Three Tips for Success as Product and Engineering Grow
The relationship between product and engineering can generate friction as your company grows — here are my top three tips for success to these teams aligned.
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Building a new version of your product is an exciting endeavor, but it can also be an overwhelming one. In the earliest days of a startup, there tends to be little formal structure in place, which is usually for the best! Everyone’s wearing numerous hats and just trying to get the product and company off the ground. It’s a time of innovation and creativity. When we built the first version of our product, we didn’t have a dedicated product team. That changed with version two, bringing new opportunities and challenges along with it.
Through trial and error, we moved through several iterations of workflow, communication, and reporting. The key was balancing input from both the engineering and product teams while also balancing planning and innovation. We learned a lot from this endeavor and, in addition to successfully updating our core offering, gained some important insights about how to set yourself up for success even (and especially) as your company grows.
With that in mind, here are my top three tips for success to stay on track as your engineering and product teams grow.
1. Center the User
To successfully build a new product, your engineering teams and product team must be in alignment. Of course, alignment can happen in many ways. If you simply have the engineering team taking orders from the product team, it will likely result in a worse outcome. Instead, the best way to align engineering and product is to make sure both are focused on users. Equip both teams with sufficient knowledge about the pain points and needs of users, so they can be checking in with the product from a user perspective on an ongoing basis.
Consider a situation where an engineer suspects that following directives from the product team will result in clunky UX. They don’t necessarily have to solve the issue, but they should raise the concern. I’ve seen engineers do this quite effectively — asking if it’s possible to simplify the design, for instance. This speeds up development and, in the end, results in a product that is more valuable to users. By centering users, you’re aligning the goals of both teams and empowering engineers to push back and innovate when necessary, as opposed to simply nodding along and building exactly what the product team suggests.
2. Prioritize Reporting
Alignment also comes as the result of ongoing communication. To that end, I suggest implementing a weekly reporting system. When both the product and engineering teams are being vocal about what they are working on each week, it helps everyone stay on the same page and makes the two teams feel more like one. Some updates might include: What are people working on at the moment, and what have they achieved? What else is left? What roadblocks or hurdles have slowed down work or might do so in the week ahead? Once again, both teams should be contributing updates.
In the past, there were times in which there was tremendous communication within each team but a lack of communication outside of them. Sometimes, we failed to update the roadmap when a feature was complete. Other times, a product might be released as a minimal viable product, so it was considered complete on the roadmap, but the reality was a little different. Being proactive about, first, making sure the roadmap reflects the reality of the work taking place and, second, making sure communication happens on an ongoing basis is extremely helpful. To make reporting sustainable, choose a platform that’s easy to use. At Prefect, we conduct weekly reporting in a Slack channel. We also sync up quarterly to review larger goals and check our progress against them.
3. Leave Room for Innovation
Speaking of the roadmap, one of the most difficult things to balance when the building is how much engineers should stick to the roadmap versus going off-script to build something they’re more excited about. The only way to know if you’re following the roadmap too closely is to have a strong connection with your engineers and to speak with them on an ongoing basis. Ask them: Do they feel like they've got the space to go and be creative, or do they feel like all of their time is taken up with roadmap items and prescriptive work?
Of course, there are times when you need to follow the roadmap almost exactly, whether because of a deadline or user demands. When the roadmap has been disclosed to the board and current customers, swaying from it can be more challenging because several audiences are counting on the agreed-upon direction. At the same time, being too prescriptive about particular features can be really harmful to both the product and the morale of the engineering team. A 50/50 balance is a good goal. Is about half of your engineering team’s work creative or self-directed, or are they simply managing requests and checking boxes?
The Bottom Line
New workflows can feel daunting, but they’re also opportunities. If there’s one key takeaway, it’s that balance is paramount. As your product and engineering teams grow, it’s imperative to strike the right balance between adhering to the roadmap and allowing for creativity. But the first two tips— ongoing communication and alignment (by having everyone focus on the user) lay the foundation for finding this balance. That’s not to say challenges won’t arise. But with the help of these tips, your product and engineering teams will be better suited to handle them — and primed for making the best possible product in the process.
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