How to Work with Product Managers as an Engineering Manager

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Regina Welle
Regina Welle
Global Staffing Manager
How to Work with Product Managers as an Engineering Manager

Table of Contents

Working with product managers as an engineering manager is important when building great tech products. Learn key practices to work effectively with PMs.
Published on
April 7, 2022
Updated on
October 10, 2023

In many businesses, to improve efficiency and raise profits, employees are given specific responsibilities. Each is responsible for their specific tasks, allowing them to focus on their goals and become skilled at accomplishing them.

All of this sounds like a recipe for success, and indeed, it's a popular business model because it works — most of the time. But problems can arise if the employees can't work together. Developing strong, healthy working relationships between managers is crucial, especially for those who are frequently at odds — like product managers and engineering managers.

Why Is EM & PM Cooperation Important to Maintain?

Workplaces can be competitive places. 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 like competitors instead of teammates.

Conflicts between managers can lead to an "us and them" feeling between 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 while others don't seem to be doing enough.

All of 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 as well as open communication with your fellow managers.

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

If you're an engineering manager and find yourself butting heads with the product manager more than collaborating, you may be wondering 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.

What Does a Product Manager Do?

Although the exact requirements for PMs will vary from company to company, there are some common tasks that most PMs are responsible for. The product manager's main responsibility is to manage the entire life cycle of the product.

This includes working with engineering, sales. marketing and customers to ensure that everything that is needed to successfully create, sell and use the product is in place. They're also tasked with making sure that the product and its marketing campaign are in line with the company's goals and brand.

PMs are the bridge between the developers and the consumers or clients. Because of this, they often find themselves squeezed between the needs of both of them.

What Does an Engineering Manager Do?

The engineering manager’s role is a bit different. Although they're also tasked with keeping the production system running smoothly and profitably, they spend more time working with the people and equipment that help to perfect and deploy the products, so they have a somewhat different perspective.

The EMs are responsible for finding a good use for each piece of equipment, each software license, and each team member brought in by the PM. EMs are directly responsible for solving any engineering problems that arise and preventing slowdowns or downtime that could result from these problems.

EMs are often tasked with proposing budgets for upcoming projects, too. This may include determining and requesting the equipment, materials, and personnel needed to get the job done well.

Engineering managers must also file reports and justify their expenses, but they are more likely to report to the product manager or other mid-level management than the stakeholders.

Trust, Communicate, and Share

Like most relationships, business or personal, the basis for a strong, positive outcome boils down to three basic things — trust, open and effective communication, and a shared goal. Stating those things is easy, but accomplishing them may not be.

It can be done, though. Creating and maintaining healthy working relationships with other managers built on trust and free communication is vital to the long-term success of any company. If the members of management are at odds, the employees below them may be as well.

This can eventually lead to low morale and may impact the quality or speed of production. If you, as an engineering manager, want to improve the relationship you have with your product manager, it's important to work towards those 3 goals and hope that the PM will follow suit.

More than just words on a page, here are some real techniques you can try to move towards those goals. Read on to learn about concrete steps you can take and ideas you can put into practice to move toward a healthy working relationship with your PM based on respect, trust, and a clear vision of a shared goal.

3 Key Practices to Keep PMs and EMs Working Together Effectively

Considering how vital the roles of the PM and EM are to the success of a company as well as how frequently they may be at odds while trying to accomplish their own departments' goals, it's easy to see why a strong and comfortable working relationship between these two managers is important.

Follow these practices to create the foundation for a relationship with your product manager that will help your team members, the PM, and the company as a whole excel. This will ensure that all are working toward the goal of a streamlined and effective production schedule that will boost both morale and profits.

1. Build Confidence

Trust is built step by step and, to achieve it, you'll have to earn your PMs confidence. This is done by taking the time to get to know them as a person, not just as a manager you're sometimes at odds with. Here are some of the steps you should take.

  • Develop a personal connection. Don't just greet the PM with a hello when you're walking by. Stop, ask questions about their lives outside of work, and try to find mutual interests or other common ground.
  • Understand their role in the company. It's easy to assume you know how your PM spends their days — but the reality may be different than you expect. Ask questions about their day and try to learn what kind of stressors they tend to deal with. You may find that under the surface, your days are more alike than you expected.
  • Support them publicly. When in meetings or informal gatherings with other employees, show positivity toward their contributions.
  • Disagree privately. There are very likely going to be issues that the two of you don't agree on. But that’s ok. The problem arises when you confront your PM about these disagreements in a public forum. Wait until the two of you can speak privately to explain your side to them.
  • Give good feedback. The PM cannot possibly know what you think of their ideas or performance unless you tell them. Feedback may include praise or constructive criticism. What you say won't affect your relationship as much as how you choose to say it. Again, praise publicly and criticize gently and privately, and you'll be well on your way to a healthy working relationship.

2. Communicate Well

So much effective communication revolves around asking the right questions and actively listening to the answers. You also need to be prepared to answer questions asked of you and to show respect for the person you're communicating with. Here are a few steps toward these goals.

  • Ask for the rationale behind product decisions. This will give you insights into — and hopefully a better understanding of — why certain decisions are made. It will also go a long way to showing your PM that you value their input.
  • Share your rationale behind engineering decisions. Remember that your PM may not have a firm grasp on exactly what your daily workload is. Explaining why you made your decision will help build mutual understanding and may provide your PM with new insights into the daily challenges you face.
  • Let your PM speak at your team meetings. This will give your team members a chance to ask any questions they may have and give your PM a chance to be seen as a real person, not just a figurehead. It will also go a long way to show your PM that you see them as a valuable part of the workforce.  

3. Get Your Teams in Alignment

You and your PM may have different functions and perform distinct tasks, but you work toward the same goals. Make sure that both of your teams are working with each other instead of against each other.

To do this, you and the PM must be willing to work as co-leaders with shared responsibility for the smooth operation of the production floor. Be careful though. You'll need to make sure that you're both aware of which responsibilities you are handling. Without clear boundaries, there may be clashes when you both take on the same responsibility or if you each think the other is handling an issue.

Learn More: How to Give Feedback to a Software Engineer and Developer

Actionable Tips for Engineering Managers to Work with Product Managers

A good working relationship between an engineering manager and a product manager is a good place to start. But you may also be looking for ways to use that relationship to get the work done. Here are some real-world tips for how to work with your product manager daily to ensure smooth sailing for you, your team, and the company as a whole.

  • Learn their jargon and teach them yours. Most departments develop their own verbal shorthand to facilitate communication. Make sure that everyone is using the same jargon. A full workload may mean something different to a PM than it does to an EM.
  • Have regular meetings with your PM. Aside from providing a forum for you two to keep each other up to date, these meetings will give you two a chance to express grievances without others listening and brainstorm which parts of your working relationship can be improved.
  • Do retrospectives after releases. Once the pressure to produce is off, the time is right for you and your PM to sit down and review a product's journey to find and troubleshoot areas that needed improvement and offer praise for things that went right.
  • Determine who will control the new release and implement any new features related to the release before it happens. The clearer the roles that each of you will take on in the process, the less chance there is for confusion or hard feelings.
  • Review roadmaps together. Even if both of you are aware that you have a common destination, there are often many different ways to arrive at that destination. Sit down with your PM to discuss where the company's heading and what they see as the best path to get there. Be ready to offer your own justified opinions as to how to get to where you're both going. Although your pathways may differ — and ultimately, it may be up to decision-makers above your paygrades to decide — you may find that compromise and agreement at your level lead to a more direct route to success.

Final Tip

Throughout the process of finding out how to work with product managers as an engineering manager, never forget that ultimately you want the same things. You both want to keep the business running smoothly and efficiently. You both want to cut costs while producing a high-quality product that will protect both the reputation and the bottom line for the company. And you both want the company to grow and thrive.

With these shared goals, it should not be too hard to find some common ground and learn to trust, communicate, and share your way to a healthy working relationship with your product manager.

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