Building a Product Team as an Engineering Leader

Jacopo Toccacieli

COO at ShippyPro


When There Is No Harmony Between Engineering and Product Teams

We often stumble across the question: what makes a good product team? Once we roughly have an answer to that, the next question would be, how is a product team necessary for the success of an engineering organization?

About three years ago, I joined a company as a VP of engineering, and at that time, there was only a single product director. During the first 90 days of my interaction with the engineering managers and leadership, I realized that there was a huge disconnection in the product roadmap. The gap was between what was presented to the executive layer versus what was achieved by the engineering team. The bottom line of this was not because the engineering team was not capable but because there was a loss in translation between the two groups of individuals. One more factor that followed was that on the one hand, 30 engineers were working as a team, while on the other, there were no product managers. The product director was on a pretty high level.

Implement Processes to Measure the Success of Your Product

Fast forward into my role as a VP of engineering, I created a parallel product team. For each engineering team, I hired a product owner who was reporting to the director of product. In essence, I made sure that both the upper management of the engineering and product teams were aligned and elaborated the long-term roadmap.

In order to build the product team, the first step was to identify the number of product personnel we needed to match with the engineering team. As a general rule of thumb, the ratio I used was 1 product owner for every 6 - 9 engineers, which worked wonderfully. Otherwise, it would have become a seesaw situation, where one side would be overloaded while the other would not have enough correspondence.

It's no surprise that product owners think from a customer's point of view and have a coherent picture of the subset of the product. Based on that, we ensured that the product owner was around a functional area of the product; we matched that with our existing engineering team. A lot of the factors also revolved around the expectations from the engineering managers.

While the product owner truly needs to own the business priorities, the engineering team needs to figure out how to deliver on that. This brought us back to square one: bringing in product folks focused on "what" we needed to do to make our customers happy. The engineering managers continued to nurture and build teams, focusing on their deliverables and emphasizing the product's "how" part.

Since the product owners and the senior product people were more on a day-to-day operation, the phenomenon dramatically reduced the gap between the two orgs, necessitating the requirement of a single roadmap. It also reduced the "engineering versus product" competitiveness, which aligned them in one line.

In specific organizations, both the product and engineering roles may seem to overlap, but in reality, they complete each other. Therefore, when the "what" came from the intelligent product individuals combined with the expertise of the engineering team, it brought synergistic results. Plus, to get a certain alignment to the hierarchy, we also created some peers on the upper level of the engineering organization with the product, ensuring a high-level strategic alignment on longer-term initiatives.

Reduce the Friction and Define the Roles Early on

  • Clearly define the roles of each individual before it becomes a challenge. One of our struggles was managing expectations and the relationship between product owners and engineering managers. We could have eliminated that from the beginning if we stated: "who does what."
  • Make sure to create a platform of opportunities for product and engineering leadership. Check that there are no surprises around the corner, including involving engineering leadership with their partners. So, when there is a significant feature launch, the teams need to be in sync.

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Jacopo Toccacieli

COO at ShippyPro

Engineering LeadershipLeadership DevelopmentCommunicationOrganizational StrategyDecision MakingCulture DevelopmentEngineering ManagementPerformance MetricsLeadership Training

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