I’m a software engineer. What is the role of a product manager?

At the heart of building a product is the relationship between product managers and engineers. Building a strong, collaborative…

Two women pointing at a laptop screen

At the heart of building a product is the relationship between product managers and engineers. Building a strong, collaborative relationship between the two groups is critical for the success of any software team.

But often it’s not really clear who’s supposed to do what and how the two pieces fit together. What’s supposed to be a harmonious collaboration can turn into a complicated negotiation of roles and responsibilities. If you’re just starting out as an engineer, you may be asking yourself, "What is a product manager? What can I expect as a software engineer when working with a product manager?"

What do product managers do day-to-day?

In its most basic definition, product managers are responsible for creating solutions that meet a business goal. That goal might be increasing the number of users using a product, maximizing revenue, or increasing engagement.

Whatever the problem is, the product manager needs to come up with an answer that meets the needs of the business and can be delivered by the team. They are then responsible for driving the creation and success of their product.

In reality, that responsibility ends up looking like a whole slew of tasks. Product managers typically end up being responsible for

  • researching and analyzing the market and competitors
  • prioritizing, scoping, and framing products and projects
  • deeply understanding how all functions of the business work
  • conducting user research, usually with a designer or UX researcher
  • working with engineers and designers to deliver a solution that is viable for the business, enjoyable for users, and technically feasible
  • communicating with stakeholders and cross-functional teams
  • project and delivery management

In their first job on a software team, engineers don’t need to know everything that a product manager does. That comes with time, as you gain experience working on a team.

How do product managers work with software engineers?

Product managers develop ideas about how a solution might meet their business goal or problem. The tough reality of product management is that product managers by design can’t deliver the solutions themselves, but they are very much responsible for what is delivered. Nikitha Suryadevara, Product Manager at Google, said in an interview with Merit, "A product manager is a leader leading without actual authority, just influence." A product manager can’t require anyone to do anything, but the product manager is usually the person who has to answer the stakeholders if something goes wrong.

Product managers need their teams to help make their vision a reality.

Engineers are responsible for finding a way to implement a product in a technically feasible way. You’ll often hear this as product management is responsible for the “what,” while engineering and design is responsible for the “how.”

Let’s say a product manager has determined that the best way to maximize revenue for an e-commerce product is to retool the checkout flow, but their vision for those changes would be difficult to build, requiring lots of front-end and back-end changes. The engineer works with the product manager to scope down the proposal to a solution that can actually be built within a reasonable timeframe. That back-and-forth can often be tricky, but it usually leads to better results, because engineers are often the source of incredible product ideas!

What does this relationship look like in practice?

Most teams are usually made up of a product manager, a designer (depending on the product), a technical lead, an engineering manager, and software engineers. Those working in an agile framework usually have similar meetings and rituals like:

Product managers have to perform all the responsibilities mentioned above as well as leading some of these meetings. But there are no hard and fast rules for who leads which meeting.

Each team finds its own breakdown. In some teams, the engineers might run stand-ups and demos, while in other companies, the product managers lead those meetings. Some companies might put ticket writing in the hands of engineers, while other companies prefer that product managers lead ticket creation and refinement. It really depends! What’s important is that it works for your team.

How do I build a relationship with a product manager?

For your first day, product managers will probably appreciate your knowing how many tasks and responsibilities their job entails. They have to make dozens of decisions a day about backlog prioritization, bug triage, and product design. They’re then accountable for the consequences of those decisions and are usually juggling multiple competing priorities every day. They also often end up spending a lot of time rushing from meeting to meeting.

Approaching your new product manager as a collaborator (albeit one who may be very stretched thin) and teammate is a great way to start a working relationship with them.

And if you know the basics of the key roles on software teams and how agile teams usually conduct meetings, you’ll be ahead of the curve.

Curious about working with PMs?

Talk to a mentor on Merit! You can talk to product managers about working in cross-functional teams and their first year working in product management.

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