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App Development

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How to Work with Developers: A Guide for Product Managers

Today’s mobile product managers are working more closely than ever with developers as app development becomes more and more of a multi-disciplinary, integrated process. That makes one of the most crucial skills you can possibly have on the job—you guessed it—how to work with developers.

Here at Instabug, our developers and product managers work closely together to push out darn good products. So we've talked to them about how they work together effectively as a team. In this article, we’ll cover our tips for communicating and collaborating with developers that’ll make your relationship more productive and harmonious. Let’s explore ways to make your job easier when worlds collide.

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How to work with developers as a mobile product manager

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Get a cup of coffee together

This is tip #1 from one of Instabug's developers. Get to know each other, he says. "You’ll find something in common underneath that developer shell. Slip in something you’re currently cooking in your product kitchen, ask for feedback—their input can help in the early phases, and they'll appreciate tips as to what direction to expect later on." Getting friendly with your teammates now means getting more done together later.

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Know what their work entails

Actually understand their role and how their job works. Learn about what it is they do, and if you don’t understand what their capabilities are, ask. That way, you’ll know what kinds of questions to direct to whom. Learn what their strengths and weaknesses are.

You’ll want to have an idea of this before you come to your devs with your questions—it can be such a pain to have someone ask you for help with something that doesn’t fit in at all with your job description. Save your developers' time and annoyance by knowing who you’re working with and what they can do.

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Get technical leads involved in your projects early

One of our product managers swears by his pre-planning meetings with our developers when he's approaching a new project. "When the new cycle starts, we have what is called a planning week. This is where I explain to the developers what the problem is, how we are going to solve it, and why it's important. This planning meeting is tough, you could enter with a project in mind but if your idea is not well thought of (i.e a lot of questions from developers are not answered), it will be a problem. What I try to do is involve the technical leads in the project early on before the cycle starts so I can have technical discussions with them and answer all of the questions and concerns before the planning meeting," he says.

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Lose the instant gratification mindset

"Product managers need to stop obsessing about having it all now," says one member of Instabug's development team. They're more than willing to work with product managers to reach solutions, but product managers need to be mindful of their time and resources. You're all on the same team, and your devs will do their best to work and push with you for your product goals. "We can't always provide PMs with 100% of what they want immediately—they can have most of it now and we'll do our best to deliver the rest. If PMs come expecting 95% rather than 100% right away, devs will be more easygoing, happy, and creative in finding alternatives."

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Communication is a two-way street

"Don't just write a list of requirements and go," says one of our developers. "Discuss them with the developer, ask for feedback, answer their questions, adapt, and find compromises that work for you both." Your developers are much more willing to compromise and problem-solve with you when they're part of the conversation.

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Be clear and thorough

Describe to them exactly what you want to be done and how. Do not expect your developers to fill in the blanks for you. If you can’t describe the feature you want simply and succinctly, take some more time to make everything clear before handing it off to your developer. Do you have a great designer on your team? Part of their job is to help you make all the small details clear. You and your designers should know exactly what you want and how it should look and function before your developers write a single line of code.

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Get outcome-oriented

There’s an exception to the rule of precision when it comes to dealing with developers. Yes, they want you to be specific when you’re giving them instructions about feature implementation or improvements. But not all situations require that level of specificity. If you’re shooting ideas around or you have a small task that needs doing, talk about your desired outcome rather than how you want them to achieve it. Sometimes a developer will know a quicker, easier way to do something than you do. So trust, listen and be open to accepting different approaches to your desired result.

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Listen to their ideas

They do know what they’re talking about, so take them seriously. Your developers are probably smart cookies. And the fact that they know the ins and outs of the technical stuff means that they’re speaking from a unique point of view. Their ideas and suggestions could be valuable, helpful, and save you time. If you don’t understand their suggestions because they’re loaded with jargon, just ask. An idea that sounds confusing isn’t necessarily invalid, you just might need to learn more to appreciate it.

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Understand what makes them tick

In many organizations, it can feel like there’s a cultural divide between the engineering team and the business team. We might all be from the same planet, but it might not always feel that way. Get to know your developers as people and learn what excites them and motivates them. Understanding who they are as people will allow you to use your empathy on the job and communicate more positively and efficiently.

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Study up on the technical stuff

You don’t have to be a developer to work with developers. Our devs love it when PMs have tech backgrounds, but it's not a requirement. The real requirement is curiosity and being willing to learn. If you don't have a basic understanding of their job and technical challenges, ask them about it and find out where your blind spots are. As a product manager, your job is crammed with learning opportunities. As long as you’re asking questions that are relevant to your developers’ expertise, they’ll appreciate that you’re trying to understand what they do. And what you learn will absolutely make you better at your job. You may not speak developer fluently, but if you make a conscious effort to learn, your engineering team will thank you—and get things done for you.

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Test until your eyes bleed

Testing might not be under your jurisdiction, but if it is, be sure you’re pushing your team to get enough of it in. Instabug is a tool beloved by developers and product managers alike because it makes it easy to both identify technical issues and connect with users for feedback. Testing ensures you’re finding and ironing out the kinks in your development and shipping a superior product.

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Speak up

Don’t understand something, or are you feeling confused? That in and of itself is not a problem. You’re not expected to know it all, nor do developers expect you to think and speak just like them. But if you can’t keep up with the tech talk, you might miss something. Don’t be afraid to ask for clarification when something wooshes over your head. Developers are more annoyed by the wilfully ignorant than they are by people who ask reasonable questions.

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Don’t make assumptions

This one goes hand in hand with the point about asking questions. Even if you think you’ve got it all down pat, when things don’t go according to plan and it’s time to make changes, just don’t make assumptions. When situations change, be sure to ask your developer how much time or effort is needed from them to accommodate. Never assume on your developer’s behalf how long something will take, even if the task seems simple to you.

A common complaint about developers is that they pad timelines just in case something happens. This issue can be problematic, but it’s not hopeless. The better you get to know your team and their capabilities, and the more mutual trust there is between you and them, the more likely it is that you’ll receive accurate estimates.

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Respect their space

Product managers are accustomed to wearing a lot of hats, and they’ve usually got a whole lot going on at once. But when it comes to your developers, step back and let them do their jobs. Trust them to be able to achieve your end goal. Your developers are competent and capable people, and they need space to do their best work. When they look like they’re “in the zone”, concentrating fully and busting out code, sit back and let them have at it. If you have questions for them, use an asynchronous channel like Slack or email so you don’t interrupt the flow. And have some faith that they can and will get it done, even if their process looks nothing like yours.

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Earn their trust

The best way to improve your relationship with your developers is to earn their trust. By asking smart questions, respecting their expertise, taking them seriously, and giving them the space to do their job, you’ll be on the fast track to becoming a trusted team member. The better your working relationship is, the more likely they are to share ideas, actually want to help you, and give you tighter timelines. One of the biggest upsides to having a great relationship with your developers is that you might even make a few new friends.

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With some studying and a little bit of socializing, you'll be well on your way to bridging the gap between product and engineering. Developers are as individual as they come, but some combination of the above suggestions will work with many of them. At the end of the day, you're all part of one team with the same major goal—to build an app that delights your users!

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