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Four Smart Ways To Sustain Communication Between Your Product And Engineering Teams

Updated: Nov 14, 2020

No, you can't make your product managers and engineers duel about their differences. Here's how to help them talk!

When part of a smaller startup, it is easy to maintain communication between teams. As the company grows, entrepreneurs often encounter disconnection between two of the most important teams: product and engineering. Effective communication between these teams often results in higher productivity and better ideas.

Four Boston-based founders and product managers shared their best-practice tips for bridging this gap. During the panel: Maintaining A Conversation Between Product And Engineering, at Startup Boston Week 2020, the speakers covered four smart ways to sustain communication between your product and engineering teams. They also answered four questions commonly asked by entrepreneurs and product managers in the startup community:

  1. What are some things product managers and product teams can do to protect engineers from burn out?

  2. What’s the best tool to manage the conversation and timeline between product and engineering?

  3. What do you do when product and engineering disagree on the best way forward? And how to prioritize what's important?

  4. As a product manager, how do you identify the line between collaborative with the team vs. completing product management for engineering?

Invest Time In Building Relationships

There is often a lot of pressure placed on the engineering team to push changes through the improvement process quickly. For the engineering team, this can often lead to burnout, so it’s important to find a balance between efficiency and worker happiness.

As a product manager, one of your jobs is to find the cohesion between the two channels and simplify the workstream. You might want seven different things done at the same time, yet you might get everything done more slowly than if you give the engineering team one or two things to focus on.

When the product team wants multiple things from the engineering side, one effective response as a product manager is to use “yes if”: yes, we can do this. But then we are not going to be able to do that. “My job is never to say no to a product or say we can't do that, It's always to say ‘yes if you can give me infinite resources, or if you are ok with this trade-off being made.’” said Elle Nurmi, Engineering Director at BookBub.

It is vital to the process to find a format that helps everyone get the key pieces of information that they need. Ultimately, the best tool is the tool that the team uses, and the tool that works for your company and stakeholders. Popular tools and road mapping systems include:

Include Engineers Into Different Phases of Product Life Cycles

When working with engineering teams don't just talk about decisions or conclusions, it's important to share context and data around how you got from here to there. Companies should bring engineers into all different phases of the product life cycle, from very beginning ideation to refining ideas.

In some organizations, it is not feasible to invite both product and engineering teams to the conversation at the same time, as long as there is a representative from the engineering team. It invites the engineering voice to the table, and it brings the following benefits:

  • Gives the engineering team a heads up of what's going down the road.

  • Allows engineers to provide feedback from their perspectives.

  • Builds the morale that we are on equal footing.

Bring engineers into the broader part of decision making, such as take them into the sales cycles, bring them to participate in the proof of concept stage, or even early sales calls. “Get everybody involved as soon as possible. So that the decisions are happening over the sales process, over product development life cycles, and ideation. In that sense, it just becomes much more organic and dynamic.” as said by Andrew Lau, the Cofounder, and CEO at Jellyfish.

Recognize the Value Created

In all relationships, showing empathy and authenticity is very important. While aligning and balancing workflow between two teams, always tell your tech team that their work is helping to solve real problems for customers. “Showing interests in the person, their goals, and their intrinsic motivation. In addition to showing external motivation, such as giving recognition, credit, etc,” said Cynthia Andre, Product Manager at Brainshark and specializes in sales enablement.

One technical suggestion is to retrospectively analyze your workflow to find improvements to the team's processes. When teams run into challenges, there should be an open and judgment-free environment for them to talk about it. Then, the product managers and engineers can solve the challenges by assigning actionable to-do lists afterward.

When teams disagree on the best way to move forward, Maribel Gomez Mendoza, former Engineer, and the Founder of KidStarters & Co suggest implementing impact value metrics. “We can put them against each other. Is this something that brings a lot of value to a lot of customers? That would be put on the top. If it is something that’s high value but only to a small percentage of customers, that's not gonna be ranked as high.”

Cultivate the Company Culture

The first step to building a company culture is to demonstrate the culture that you want as a Founder. Leading by example will help a long way. Take challenges and risks, bring your best self to work, and even fail publicly. It encourages engineers and product teams to see that they can take their risks as well.

Communication is the foundation for good collaboration: from building mindset, creating mission and vision, to managing processes. It is valuable to be explicit about how you want to communicate within the company and build the culture.

As a product manager, it's an integral part to create engagement and collaboration between the teams. “Depending on team maturity and the stage of the product, I might find myself doing different roles: product management, support rather than design. It depends on where the situation is,” said Cynthia. Depends on the team dynamic, popular communication tools include Slack and Google Hangouts.

Startups have to foster solid internal culture to have successful product and engineering relationships. Without the two functions communicating—requiring translation, empathy, and representation of varied experiences—shipping great products or providing exceptional services becomes insurmountable.

And don't forget to watch the full event from SBW2020 right here.

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