Should Product Managers and Engineers Get Along?

Ever notice that you don’t see many executive titles like Vice President of Innovation and Compliance? Or Chief Marketing and Finance Officer? Or Head of Risk Management and Envelope Pushing?

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“There’s a reason you don’t see titles like Vice President of Innovation and Compliance. A little tension is good.”

Okay, ‘Envelope Pushing’ itself isn’t really a job title at all (although maybe it should be). But the point still holds: You won’t often see management titles like these because they reflect inherent conflicts that would more or less completely undermine the person’s effectiveness.

A VP in charge of innovating for her company can’t also head up the compliance group, because the part of her role that encourages her to try new and possibly risky things will be hampered by the compliance hat she also has to wear to protect her company.

And how can a marketing executive focus all of his efforts on developing the most effective campaigns if he’s also judged by how well he keeps down the costs of all initiatives — marketing included? Will this CMFO have a meeting with himself to argue over the proposed cost of his own new ad campaign?

Why a little tension between product managers and engineers is good for both the product and the company

Clearly, it’s in a company’s best interest to staff functions like these separately — to find the sharpest, boldest envelope-pusher they can, and to find another person who is highly skilled to incorporate risk management. Then the company can give both professionals responsible for their respective roles, and let them work together with the natural tension these roles generate.

Comedian Steven Wright said, “For my birthday, I got a humidifier and a dehumidifier. So I put them in the same room and let them fight it out.” The point is, if your company creates each role and each team in the right way, with a clear set of strategic goals that serve the business, you will often find plenty of tension across the organization. This is a good thing — because these individuals and groups will all be advocating for what they believe is best for your company.

For this reason, we would argue that product managers and engineers should develop working relationships that are, to some degree, based on this natural tension.

Product managers and engineers should view themselves as part of the same team with shared organizational goals—but with different, often conflicting internal goals

A strong product manager will advocate aggressively on behalf of her product — demanding, for example, that it be at once robust and elegant, and that it be well-tested and free of bugs but also GA-ready within a tight timeframe.

These goals, like that poor Chief Marketing and Finance Officer yelling at himself in a conference room, can often be somewhat inherently contradictory. A product manager needs to understand that if she wants all of the themes and epics on her product roadmap implemented, tested, and free of bugs, she might have to compromise a little on her desired release date. Or if she insists on hitting that date, she might have to allow a few of those epics to slip to the next release.

Of course, this product manager will — and should — continue to push as hard as she can to get as much into her product in as short a timeframe as she can. And this is precisely where that healthy tension should come into play.

Unless the company is prepared to jeopardize the progress of other products in development, or burn out the development team, or compromise the company in some other way, this product manager will need another team pushing back against some of her aggressive product goals, where necessary, just as forcefully as she is advocating for them.

That team should be engineering itself. Here’s why.

This hypothetical product manager might advocate strongly in favor of prioritizing all of her engineering resources on epics and features designed to elicit customer delight. That might make sense from the PM’s point of view, particularly if her strategic goal is to generate significant word-of-mouth advertising from her user base or to earn positive reviews from analysts and the media.

But in this case, it would probably take her engineers — who are equally committed to the product’s success, but with a different focus and set of priorities — to remind this PM that some of her resources need to be deployed on less sexy, backend issues. For example, the engineers might feel the need to focus on the product’s security, and to ensure that reliable data backup and disaster recovery platforms are in place before the product is released.

Here, as you can see, that healthy tension would ensure that the best interests of both the product and the company itself were being served from multiple viewpoints — from a product manager who wanted to capture market share and win industry goodwill, and from an engineering team that wanted to make sure the product was secure and disaster-ready before sending it out to the market.

If either of these teams weren’t giving their respective goals the advocacy they needed — or, just as dangerous, if both sides were working from the identical viewpoints and without that tension — this product would likely be underdeveloped in some significant area.

So, how should product management and engineering work together?

Ideally, product managers will understand their customers and the problems they want to solve for those customers so well that they will always have more plans and goals for their products than can be delivered realistically at any given time. But these PMs will push as forcefully as they can to get as much of that wish-list for their products as possible.

At the same time, engineering teams will always be working on their processes and technology expertise to ensure they are ready to give every product the best chance, developmentally speaking, for success based on the strategic vision they receive from their PMs. But at the same time, these engineers will balance the strategic goals of the product with what they know to be their limitations based on resources, technology, timeframe, and other factors. And these engineers will advocate for their positions just as strongly as the product managers advocate for their own.

All employees across an organization should at all times be professional, respectful, polite, and even friendly with each other. This includes product managers and engineers, who should view their respective internal priorities as different but complementary — and still perfectly aligned from the company’s point of view — in the sense that it takes both of these teams (not to mention many others across the company) to deliver a successful product.

But these teams should also allow for, and even welcome, the notion that because their roles and areas of responsibility for the company’s products are different, a healthy relationship between them will almost certainly include some conflict.

Or, to put this another way, if a product manager is happy with everything her engineering team does for her, in the timeframe they do it, and the engineers are thrilled with everything the PM asks of them, is it a win-win-win? No. There are several losers in this tension-free scenario: the company, the product, and the customer.

Do you think product managers and engineers should get along? Why or why not? Please share your thoughts below.