Product Managers: How to Get Your Engineers to Love Being Lean

Like most city dwellers, I’m often a quick judge on how well the city allocates its resources.  Anyone who’s waited 20 minutes for an every-5-minutes bus has probably praised themselves on how well they could run things if given the chance. 

But a former mayor helped change my tune. He once invited city residents to try and balance the budget themselves.  His team laid out everything that needed to be paid for, factoring in raises, community services, emergency services, future growth and expansion.  As you probably  guessed, the exercise is designed to be difficult.  It’s hard to keep everybody happy with limited resources. You quickly learned that sacrifices need to be made in order to avoid running a deficit.

Unfortunately, doubling the mass transit budget isn’t really an option unless you and every resident wants to pay for it (good luck with that).

It turns out I learned this lesson again in a different context when I first started working as an engineer in a lean startup.

It’s a natural inclination for most software engineers to optimize and perfect any bit of code they work on. For them, it’s a work of art upon which they will be judged. So a lean product manager telling an engineer that their work so far is “good enough” can feel like a shot through the heart. They may not be your biggest fan.

The trick is to give them a bigger optimization problem. Open up your books and show them what you have to work with. You have X developers and Y weeks. These are the Z problems we have to solve by Friday. How can we best solve them?

It’s even better if you can entirely open up your books to the revenue streams and expenses that keep your office running and your engineers paid.

Now they have an even more complex problem to work with. How can they churn out quality code *and* accomplish everything that needs to be accomplished *and* take home a paycheque at the end of the month?

Show them your job is more than just saying “do this” and “no”. Involve them in client meetings so they can feel the same heat you do.  If you allow them to optimize against the resources given, they’ll begin to work with you instead of against you.

- Dave Wright (@datwright)

If you’ve had any similar experiences changing your relationship with your product manager or engineer I’d love you hear your story on HN.

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