Successful Engagement With Your Product Management Peer

Shikhar Bajaj

Director - Product Management at VMware



The success of any organization rests on a trustful and respectful relationship between Engineering and Product. Product leaders often have different views on priorities, perspectives, and even vision from their engineering counterparts. While destined to work together they often encounter -- or even generate themselves -- misunderstandings, frictions or misalignment. Building a strong working relationship between Engineering and Product and maintaining is a key challenge for every Engineering or Product leader.

Actions taken

First and foremost, the product and engineering leadership have to develop mutual trust. If a product leader always insists that somethings need to happen tomorrow, that the deal has to be closed within the next two days, or that they have to churn the roadmap again -- that would signal that a product leader is not respectful of his /her relationship with Engineering. Successful product leaders don’t do that, or more precisely, they do that only in exceptional circumstances.

Respect your counterpart and do not ever question that they are trying to do the right thing as they see it. No matter how heated or difficult the discussion becomes, understand that everyone wants to achieve the same goal. In previous roles, I would get into a discussion with my Head of Engineering that became so heated that people could hear outside the hall and look into the room to see if everything was all right. But neither of us ever took it personally. We had huge mutual respect for each other and the discussion would quickly pivot to where we would have dinner that evening. Everything was professional, nothing was personal.

If a release has to slip by a few weeks because the quality is still not satisfactory or because our estimates were inaccurate, my job as a product leader would be not to recriminate -- why did it happen or how did it happen -- but to manage the situation the best I could. Sometimes I would have to go and talk to a customer and explain that we can’t deliver on time and “fall on my sword.” At other times I would have to explain why we would have to do a limited release, have our customers test their configuration and feature set and then issue a patch in a month. The same way I would come to the engineering leadership and tell them that I need to churn the roadmap because I have a deal on a table that I could only close if we could deliver these three features within the next two sprints.

The most obvious outcome of nurturing trust between Engineering and Product is that you will develop a successful relationship around a product. However, the relationship you build with people is even more important. Three years from now we all could be dispersed at different places and perhaps that same engineering leader you established a trustful relationship would be at a different place of your interest and would remember you. I got my previous job because of the VP of Engineering with whom I had had shouting matches. People want to work with people whom they trust. You can be the most competent or hard-working person in the company but if people do not trust you it does not matter.

Lessons learned

  • Trust is built on actions, not words. People won’t trust you until they are put into a situation to trust you. Then you deliver and prove their trust.

  • Look for a way to demonstrate trust. When I was working in Ericsson we were launching a service board for the next generation packet core at the time when LTE was coming out. We discovered a flaw with one of our core processors that could cause the board to lock up and shut down. Engineering developed mitigation but it was not 100% effective. The best solution would have been to get a new batch of processors but the lead times we were being told were about 4 months which would have delayed our customers’ launches. I went to our largest customers, explained to them what we were going to do -- I didn’t blame anyone or excuse myself. I told our customers, some of the largest carriers in the world, that we stood by them whatever they decided to do. All choose to continue with their launch schedules and luckily there were no hiccups. After 4 months we replaced all 550 shipped boards and I took a $4M hit to my P&L for the recall. I never pointed fingers to engineering for missing this bug in internal reviews. I backed Engineering and my hardware leads to the utmost.

  • Building a trustful relationship implies admitting that you are wrong or that you don’t know everything. There is a natural tendency among humans -- even more prevalent among product managers -- not to admit when they were wrong. Though we all like to be data-driven, real life is all about incomplete, incorrect, and irrelevant data and this is how decisions are made. No decisions are permanent and very few have a lasting impact. Don’t be afraid to admit a mistake.

  • Let people feel a stake in the process -- you shouldn’t be the sole decision-maker but you should not be afraid to make a decision. No decision from analysis-paralysis is often the worst decision one can make.

  • Finally, stand your ground if you believe you are correct. It is not unusual for engineering to attempt to bulldoze their point of view by stating the product management is not “technical enough.” However, that is often not the case as many PMs began their careers as engineers. Hence, if your view is based on data and experience do not be afraid to disagree.

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Shikhar Bajaj

Director - Product Management at VMware

Engineering LeadershipLeadership DevelopmentCommunicationOrganizational StrategyDecision MakingCulture DevelopmentEngineering ManagementPerformance MetricsLeadership Training

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