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Secrets to building a strong relationship with engineering
If you are a product manager building technical products, your fate depends on how well you partner with your engineering team. Throughout my career, I had the opportunity to work with countless intelligent, passionate engineers across different geographies, cultures, and career phases and launch products ranging from APIs to full-blown platforms. If there's one lesson I learned is to make sure I genuinely and authentically invest in my relationship with the engineering team. Here are my thoughts on how to build trustful relationships with engineers.
Inspire them with the grand vision
Understanding the why is fundamental to rallying engineers. As a product manager, you are closest to the business, customers, partners, and the market. You built a vision through market research, numerous conversations, and what your heart says. Now it's time to paint your vision that’s easy to grasp and inspires the team. The more inspired they are, the farther they will walk with you toward the mission. Inspiration isn’t a once-a-year deal. You reinstate and reinforce this through your everyday interactions and by consistently telling stories that are aligned with the north star.
Instill in them the customer empathy
When you are writing the code, reviewing pull requests, and supporting an on-call week, it’s easy to forget who you are doing this all for. Become a conduit between engineering and the customer. Bring customer stories to them, both good and bad ones. Start a feature suggestion by stating why the customer needs this and what problem it solves for them. Invite them periodically to listen in to customer conversations. This will go a long way in building empathy. It’s rewarding when the engineering team surprises you with an optimization without even you asking them because they are so in tune with the customer problems.
Trust their technical prowess.
Nothing breaks the trust faster than micromanaging an engineer. These are intelligent individuals who take pride in their ability to solve problems, write scalable services, and build intelligent applications. Make sure you recognize this. Give them the context, help them compare different options, and ask the right questions but never give direct suggestions on how something needs to be built. Let them own what they are good at.
Respect isn’t just being polite in conversations. Respect emerges from within. Pause frequently to acknowledge your team’s competency, their commitment to the mission, and the times when they saved the day. Internalizing this will ensure your external conversations are authentic and reach your teammate. Also, become their biggest ally within your org. For example, you noticed that the support team criticized a developer for failing a customer scenario. Help the support team address the issue and follow up with them to build empathy for the developer. Maybe she was going through a difficult phase, maybe she wasn't responsible for the issue, and she was just trying to help. Ask for grace toward your engineering team from other parts of your organization - you are their strongest ally in the broader organization.
Strive for their productivity
Always look for ways to make their job easier. Write crisp and clear specs. Anticipate questions and clarify them proactively. Ensure efficient processes so that support, sales, and customer success teams can make the best use of engineering time. Drive effective team meetings. Be proactive in identifying blockers and initiate conversations with the dependent teams before they derail the team’s focus. Avoid distractions from tasks, asks, and features that are not aligned with the OKRs.
Give them all the credit.
Because that’s where it belongs. Remember, it's not about you. They are the ones doing the actual work. So make sure you recognize their value in public and during 1:1 conversations.
Help them grow and succeed.
Yes, they don’t report to you. But you can influence their growth and career. Be curious about their career aspirations. Learn what kind of projects excite them. You know your engineering counterparts more than their manager. Seek opportunities to convey this to their managers. Be instrumental in their promotions.
You cannot thank them enough. Thank it often. Mention why the individual's action helped the team, product, or customer. Be specific. Be authentic. You will feel good when you do this. Let gratitude be infectious in your team.
In closing, the secret to building a solid relationship with your engineering counterpart lies in recognizing them as great human beings, appreciating the value they bring, and making it a priority to invest in their success.