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Working with Software engineers as a Product Manager

6 years ago, I decided I wanted to become a Product Manager. Having a Business background, I was wondering whether I needed to step up my tech game, and how technical a PM should be. Today, after working as a PM at BlaBlaCar and then VP Product at Aircall, I’ve made my own opinion on that topic!
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We created Noé to train the next generation of Product Managers, and many candidates for the program ask me these same questions: how technical should a PM be? What will the tech team expect from me? What’s the best way to work with engineers? I’ll try to answer them in this article!

How technical should a Product Manager be?

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If you want to be a Product Manager in San Francisco, the answer is probably: “You should have a Computer Science background”! Google and Facebook have taken that stand, and it has impacted the Product culture significantly over there. Still, the PMs over there don’t need to code in their daily job.

In France the situation is different. It might still be fundamental to be an engineer or to know how to code for companies that have a very technical product (like Sqreen). But for the vast majority of start-ups, computer science/engineerings skills are not mandatory. What you will usually find is a 50/50 split between PMs with technical backgrounds and PMs without.

If knowing how to code or being an engineer is not mandatory, being familiar with core technical concepts is crucial. That includes the concepts of front-end, back-end, an API, GitHub, pull request, mobile vs web development (obviously the list is not exhaustive here). The PM has to know what is at stake for each concept. For example, developing an app deployed on both Android and iOS platforms doubles the time required.

We will cover those notions in detail during the third week of the Noé program, so that you can start your PM job on the right foot, and have conversations with the tech team without sounding like a noob.

When you apply for a PM job in a given company, try to understand what their technical stack is, and get familiar with it.

Tip : Most of the time you can find a company’s tech stack on stackshare.io , or on Welcome To The Jungle for French applicants.

If you’re already a Product Manager, don’t be shy to ask developers about how something works! One of the best advice I ever received is to “find your tech soulmate”. That’s someone in the tech team that you’re close to, whom you can ask any question, even those that sound stupid to you!

“As developers, we love to talk about what we code. So don’t be shy to ask! It will benefit both sides” Daphné from Alan

What does the tech team expect from the product team?

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In order to work efficiently with the tech team, it’s important to understand what they’ll expect from you as a PM. That includes:

  • Prioritizing tasks. If you listen to everyone in the company, there always seems to be 15 life or death priorities. It’s the role of the Product Manager to analyze all inputs and assess clear priorities between bugs, feature enhancements, product goals.

“To me the greatest value of a PM is in his/her ability to prioritize, make decisions and to be assertive in those decisions” Daphné from Alan

  • Explaining Why, not How. While engineers do focus on the how, the why is the responsibility of the product manager: what’s the problem we’re trying to solve? For which users? What are the main KPIs we’ll try to impact?
  • Bringing clarity and focus. You can’t be messy as a PM. It is your responsibility to gather information across the board and to synthesize it in a clear and accurate manner.
“I expect the PM to be able to bring all the contextual elements and inputs together in a clear way so that we can make decisions together” Daphné from Alan

Of course, being a Product Manager isn’t only about doing those three things… But they are crucial to ensure a smooth collaboration with the tech team.

When do Tech and Product work together?

Tech and product don’t work 24/7 together and there are key collaboration moments.

  • Everyday Stand up : Give objectives for the day, and identify potential points where you would need to discuss your issue further with one of your colleague. The goal is to make it short, that’s why it’s done “standing up” and not in a meeting room!
  • During the sprints, there are three key moments. First, the Planning : the goal is to estimate time of development. One important thing to note: estimation is not an exact science! Roadblocks and delays can and will happen, the goal is to be as close as possible. Second, the Product Demo: done by the team at the end of the sprint, to the business stakeholders for example. Last, the Retrospective: PM and tech (as well as the designer and Data analyst if there is one), gather and take the time to look back at what worked well and what didn’t work in the sprint.
  • Ad hoc workshops/meetings. Once the PM has a good understanding on the problem to solve, it can be interesting to gather the team to explain the findings and frame potential solutions. Once the solution is clear, the PM usually organizes a kickoff to present the problem, solution and next steps.
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Last but not least, in each squad or feature team there is a Lead Developer role. The PM / Lead Developer duo is the cornerstone of a great collaboration between tech teams and product teams.

I partially disagree with the often-heard statement that the PM should be the “voice of tech” when tech isn’t room. I think the lead developer should be in the room when it comes to strategic decisions. For example, communication about the roadmap to the whole company should be done by both the PM and the Lead Developer. I would also recommend the Lead Developer to be here when presenting key roadmap choices to the exec team.

To conclude, to work efficiently with the tech team, you’ll need to:

  • Have notions of the main technical concepts
  • Focus on prioritizing, explaining why (not how), and bringing clarity and focus
  • Implement key meetings in the day-to-day of your team: standup meeting, sprint planning, retro and demo, as well as kickoff meetings to frame solutions
  • Have a strong duo with the Lead Developer in your team!

Happy collaboration!

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