How to Work with Product Managers as an Engineering Manager

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Rafael Timbó
Rafael Timbó
Chief Technology Officer

Table of Contents

Understanding product management vs. engineering is a nuanced subject. Having distinct boundaries for these roles can help organizations set guidelines for how product managers and software engineers work together. Organizations can improve product quality and user experience by prioritizing product and engineering collaboration.
Published on
April 7, 2022
Updated on
April 23, 2024

The phrase “too many cooks in the kitchen” refers to the idea that if too many people try to accomplish the same goal simultaneously, they may run into problems. Unsuccessful product development teams face this problem when product managers. (PMs) and engineering managers (EMs) don’t understand how to trade off responsibilities.

If you're an engineering manager and find yourself butting heads with the product manager more than collaborating, you may wonder how to work with product managers as an engineering manager. The first steps involve understanding the roles you each play in the company’s success. Then, you have to learn how to communicate — and commiserate.

In this article, we’ll take a closer look at how product managers and engineering managers work together in a healthy organization to get the most out of their respective teams and bolster the organization as a whole.

What Does a Product Manager Do?

When comparing the roles of a product manager vs. engineering manager, it can be helpful to think about products on the macro and micro levels. Product managers work on the macro level. Their job is to oversee the entire product creation process. They work closely with key stakeholders, including customers, marketers, designers, developers, shipping and procurement personnel, and accountants.

Product managers have a number of key responsibilities, including:

  • Setting the initial product vision and product strategy
  • Defining key product requirements and features
  • Establishing a product roadmap for each new product
  • Ensuring the final product lives up to the vision and meets the needs of customers

In some ways, PMs serve as liaisons between an organization’s business and technical sides. Because of this, PMs need to develop strong cross-functional relations.

What Does an Engineering Manager Do?

While product managers are responsible for the macro level of product design in the engineering manager vs. product manager equation, engineering managers serve on the micro level. An EM's primary focus is on the technical aspect of product development.

Key responsibilities for engineering managers include:

  • Ascertaining the proposed product roadmap is realistic from a technical standpoint
  • Assigning roles to specific software engineers on their team
  • Providing real-time technical guidance throughout the development process
  • Overseeing and evaluating code quality
  • Ensuring the development team stays agile while following best practices for coding and security

Engineering manager's represent the entire engineering team when talking to PMs. When communicating with senior-level management, they are responsible for advocating for their engineering teams. However, they are equally responsible for advocating for the product manager’s vision when discussing the project with their teams to ensure a successful product.

Importance of Product and Engineering Collaboration

Office politics, a perceived pecking order for departments, and the constant battle to maintain or improve your department's share of the working budget often leave managers feeling more like competitors than teammates.

Conflicts between managers can lead to an "us and them" feeling for the employees of the respective departments. Instead of collaborating to improve things, they may become secretive and protective of their work. Instead of respecting the contributions made by all team members, they may begin to wonder why they're contributing so much when others don't seem to be doing enough.

This negativity is bad for morale, and the lack of communication will only hurt your company's ability to grow and thrive. Effective management means leading by example for the good of the company. It's important to find a way to maintain comfortable working relationships rooted in respect for what your colleagues do and maintain open communication with your fellow managers.

The relationship between the PM and EM can have a significant effect — positive or negative — on your company's day-to-day life. When this relationship works well, these two vital members of your company can work together to achieve the common goal of financial success. When these managers have lost sight of the bigger picture and are caught up in a loop of competition and disrespect, things can go bad quickly.

Benefits of Collaboration

A poor working relationship with other managers in your organization can lead to an oppressive atmosphere. You may find yourself dreading walking into work each day or dreading the times you have to share a room with other managers.

Learning to collaborate can relieve some of this pressure. But that’s not the only reason to collaborate. Here are some other key benefits of collaboration:

  • Increased innovation: In the early stages of product design, collaborations between PMs and EMs can help organizations solve the problems they’re presented with more innovatively. Later, if there are aspects of the product they need to rework, PMs and EMs can figure it out creatively by combining their knowledge bases.
  • Improved resource allocation: Effort hours, time, and budgets are all precious commodities. When PMs and EMs work together, they can collaborate on resource planning and make sure that resources are divided evenly and effectively. This can also help eliminate unnecessary technical debt.
  • Faster time-to-market: Collaboration streamlines the product development process. By working together, PMs and EMs can identify potential roadblocks earlier, manage risks, adjust timelines, and deliver products more efficiently.
  • Better final product: When product and engineering managers don't align, the final product tends to suffer. When they work together, they can leverage their joint expertise to guarantee the final product is technically sound while aligning with market demands and user preferences. This tends to make the overall user experience (UX) better.
  • Improved employee morale and satisfaction: A collaborative work environment fosters a sense of belonging and teamwork. When PMs and EMs work together harmoniously, it sets a positive example for the rest of the team. This boosts morale, job satisfaction, and overall employee engagement.

9 Tips for Engineering Managers To Work With Product Managers

The best way for managers to work together effectively is to combine open lines of communication with a clear workflow. This means learning how to give feedback effectively and how to receive it, developing project tracking strategies, and establishing clear hierarchies for different aspects of project management.

Perfecting the art of collaborating with other managers doesn’t come overnight. Here are nine actionable product and engineering collaboration tips that you can implement for immediate results.

1. Understand Product Manager vs. Engineering Manager Roles

The first step in collaborating is fully understanding what each of your roles entails. Consider exchanging job descriptions. Afterward, discuss where your roles overlap and what you see as key differences between your roles.

Understanding the value you both bring to the table makes collaborating easier; you understand where the PM is coming from, and the PM understands where you are coming from. When you disagree in the future, it’s easier to see those disagreements in terms of the misalignment of goals. Those disagreements can be more frustrating and harder to recover from if you don't understand the other person's perspective.

2. Determine Who Gets Final Say on Key Decisions

One way to avoid conflict is to decide — before any disputes occur — which types of decisions each manager is ultimately in charge of.

The idea is still to collaborate and reach for alignment when possible. But if a compromise cannot be struck, having a system for who is in charge at different points in the process can keep disagreements from coming to a head.

The challenge here is honoring that product and engineering managers are peers. You don’t want to enforce a false hierarchy. Instead, you may determine that product managers ultimately make decisions about client communications or marketing materials. On the other hand, engineering managers may have final decision-making power over technical decisions or timelines since their team has to achieve those goals.

As you discuss this, remember to solidify which of you will control new releases and implement new features. The more clearly you define the roles, the less chance there is for confusion or hard feelings.

3. Focus on Alignment Rather Than Agreement

PMs and EMs are never going to agree on every decision. If you are always trying to convince someone you’re right, and they’re always trying to convince you that they’re right, you will always clash.

Instead of trying to agree on every decision, prioritize the main goals you’ve set. Then, work toward a solution that meets both of your needs. This may take more creativity but will allow you to align on initiatives and find a decision you can both live with.

4. Meet Together Regularly

Private, one-on-one meetings allow EMs and PMs to discuss project timelines, anticipate potential roadblocks, and meet problems head-on. Consider choosing a low-key location, like a restaurant or a coffee shop, to meet and review upcoming meetings or milestones. As long as you’re not discussing proprietary information, a more informal sit-down can foster a calm, collaborative atmosphere.

If you do have to meet somewhere more private, find a way to make the meeting feel relaxed. While you should be professional, sharing a snack or chatting a little before getting down to business can ease any tension. This can lead to more friendly, effective communication from both parties.

5. Support Each Other Publicly

Remember to present a united front to your teams even if you’re having a problem with a PM. Grumbling about the decision-making process to your engineering team is unprofessional. It can also cause disagreements to spiral downward, leading to animosity between the engineer and product teams. This animosity can stagnate progress.

If you have a problem with a PM, discuss it privately and try to find a compromise you can both live with. If you can’t find a compromise, either fall back on your decision about who gets to make that type of decision or pull in a more senior manager for mediation. Ideally, the more you work together, the better you’ll become at resolving conflicts privately and amicably.

6. Review Product Roadmaps Together

Even if both of you know you have a common destination, there are often many different ways to arrive there.

Sit down with your PM to discuss where the project is heading and what they see as the best path to get there. Be ready to offer your own justified opinions on how to get where you're both going. Your pathways may differ, and it may ultimately be up to decision-makers above your pay grades. But you will find that compromise and agreement at your level lead to a more direct route to success.

7. Join Each Other’s Team Meetings

If your goal is for the engineering and production teams to feel like they’re part of a larger, cohesive development team, then you need to set that example. Including the other manager in your team’s meetings — and attending their team’s meetings — shows that you support one another.

Joining each other’s team meetings also gives you an idea of what they’re dealing with. You can get to know their team’s personality, get a feel for team dynamics, and understand workloads. This can generate more fruitful discussions in later one-on-one meetings.

8. Exchange Jargon

Departments often develop verbal shorthand to facilitate communication. While it can feel awkward to admit that you don’t understand the other team’s jargon, asking for clarification is critical. In turn, be patient when the other manager asks you to clarify a term that seems obvious to you. Remember that even though you are both managers, you work in very different spaces.

Even words that seem the same can have different meanings for different teams. For instance, a full workload may mean something different to a PM than an EM. You can avoid disagreements, misunderstandings, and frustration by clarifying your language and what it means to your team.

9. Perform Retrospectives After Product Launches

After the pressure to perform is off, discuss how things went. Highlight successes and discuss areas for improvement.

These retrospectives can serve as use cases in the future. The more you work through what went well and what didn’t go well, the better prepared you’ll be for similar problems on later projects.

Hire Experienced Engineering Managers With Revelo

When product and engineering managers work together, one of two things can happen. You can have one cohesive development team, with every department working toward the same goals. Or you can have disparate teams in constant competition, fighting over resources and how to set goals.

Hiring the right managers from the outset can sidestep potential problems. You can get the most out of your development team by looking for managers with a mix of technical prowess, leadership skills, and a drive to collaborate.

Revelo can help. We match businesses with developers from Mexico, Central America, and South America. Our developers are rigorously vetted for technical and soft skills, so they’re ready to meet the demands of cross-team engineering manager or product manager roles. Revelo candidates are time-zone-aligned and proficient in English. And because our top talent is Latin American, we bring natural diversity to teams, ensuring peak creativity and innovation.

Best of all, Revelo helps with the entire onboarding process, making the hiring process as pain-free as possible. Get started with Revelo and find the right engineering managers for your team today.

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