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Helping Product as an Engineering Leader

Internal Communication
Collaboration

25 August, 2021

Krijn van der Raadt
Krijn van der Raadt

Sr Director of Engineering at AppFolio

Krijn van der Raadt, Sr. Director of Engineering at AppFolio Inc., sheds light on the often perplexing relationship between Product and Engineering, detailing how an engineering leader can step in to help product management.

Problem

The relationship between Product and Engineering is as much perplexing as it is symbiotic. I don’t have any doubts that being a product manager is the most difficult job in tech. While we, as engineering leaders, heavily depend on product managers, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that we occasionally have to step in and help PMs out.

Whether a product manager left the company -- which resulted in a gap in product leadership -- or they were merely unfamiliar with a new area, Engineering would have to become involved. Throughout my career, I came across those situations where I had to “pretend” to be a PM for a while. As long as there was some ready-work for a team to do, or I had enough context to create it, I would step in.

The crux of the problem is that a number of engineers are attached to a single product manager. If there is a gap in leadership or a PM is unfamiliar with a new area, that would put the engineering team on hold. You can only have engineers with nothing to do on a team for so long before they will jump ship and go somewhere else. Great engineers demand meaningful work, which you as a leader should be able to provide.

Actions taken

Among the myriads of scenarios in which engineering leaders can find themselves, the toughest one is when there is a literal gap and no PM at all. Then, an engineering leader should step in to keep things going until a new PM is hired. It’s also difficult when a PM is incapable of competently doing their job because they lack domain knowledge or experience. Then one has to fill in some existing shoes, which can be a bit awkward. I try to be honest and share our concerns from the Engineering perspective. For example, “My engineers don’t understand the value of this project proposal, and I am responsible for ensuring that they will be working on something impactful.” When you get over that awkward hump, it’s really about helping people out.

 

Areas in which PMs could be helped out are manifold. I believe that a scrutinizing engineering mind can most help with evaluating the value of ideas. In general, a PM should pick the most meaningful problem to solve. They should look at the impact of the problem: what will happen to customers or the company if we could solve or fail to solve a particular problem. That requires some methodical thinking and some data analysis, which is sometimes a bit outside of PMs’ competence. PMs usually try to get other people excited about a problem (it’s part of their job to do so), and it’s easy to drink the kool-aid yourself if you’re passing it around. Needless to say, if one is wrong and the idea is not all that valuable, the team will not be particularly motivated. Good engineering leaders are sensitive and will spot that early on. So, I would work with a PM and have them convince me first before convincing a team. I would be their sparring partner before the real match takes place.

Throughout the process, I would make sure that I have created a safe environment for PMs. I would give direct feedback and scrutinize their ideas, but once we are over that, I would support them in front of the rest of the team. If there are structural gaps with a PM, I would step in to fill it once, but I also cannot do another person’s job all the time. In the end, you either coach PMs up, or, if despite your best efforts to help them they still can’t meet expectations, you have to make some organizational changes. There’s always a time-limit to how long a team can sustain insufficient product direction; don’t let it linger.

Lessons learned

  • Throughout my career, I struggled while working with PMs who were not able to do everything we needed them to do. I don’t think it’s just been bad luck; on the contrary, it’s a common experience shared by many engineering leaders. I am the first to admit that being a product manager is one of the most difficult jobs, though.
  • As software engineers, we want to work on problems that will have an impact on our customers. We don’t want to implement features that some VP or CEO got excited about. I understand that PMs will have to deal with that. But, this is when engineers can come in handy demanding that those ideas are tied to a specific customer problem we could solve. We can provide PMs cover for asking the tough questions, and we will gladly do so.

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