How to improve collaboration between engineering and product management; Ingrain it into your culture.

Benjamin De Point

VP of Engineering at Olly Olly



Our software engineers (SE) and product management (PM) were often working on the wrong things. Our SEs focused on what to build and PMs on how to build them. This was due to there being little distinction between the two groups, which had persisted from the company's founding. When the company was a start-up, the founder was the head of product and head of engineering, as well as the lead engineer. This approach to business persisted as the company grew, but at the same time, the software teams began to perform less. For example, two years ago, one of my teams was working on a new product line. A particular engineer in this team spent far too much time developing features he felt the market needed, and he refused to develop what the product manager defined as valuable. Additionally, the product manager dug way too deep into the software design and what packages or libraries the team should leverage. As a result, after 18 months, their product was still in development and was missing all of its deliverables — alpha, beta, and general availability.

Actions taken

The company lacked a clear definition of roles and responsibilities; PMs and SEs were uncertain of where their roles began and finished. Engineering leadership realized the misalignment and addressed it by clearly defining the roles of each group. They stated that PMs were responsible for the what and SEs were responsible for the how. Then, leadership enforced these change by empowering Scrum Masters (SM) to keep PMs and SEs. If either went off into the weeds of the others responsibility, the SM would reel them in. SEs or PMs who continued to exhibit these anti-patterns were given opportunities to change their behavior. If they didn't, they were asked to leave. This was the case for the PM on my team. Lastly, the change was ingrained into the culture, as it was made into a metric in SE performance evaluation. 1:1 discussions and yearly reviews allow us to evaluate the SEs on how well they work with their PM. It is the responsibility of the SE to seek to know the why, in order to determine the how. The SE is responsible for learning about the PM so their solutions become more and more tailored to their expectations. The PM is required to explain the business value of their feature requests and should be available to the SE for any questions they may have.

Lessons learned

  • As companies grow, the PM and SE roles need to become clearly defined:
  • PMs should handle the what
  • SEs should handle the how
  • The PM and SE roles and responsibilities need to be enforced organically via the team (in our case SMs), and negative patterns should be dealt with.
  • Systemic changes need to be ingrained into a company's culture

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Benjamin De Point

VP of Engineering at Olly Olly

Engineering LeadershipLeadership DevelopmentCommunicationOrganizational StrategyDecision MakingCulture DevelopmentEngineering ManagementSprint CadencePerformance MetricsLeadership Training

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