Musical Chairs

Today I received an email regarding a new and possibly explosive program at work. I won’t say which company this is, but you’ve been their website. Here’s the money quote:

Most of the product managers have CS degrees, and our engineers have strong opinions on the future directions of our products.

Can you guess where this is going? That’s right – the head of Product Management and the head of Engineering are starting a rotation program among developers and product managers. Genius? Insanity? I’ll check in twelve months from now and tell you how it turns out.


7 responses to “Musical Chairs

  1. Ethan,

    Some questions.

    What is the basis of the “strong opinions” of the engineers?

    Are they simply opinions or are they positions based on business goals and market/customer data?

    Is the objective to help break down any silos that may exist between the two teams?

    And what about those PMs who don’t have CS degrees?

    Don’t know if I can wait 12 months in anticipation of the outcome.


  2. Having made the dev-to-PM transition last year, I think that one is doable. I’m a little more skeptical about going the other way. There’s a big difference between “has a CS degree” and “can write real code.”

  3. Hey, as a PM who cut his teeth writing “real code” I beg to differ on both counts. 🙂 I will track down some inductees into this program and see who choses/is chosen to see how life is on the other side.

  4. As a PM, I feel like there are plenty of opportunities for Product Management and ENGR to share experiences without having to do a job swap. Even though I sit on the Marketing side of the house and would by no means consider myself “technical,” I do frequently get called in to discussions with engineers to talk about issues or determine the best course of action.

    On the flip side, I think it’s important for the ENGR staff to get out of the house and into the field to hear what customers and prospects are saying and what their business challenges are. In those cases, it’s usually better for the engineer to be in “fly-on-the-wall” mode, but I have worked with and do work with engineers who can interact gracefully with customers and prospects.

    The benefit of both scenarios is that engineers can hear what the PM’s hear from the field and PM’s get a better understanding of some of the technical trade offs of implementation.


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  6. I’ll also be very interested in your outcome. Based on the email quote my “Engineering Driven Organization” alarm bells started to go off.

    The engineers have “strong opinions” about the products? I have a coffee mug sitting on my desk next with a quote from Pragmatic Marketing on the side: “Your opinion, although interesting, is irrelevant.” Do the engineers have the skills to have open ended conversations with customers and potentials? Can they resist pushing a conversation in one direction or the other or shading their questions with their technical biases? /Most/ engineers I know don’t have those skills.

    In fact, I’ve had cases where the Engineers wanted to participate in the customer interviews, so I took them along. After I asked an open-ended question like “what do you hate about our product?” the customer offered an answer that our product didn’t offer a certain feature (the feature was actually in our product). The engineer scoffed and said “WHAT?! That feature is right HERE!!!” He didn’t get that it was OUR fault that the customer perceived the feature to be lacking or that WE designed the GUI in such a way that it was non-intuitive.

    In the lack of direction otherwise, Engineers will design for themselves. Exposing them to more customer data is always better; but color me skeptical that most of them will have the ability to separate themselves from the product that is “their baby” and their preconceived notions of what it should be. Most of the Engineers I know aren’t very empathetic, and IMO that is a critical skill for a PM.

  7. Paul,

    In general I agree with you, though I have worked with engineers who had the empathic skill set or were agreeable enough that, when told they should listen and not say much unless asked directly, would do so.

    On the other hand, I’ve had my share of the opposite, and very quickly removed them from direct customer contact. BTW, I’ve also seen PMs who didn’t have that empathic skill either!

    It’s really important in many cases to help engineers get first hand information as even a few key customer visits or calls can really open their eyes to the reality of customer needs or product issues.

    For example, in one case, no matter how many times I would say that certain aspects of the GUI were sadly lacking, hearing it from 2 or 3 customers put a “bee in their bonnet” to fix the issue.

    I’m not sure I agree with the idea of PMs and Engineers switching roles. To me, it’s sounds like a bit of overkill. What about PMs and Sales People switching roles so they can better understand each other’s frames of reference? Or how Marketing and Sales? Or any other two functions that interact?

    I think there are better ways of addressing the problem.