The Phenomenal Product Manager: Influencing Engineers – Part 3
Strategy Three: Assessing Your Team and Adjusting
When working with your engineering team, you need to read the team you are dealing with and then adjust accordingly. Some of the scenarios you will encounter are listed in the chart below.
Sometimes, you’ll have a great team where you can easily establish yourself as a leader. Your job as a Product Manager is the most fun when you are in the upper right quadrant.
On the flip side, there are some situations where there’s simply no way for you to win. You may be in that bottom left quadrant, and will seriously need to think about whether you want to move on to a different product—or even a different team. Don’t let yourself get stuck for a long time in one of these—it is a career-limiting move.
According to Lawley, in his career under a good boss, an interesting product, and a great team, was the time that he enjoyed the work the most and also was most effective. There are some bad teams he worked with where he should have cut his losses earlier and moved on.
If you find yourself in either one of the check-marked quadrants, don’t be alarmed—in most situations, that’s where you’ll be as a Product Manager. But you can make it work and move towards the upper right quadrant.
In addition to the team, you must assess the personality types of the people you are working with. Lawley describes three major types of personalities in engineers.
This is an engineer who’s brilliant but insists on arguing about everything. This engineer wants to make sure that they get to the truth (though usually, he or she has already made up their mind about what the truth is). They will be excellent at what they do, but they won’t necessarily know or care about the role of Product Management. When working with a prima donna, you’ll want to make them hungry for real-world data about the customers and the market that only you can provide. Even better, if you can present arguments in a way where they can draw logical conclusions, and then they believe they have come to them on their own.
For a prima donna, when you are delivering a market requirements or product requirements document, or specifying some features, you may want to be less specific about how they should be implemented. You can put in a recommendation that says, “Customers need to be able to do the following. Here’s one way you might do it but this is just an idea.” Let the prima donna solve it—challenge him or her to come up with a great solution on their own. Ask them their opinions, and why they want to do things the way they are proposing. Is it the best way to solve the problem? Play to their ego.
Coders are at the other extreme. A coder doesn’t have strong opinions. Their conversations will typically start with, “Tell me exactly what to build. Give me a spec. I just write code. I’ll add any features you want. I’ll do anything you want, just be very clear and very specific.” The challenge here is that if you are not VERY specific in your requests, you may be presented with something very different from what you originally envisioned. The best approach you can take here is to write requirements and then work very closely with the coder to iterate so that they don’t get too far down the wrong path.
For a coder, be as specific as you possibly can and basically tell him or her how it should be. You may need to say, “This is exactly what I need—the following feature needs to be implemented this way. I’m not sure how to necessarily do the UI or do this portion of the design, so please come back with a design and I’ll approve it.” As you are going along, communicate with them and reassure them that they are on track in delivering what you want.
In between the coder and the prima donna is the team player. This engineer understands the value you’re bringing, and they want to work with you interactively to build a product that customers love (yes!). If you give them requirements and allow them to creatively come up with a solution, oftentimes, they will blow you away with the elegance and creativity they can display.
Sometimes, you’ll have entire teams that have these three characteristics. More often, you’ll have a variety of individuals that span the range. Adjust your strategy based on who you’re talking to on the team and decide what will be the most effective in influencing them to build a great product.
If you take this strategy, and you start to characterize the different people that you work with, you’ll be far more effective. If you try to take the prima donna approach with a coder or vice versa, you will fail miserably.
Assessing your team and adjusting is crucial in working with engineers. Gauge the personality type and provide them with instructions accordingly. Stay tuned for Part 4 in this chapter where we’ll discuss our next strategy: Communication.
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