The Product Manager vs. the Engineering Manager
May 13, 2021

The Product Manager vs. the Engineering Manager

by Brian de Haaff

Remember Dilbert? The comic strip featuring a micromanaged engineer turns 31 this year. This exchange is a classic:

Dilbert: I'll design the system as soon as you give me the user requirements.

Colleague: Better yet, you could build the system, and I'll tell your boss that it doesn't meet my needs.

Unfortunately, many product managers and engineering managers lack clarity around who does what during each phase of product development. This can lead to a contentious relationship and a lot of frustration. Both people want to solve customer problems, but you have to be clear on which problems are yours to solve.

As a product manager, you need to learn how to collaborate with your engineering manager — working together to move the product forward.

Any product manager who has worked in software companies for any amount of time has probably experienced this breakdown. The details vary but the essence is the same. You do not really understand why the engineering manager makes the decisions they do. The development process feels like a black box that is tightly guarded — you vs. them. You are not able to find a natural rhythm in how you collaborate. And despite having good intentions, you get in each other's way.

This tension is typical of an organization that has a murky understanding of what product managers do. Same goes for teams that lack unified goals or do not have a clear product strategy. Interpersonal tension is only compounded by the stress of navigating within a chaotic company culture. Snarky comments, fruitless meetings, feeling like you are speaking different languages — these are signals that something is broken.

Chaos is usually rooted in misunderstanding. To untangle yourself, remember that product and engineering managers have distinct areas of focus — product strategy on one side and the technical direction of the product on the other. Product managers define the "why" and the "what" that engineers will build. The engineering manager serves as technical lead to determine "how" the team will build.

Together you align on the "when" to deliver new customer experiences and lead your teams to success.

Of course, some tension is inevitable — even healthy. It can push you to get better. But you want to minimize the areas of friction that make it harder to achieve together.

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From more than 20 years of my own experience building product, I have found these are the most common failure points:

Misaligned strategic direction

Maybe you have heard that product managers should focus on building the right product, while engineering managers should focus on building the product right. There is truth in this. Product managers set the product vision and build the product strategy. Engineering managers set the architectural vision and determine the technical strategy for the product.

Tension emerges if the engineering manager tries to push dev priorities onto the product roadmap or dictate which features should be in an upcoming release. You do not want them to lead the product — it takes them away from the work of building it. Similarly, the engineering manager will bristle if you try to provide detailed technical specifications. If you have effectively communicated business and customer needs, trust that your counterpart will lead the technical direction.

Communication issues

Communication is never overdone. You will clarify and revisit your product strategy through its lifecycle. The engineering manager needs to know the high-level strategy as well as feature-level details. Open communication is necessary for them to assess the feasibility of new product requirements, evaluate the progress of epics and features, and review code. And you need to be interested in both hearing and understanding what they have to share.

Quick and purposeful communication can keep you in sync. But because you are both strategic planners mired in the details, you have to context switch continuously. If you find you lose something in translation, address it quickly. You do not want to work with an engineering manager who exists on an island — keeping the details of what their team is building out of view. Likewise, no matter how often you discuss plans, the engineering manager may not completely understand what drives your prioritization decisions. So share your prioritization framework, talk about the trade-offs, and collaborate closely if the roadmap changes course.

Imbalanced influence

Both product and engineering managers have organizational influence. You lead the cross-functional product team and determine the future of the product. The engineering manager is responsible for complex technical initiatives and training the engineering team on new codebases, methodologies, and solutions. The best on both sides lean on their leadership skills — not their title.

Conflict arises if either of you competes for recognition. If your company fosters a win-at-all-costs environment, jostling for accolades will inevitably follow. You owe it to yourself to combine forces and win together. Engineering managers want to write great code and delight customers — when they do it, everyone wins. Be quick to sing their praises and give credit where it is due. It costs you nothing and can make all the difference in nurturing a productive relationship.

Divergent success metrics

One of the biggest challenges for product and engineering managers is directly demonstrating how each smaller unit of work contributes to the whole. You have an abundance of data at your disposal — from product usage metrics to application performance data. Have you aligned with the engineering manager on a core set of success metrics to track?

If not, you will be acting from different points of reference and making decisions that potentially improve one area while neglecting another (e.g., over-emphasizing team velocity at the detriment to code quality). Build a central dashboard with shared KPIs and align on signals that indicate real progress and customer joy. After all, your focus should be on the product and the customer.

Your effectiveness as a product manager is tied to the success of the engineering manager. You need to provide the product plan and essential knowledge that will help them build the right solutions.

How you perceive the points of friction above is critical. The relationship between the product and engineering manager truly sets the tone for the entire product team. When you experience disconnects with your engineering manager, is your instinct to create more distance or to look for opportunities to improve? Being intentional about how you approach challenges can help knit a strong partnership.

How have you built a great partnership with the engineering lead?

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Brian de Haaff

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

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