This is intended as a guide for new front-line product managers on my team. It could also double as an introduction for people brand new to the discipline. My views are inexorably colored by working as an engineer exclusively on Agile teams at small companies.
From the perspective of the engineering team, these are the absolutely essential functions of the product manager.
- Be the domain expert. The team relies on the product manager to know the business and to explain it a way that they can understand.
- Prioritize work into an ordered backlog. Be aggressive about defining the smallest scope so that the team can ship quickly.
- Write detailed specifications and user stories.
- Be present at team meetings and stand-ups religiously.
The product manager is the conduit between upper management, the consumer and the execution team. Each group rarely interacts directly with the others. In most situations, the product manager acts as a proxy for the other groups. They need to build trust with each group, learn to speak each one’s language, and distill context in a different way for each of them.
The product manager is likely to have the best people skills of anyone on the execution team. The best product managers I have worked with are also the champion of team health.
The product manager has a special relationship with both the designer and the engineering lead. The product/design/engineering leads should have a regular sync where they talk about all the features that are in progress and coming up.
One on Ones
The exact topics of your 1:1s will vary. The most important things are building trust and repeating context so people internalize it. It can help to have a list of generic topics to get conversations started.
The minimum set of 1:1s looks something like this:
- Weekly 1:1s with the engineering lead and the designer.
- Weekly 1:1 with your boss.
- Semi-regular 1:1s with everyone on the execution team.
Both the product manager and the engineering manager have a responsibility to protect the team from thrash. This is the shit umbrella role - give the team the space they need to do the work.
Many teams do not have a dedicated QA person. In that case, the product manager typically takes the role of identifying and documenting production bugs. Product managers need to know how to write a great bug report.
The very best product managers I have worked with have some level of technical understanding of the implementation the team has created. It should be just enough to sketch out how the product works at a high level. Otherwise, there will be a mismatch between the mental model of how it works, and how it actually works. Over time, that will result in unexpected behavior and a poor user experience.
Up-Leveling Technical Understanding
There is no magic bullet for this. One thing I would suggest is actually white-boarding your take on system architecture with the engineering lead on a regular basis. The product manager should drive. This will quickly highlight gaps that you can dive into more detail on.
There are handful of surefire ways to burn goodwill with engineers.
Give an Estimate Without Buy-in
The product manager may feel pressured to say that something will be easy, or commit informally to an estimate for a deliverable. This is always a mistake. In the best case, their estimate is correct, but the team is unhappy. In most cases, the estimate is dangerously off base.
Commit to a Technical Decision Without Buy-in
The engineering team ultimately owns technical decisions, with the product manager collaboratively involved. It’s never OK to make a technical decision without the team. Watch out for well-meaning non-technical stakeholders dictating solutions. Those conversations should be redirected to clarify requirements, and then the team should come up with the solution.
Lack of alignment
The number one silent killer of projects is lack of alignment with upper management. The product manager must be relentless about continuously re-aligning on goals. Often, they are the only alignment touch point for the team.
See my previous posts that are relevant for product managers.