As a ‘non-technical’ product manager, I’m often tasked with working cross-functionally with various teams like data, business, user research, support, and of course, engineering. I like to think of the PM role as a "master of none" and in many ways a "force-multiplier," helping various teams unblock and accelerate whenever possible. 

While similar PMs may not have specific experience writing code, they will help decide task priority, figure out what goals to work on next, and even assess tradeoffs. 

In this article, I’ll give various tips and tricks on how to effectively work with the very specific kind of cog in the tech wheel that are PMs like me and – particularly when it comes to engineers – explain how you can best help me help you.

Speaking the same language

Product managers can come from all walks of life. They may have been an engineer in a previous role, a business analyst, customer success manager, data scientist, or just someone with great domain expertise in the industry you serve (like teachers in an EdTech role).

When you first start to work with a PM, it’s great to understand what their expertise is in and how they plan to contribute to the development team. This will help both of you manage expectations and align on roles and responsibilities moving forward.

For example, if your PM is non-technical, you may not want to dive into too much technical detail, as that would not be an effective use of time. In my case, I typically want to know the high-level details of technical decisions so that I can understand trade-offs around performance, capabilities, and scale. That’s not to say technical details aren’t important, but work with your PM to figure out what level that discussion should be so that you both get what you need out of the conversation. 

Calibrate with your PM so that you both learn to "speak the same language."

Leveraging your PM

A good PM knows how valuable their partner teams are and how to leverage them. For instance, I know that my engineers will provide the technical expertise to help me decide on technologies, build solutions, and scale. 

This should not be a one-way relationship. Bad PMs will act like your boss when they are really your partner. Because of this, I encourage engineers to leverage their PMs as well. If you have a great PM, you should expect the following of them:

  • They should represent/consider the needs and goals of all partner teams in all discussions/decisions.
  • They should know how to prioritize and say "no," instead of overpromising on behalf of others (including engineers).
  • They should consider all ideas and feedback during various stages of development, regardless of role. This could be on feature ideas, how to run scrum meetings, and even go-to-market plans.

Be sure to leverage your PM when you feel like it will improve the overall development process. Remember, good PMs love to collaborate and should be open to your feedback, especially when it could pay dividends down the road.

Gaining ownership

Elaborating further on the last point, good PMs should go as far as to openly invite opinions/expertise from the development teams. This can happen at various stages throughout development.

During ideation, engineering can help determine feasibility, so that they can understand if their ideas are realistic or not.

During feature scoping or writing out Product Requirements Documents (PRDs), engineering can help call out specific technical decisions or provide feedback on how certain features can be built.

During sprint planning and prioritization, engineering can help provide estimates of effort, so that everyone knows how much leg-work it will take to build out features.

During postmortems, engineering can help call out any technical blockers that may have slowed down development.

There are plenty of places for engineers to get involved in the scope of development, which will all be welcome by a good PM. By gaining ownership, you will feel more motivated to continue building your product for success and will be working in-step with the PM to achieve these goals!

Building trust and rapport

Now, you may have read through all of the above and laughed to yourself at each point I made that was couched in a phrase like "good PMs do this" and "good PMs do that." Sure, you might come across a "not-so-good PM" in your career, but I would argue that any professional working relationship can improve by efforting to establish a productive feedback loop.

In other words, while much of my above advice can be easily plugged into a lot of engineering-product relationships, I highly recommend spending the time to get to know your PM personally in order to build the extra trust and rapport that could be needed to get there – or even needed to figure out what other specific tweaks are called for. Going further to learn how your PM likes to make decisions, what they’re measured against, and how they like to collaborate can take things to next level. Your PM will be able to give you their own specific suggestions on how to best work with them, and moving forward you'll be much more effective – both as an individual engineer and together as a team!

Jeff Lee is a writer and product manager coach with Exponent. Interviewing for an upcoming tech job? Check out Exponent’s free online courses to get the prep you need.


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