Collaborating for Success: Product and Engineering Leadership — An event by Advancing Women in Product (AWIP)

leadership May 18, 2021

Credits: Thanks to the Advancing Women in Product NYC Team and our speakers

Product Managers have to work with a wide range of stakeholders — business leaders, engineering teams, and tech leaders to ensure the success of a product. On our May 12th panel, AWIP chatted with Product and Tech leaders across industries at companies like Northwestern Mutual, Meetup, and Dropbox to get their perspective on how they’ve fostered communication and built credibility to leverage and influence product strategy as a team. Our six seasoned product and engineering leaders include: Sonia Gupta, Product Manager, Head of Programming AWIP NYC Chapter; Sandra Lin, Director of Product, Northwestern Mutual; Dana Hart, Senior Director of Engineering, Northwestern Mutual; Marley Spector, Product Manager, Dropbox; Ping Ma, Engineering Manager, Dropbox; Maurice Chen, Product Leader, Morty; Lori Hutchek, Engineering Manager, WeightWatchers

Speakers during the webinar.

Fostering Communication & Collaboration:

How do you build consensus with key engineering stakeholders: Engineer, Tech Lead, Director of Engineering. How does communication vary across these stakeholders?

Sandra Lin, Northwestern Mutual: I try to have a good understanding of initial scope and timeline considerations. With that in mind, I go back to the engineering team on proof of concepts and take time to address the pros and cons of each approach. In terms of communication, with engineering teams — we address the tasks at hand. With a Director of Engineering, the focus shifts more towards looking at our product portfolios and aligning those with key metrics, helping address resourcing constraints, and cross-functional considerations.

Maurice Chen, Morty: Consensus between engineering and product always starts with alignment around common goals and the service or value we are trying to deliver to our users. This alignment needs to happen as early as possible — the working team should be involved in understanding the ask and thinking through solutions. Knowing that solutions ultimately come from the team is a healthy way to build consensus around implementing the solution.

What is one thing you want PMs to make sure they contribute and take away from 1:1s with the engineering team? What types of discussions should PMs be prepared to have during these meetings?

Marley Spector, Dropbox:

I can’t stress the importance of understanding the morale of the engineering team. Understand where they want to go in their careers so that the projects put in front of them are inspiring.

It can be hard to have that insight in the work from the home era, but it’s something worth focusing on in 1:1’s.

Sandra Lin, Northwestern: In addition to that, more specific to the product, I encourage teams to share the KPIs that we have in mind. Continuously track how these products are doing — where users tend to drop off, how conversions occur, and what our goals for our users are.

And echoing the note above, it’s also important to get to know the team on a personal level to help them understand where and how they want them to grow.

Even the best teams, run into mistakes, miss deadlines, etc — how do you approach difficult conversations when something has not gone according to plan? To follow up, how do you ensure a positive attitude moving forward?

Dana Hart, Northwestern: Communication is key. We start to scope our larger features months in advance and don’t always know what issues we might hit closer to the release date. Be honest about these issues with senior management and try and understand what scope we can reduce. Over-communicate on the issue at hand as soon as it arises — what’s happening, why is it happening, is progress still being made, what are our potential solutions that mitigate the problem at hand?

It’s also important to note that we (Product and Engineering) approach these issues as a united front. There is no blame passed around for the slippage and it’s important to champion the work that is being done.

Marley Spector, Dropbox: It helps to communicate the potential impact of our decisions as we are evaluating any slippage in dates. In addition, we also do a pre-mortem — where we think of everything that can possibly go wrong so that we’re truly aware of all the risks. What’s happened, why has it happened, and try our hardest not to throw blame anywhere?

Ping Ma, Dropbox: It helps to bring the focus back to the user. By focusing on the user impact, these difficult decisions and projected solutions become more objective and it becomes easier to implement.

As a woman working with potentially all-male engineering counterparts, it can be challenging to work in a role where you’re the minority — how do you ensure that you’re bringing your best? How do you find mentors? What are the steps that one can take to help themselves and other women in their organization succeed?

Lori Hutchek, WeightWatchers: To be honest, a lot of my mentors have not been women due to the nature of engineering. It’s been about finding someone who has been a good role model, regardless of gender, and who wants to help you grow and expand beyond what you think you are capable of. I’ve had my mentors ask me: “Why can’t you, why shouldn’t you, why would you limit yourself in those respects” when opportunities have presented themselves. Look for those people that push you in the organizations you’re a part of and find little nuggets of mentorship wherever you can.

Dana Hart, Northwestern Mutual:

First and foremost, for all the women out there, believe in your ideas. You need to have your own ideas in order to have the self confidence to be able to stand up to your peers.

Take up mentorship opportunities either internally or through organizations like Women in Tech, Advancing Women in Product. Find your people to help support you.

Sandra, NW: We don’t have a lot of female peers. You have to be confident in yourself, and in order to do that you have to be prepared, buttoned up. There has been an upward trend of women in product roles, which has been great to see. It helps to expand your network across female leaders. And giving back and mentoring females and engineers is another way to help others grow into some of these roles to challenge gender imbalance.