev Speak" Should Product Managers Know?

by Alex Bartlow

Product managers need to be able to connect with the engineering team. But some product managers — and people in general — often feel excluded from the cultus of software development. I know because I am a software developer and I work with product managers every day.

Some engineers project the image of themselves as a sort of techno-priesthood — cloistered away from the common man, performing their holy rite of transubstantiating caffeine into code. Approach with coffee and brilliance, or not at all.

To outsiders, it may appear that the shibboleth that will allow them access and respect is to adopt some psuedo dev speak.

What is dev speak? It is a strange language that sounds something like this: “I just saw a great presentation on using Docker and NoSQL to web-scale our cloud.”

The expectation is that the engineering team will nod their head in agreement, extend the secret handshake, and welcome the new product manager into the fold. However, as a software developer I can tell you that using low-level development jargon does not foster connection — at best it only sounds slightly off-key and at worst disingenuous.

You sound like Steve Buscemi masquerading as a high-school student. Don’t be like Steve Buscemi. Don’t fall into the trap of believing that jargon is the secret password to any given group.

Don’t tell anyone, but here is a deep dark dev secret: We do not like jargon.

Programming jargon is a necessary evil. It allows us to communicate large ideas in the small space of our chat windows. It puts a handle on complexity, making it possible to communicate our intent — the mental house of cards of a program not yet written. But only bad developers use jargon to exclude others.

Someone might have told you differently, but developers are people too! And people do not communicate in code. If you want to “speak developer” you should really try to get better at “speaking people.”

We often refer to “hacks.” These are the shortcuts we take to achieve a desired end. Yet in building bridges between human beings — each of us an island — there are no shortcuts. Rather than memorize jargon, product managers should prioritize these four pillars of communication:

Vision Vision is perhaps the hardest and most crucial thing that product managers must communicate. Without vision, the people perish. This is where we trust you to present a convincing case for what we are building and why. Nobody gets excited for yet another social, local, mobile app to help people buy more stuff. Think bigger, find the place in the world where we can pull our company’s lever, and we’ll give you a place to stand. Let us work together on a realistic timetable. And then, trust us with how to build it — it’s what we do best.

Respect Respect is something that we developers hold especially dear. Programming is hard. We fail constantly, and we actually write tests to show us our failures to avoid doing so publicly. Programming has been called an art, a science, a craft. I call it living poetry. Respect our work. Respect the long hours we’ve spent to train ourselves, and ask us how what we’ve written really works. You will be awed. And we would love to explain it to you.

Trust Developers and product managers want the same thing: to build an amazing product. We don’t write code for machines. We write it for you, for our customers, and, in tertiary measure, for ourselves. In some organizations, the walled silos make it hard to see the truth of that statement. (Hey product manager — tear down this wall!)

Excitement Enthusiasm should be shared. And camaraderie will beat out mistrust any day of the week. Are you excited to solve problems for our users? I assure you, we are also excited to find creative ways to make it happen. Ask us how we solved it. Tell us how you found out that our customers needed it. What did they think? How can we make them even more happy and make our product more lovable?

Is this approach harder than picking up a few bits of technological trivia? Of course it is. Bridging cultures has always been hard — it’s a common refrain throughout human history. But there is far more that unites us than divides us. We need each other.

So stop talking like an annoying engineer. Start talking like a great product manager.

Great product managers focus on our common ground. They are the eyes and ears for developers, showing us what our work is accomplishing. They help us see what’s coming on the roadmap and more importantly why it’s coming, so we can prepare for what’s ahead. And they communicate the vision that inspires us to create even more.

How do you speak with the engineers?

Alex Bartlow

Alex Bartlow

Alex likes to write code to solve problems. He is the director of platform engineering at Aha! — the world’s #1 product development software. Previously, he built both applications and infrastructure at two successful software companies.

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