An Engineer’s Place in Product Creation

James (Andy) Vaughn

Principal Technical Product Manager at AppFolio



Before I was an engineering and product manager, I often found that the relationship between product managers and engineers seemed to suffer. Engineers focused on solving hard, technical problems related to complex features of dubious need rather than customer outcomes. The behavior of often zeroing in almost entirely on code quality, at the expense of delivering what the market was asking for, had limited benefits to anyone other than the engineers themselves. The lack of a coordinated effort was a two-way result of an unequal partnership between PMs and engineering leadership. The engineering team assumed that the PM had all the answers –– when they did not –– and therefore did not help them prioritize tasks more efficiently which, as a result, led to a misallocation of technical talent.

Actions taken

As a startup, our company's idea of what a product manager should be responsible for was fairly underdeveloped. Some of our PMs were uncertain of how to involve engineering prior to actual development of software. This was reinforced by engineering stakeholders' general unavailability to answer early-stage technical questions to help PMs understand what was possible or help a PM gather analytical and user data to aid in their business case.

It was apparent, from some of the kickoff meetings I attended, that the PM had received little to no support from their engineering counterpart. The information presented was sometimes not-problem specific but rather an overview of the market. The engineering manager wasn't supportive either and poked holes in the PM's presentation rather than building it up and empowering them. Kicking off the project together as partners would have been far more effective at inspiring the engineers. Engineers in general care about the problem, who is affected, why it is a problem, and how this project will make a difference. In my opinion, inspired engineers work for change; for their efforts to make a positive impact.

When I moved into my role as an engineering leader, I wanted to learn what a product manager's day-to-day looked like. I wanted to understand how I could accelerate their process and improve our product by enhancing my relationship with the product organization. I realized that creating a partnership between PMs and engineers early on, and not just receiving requirements, would help PMs make better and more informed decisions, providing engineers with the confidence that the PM truly has mastery of their space.

Lessons learned

  • As an engineering leader, your place is not solely in the building of software. At the end of the day, the software is built to create value, and your place is throughout the entire process of delivering value. When engineering leaders are not involved in this process, they are just builders, and their expertise is underleveraged.
  • Be involved in the roadmap and planning stages of a product. When engineering leadership is not active within these steps, both of these steps are highly uninformed and unrealistic.
  • As an engineering leader, it is highly desirable to understand the basics of the market that the PM is solving for. It directly impacts the nature of the technical solution. Engineers should understand all the steps to launch a successful product so that they can be involved in critical parts of the process that operate more effectively when technical knowledge is available.

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James (Andy) Vaughn

Principal Technical Product Manager at AppFolio

Engineering LeadershipLeadership DevelopmentCommunicationOrganizational StrategyDecision MakingCulture DevelopmentEngineering ManagementPerformance MetricsLeadership Training

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