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 communicate and work productively with developers.
Here at Instabug, developers and product managers spend a lot of time together. We have fast-paced release cycles involving multiple teams, features, and platforms at a time. So in this post, we’ll cover tips from our PMs that’ll make the development process more productive and harmonious.
How to work with developers as a mobile product manager
Get a cup of coffee together
Literally. Or, if you work remotely, in a virtual meeting specifically just to hang out. This is tip #1 from one of Instabug's developers. Get to know each other—"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.
Know what their work entails
Beyond the job title, get to understand their roles, how their jobs work, and the dependencies in their workflows. Learn about what it is they do, and if you don’t understand what their capabilities are, it's definitely okay to ask. That way, you’ll know what kinds of questions to direct to whom.
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 (for example, 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.
There is no instant gratification
"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 PMs to reach solutions, but PMs need to be mindful of developer time and resources. Generally, developers are just as invested in your product goals, but are more aware of the technical realities that might cause complications. "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."
Communication is iteration
"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. They also have insights about how your proposal is going to work on a functional level, which could change the way you approach a new feature.
Be clear and thorough
Describe to them exactly what you want to be done and how, without leaving any room for them to need to fill in the blanks. Take extra time to make everything clear before handing it off to your developer. Collaborate with your designers to help you envision the entire experience. You and your team should know exactly what you want and how it should look and function before your developers write a single line of code.
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.
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.
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—sometimes simple development tasks come with unexpected side quests.
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.
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 thing. When they look like they’re “in the zone”, concentrating fully and busting out code, avoid distracting them. If you have questions for them, use an asynchronous channel like Slack or email so you don’t interrupt the flow.
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.
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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