Reestablishing a healthy relationship between a PM and engineers.

Shivani Sharma

Senior Engineering Manager at Slack



I inherited a new engineering team. The team's had a deep-rooted mistrust in their PM, and it was an "us vs them" situation, which was leading to a lack of focus and productivity. The team was rather young and the previous EM was junior and hadn't been able to provide serious guidance. The PM had also not been able to establish his legitimacy due to his lack of experience. I saw that something was wrong and decided to act rapidly.

Actions taken

"You cannot fix something you don't understand, so my first action was to work out the root of the problem during my one-on-ones with team members."

The idea was to start building a relationship of trust so that the team would open up to me. The engineers felt that the PM was not doing a good job in establishing a roadmap of projects and they believed they could do his job because they were the ones initiating product brainstorms and bringing them to the product manager. Because of this, the engineers would challenge everything he said and their focus would drift from their day-to-day tasks and missions to pursue their own product ideas because they did not have enough work. Not much work was being done in terms of refactoring, revisiting legacy, or improving performance, as the engineers were more focused on the lack of strong product roadmap. During the one-on-ones, I conveyed the message that a developer's' role is more than building features, it's behind making the right engineering decisions and identifying future roadblocks, and refactoring code in order to future proof the features for scalability and reliability.

The engineers lacked knowledge about the PM's role in terms of how a PM determines return on investment for features to decide what we should build. I organized team meetings where the engineers learned more about the context behind the PM's decision making, like user research studies, marketing campaigns, and synthesizing feedback from customer support tickets. On the PM side, I observed that the PM used to assign the scope of the project and set deadlines on behalf of engineers, also a major contributor to the mistrust engineers had with PM.

It was clear that we needed to build up new processes. I involved the whole team and we brainstormed about new ways to work together, with better communication and clear roles. We discussed how to build minimum viable features and how both the engineers and the PM should work together, and that no deadlines are set until engineers have done engineering exploration to uncover technical unknowns. This would allow engineers to help the team set reasonable expectations in delivering product features. Last but not least, the engineers and the rest of the team (QA, PM, designers etc.) needed to build relationships with one another, so I provided them with some time for informal bonding, by holding regular team lunches.

Lessons learned

The whole process of building trust between the PM and the engineers took about 3 weeks: Week1 => Transition week, introducing myself, building trust between me and them Week2 => Coming to understand the problems, thanks to 1:1s Week3 => Solving the problem with team meetings, and building new processes, and agreeing on who is responsible to making certain decisions and when those decisions will be made.

Building trust in a team can be difficult, and take up time, but it's important, as it leads to an improved work environment, and engineers working more efficiently and effectively.

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Shivani Sharma

Senior Engineering Manager at Slack

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