Tips for effective collaboration between product managers and engineers

Product managers lead the product. Engineers build it. The demarcation seems clear, but it is not as simple as that. Because both roles have nuanced expertise and strong opinions about how to make the product better. Responsibilities can become blurry if you are a meddling product manager who tries to dictate the engineering team's technical direction — or if engineers encroach on what should be your role, such as deciding what features should be build next.

Teams need a clear understanding of who is responsible for decisions and tasks at each stage of the product lifecycle. At a basic level, product managers should tackle the "why" (product strategy) and "what" (features) for the product. Engineers should determine the "how" — the technical implementation of features. And together you should collaborate on the "when."

Healthy tension with engineering can be good — if you are both engaged in delivering the optimal solutions to customers and respectful of each other's expertise. And many decisions are collaborative and require input from both sides. This is an opportunity to push each other to think more critically, explore new approaches to problem-solving, and come up with innovative solutions together.

5 tips for improved collaboration

Certainly you would prefer harmony over tension with the engineering team. Together you can establish a product planning and development environment that is both positive and productive. Here are some guidelines for success:

Put strategy first

As the product manager, you set the product strategy — with a clear product vision, measurable goals, and well-defined initiatives. Shared goals are critical for alignment and give everyone a common direction to march towards. Then prioritize features based on how well they support the initiatives and help you achieve your goals.

Communicate the strategic direction of the product to engineers and visualize it all on the product roadmap. When engineering understands why they are building something and how it serves business and customer objectives, they can implement better solutions.

A custom roadmap created in Aha! software that shows progress on goals across a workspace

This roadmap created in Aha! Roadmaps shows the timing and progress towards product goals and initiatives.

Learn what engineers do

Some product managers have technical experience. Others come to the discipline from a business or management background. Either way, you do not need to know how to code in order to empathize with the engineering team.

Be curious and ask engineers to explain how they approach their work. An understanding of what it takes to build and support the product is essential. Engineers are not just building the functional requirements for the product. They also determine the product's infrastructure, programming languages, database needs, and non-functional requirements (e.g., security, speed, and other performance capabilities).

Great product managers are aware of the context that engineers operate in — you do not try to over-schedule your releases or cut corners that could impact the product's performance. Work is guided by your strategic direction and smart decisions about what is best for customers.

Plan with conviction

Good planning requires you to be decisive about what needs to be built and understand the resources it will take. If you are not certain whether a feature should be prioritized, do not assign it to a planned release or put it on the roadmap. And if you have not clearly defined the customer need, do not send work over to engineering. Indecision, shifting priorities, and poorly defined requirements will understandably frustrate them and lead to wasted time spent reworking the same things.

If you need input on how challenging a problem is to solve, bring in engineers early to share their insights. They can help you uncover technical implications that may require additional planning. You might need to adjust the scope or timing too. But do not prioritize features based on how hard they are to build. If you have started with the "why," each feature should be deemed essential by the time you are discussing it with engineering.

A features board showing all of the releases for a company called Fredwin Cycling in Aha! Roadmaps

This features board in Aha! Roadmaps shows features organized by release. These features are then sent to the engineering team's development tool.

Prioritization is also important for organizations that follow scrum. It is up to the engineering team to decide what to build in each sprint so they can deliver a release on time. But they may need clarification from product managers on what customers have asked for and what they need. Once you have explained the need and specifications, take a step back. Trust the engineering team to do the implementation work.

Clarify responsibilities and areas of overlap

You will be happier and more productive when there is transparency around who does what. So establish clear responsibilities and define workflows for each phase of the product development lifecycle.

The table below outlines the work that product managers and engineers typically collaborate on:

Defining features

Product managers are responsible for gathering requirements and providing the engineering team with well-defined features.

Engineers use these requirements to build the features. Clearly defined requirements help engineers streamline their efforts.

Many product managers and engineering teams also work together on user story mapping — a visual exercise that helps you outline requirements and prioritize what should be built next.

Prioritizing features

Product managers organize and prioritize the backlog of features — often with a scorecard or prioritization framework.

Engineers provide estimates of the time and effort that a feature will require.

If you are not using a scorecard already, consider adding it to your workflow. It is a great way to bring more objectivity to feature prioritization.

Planning releases

Product managers translate the product strategy into a release plan — visualizing it on the roadmap and coordinating cross-functional teammates against a timeline.

Engineers own the development work, which typically includes sprint planning and identifying acceptance criteria for feature completion.

It is essential to have a single source of truth where the team can track all the work involved in the release plan — helping to keep everyone accountable to their commitments.

Tracking progress

Product managers monitor the progress of work to ensure that the team can deliver on time. Many product managers use a roadmapping tool to plan, prioritize, and track features and releases.

Engineers typically track their own work in a workflow management tool, as well as using additional software development tools — such as version control systems, code review tools, and development environments.

Increasingly, more teams are seeing value in synching up their product planning tools and development tools. If you use a tool like Aha! Roadmaps, you can configure integrations between tools to gain alignment.

Roles, responsibilities, and workflows will vary by team and organization. What matters most is communicating proactively with engineers to clarify how you will get work done together. And if plans get off course, realign around your overall strategy and shared goals.

Build relationships

Product development is challenging. It is invigorating too. There are bound to be changes to the plans and unexpected obstacles. This is especially true when you have ambitious goals and deliver fast.

If you invest in building personal relationships with the engineering team, you will come to understand their passions, stressors, and points of view. You will be able to meet them where they are at and respectfully talk through tricky issues.

The best product managers are advocates for engineers. You provide them with the information they need to do their jobs well and protect their time. You admit if you have made a misstep. Alongside the engineering team, you are always learning and getting better at what you do.

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