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Teams that manage themselves & the other type of developer tools

One Knight in Product newsletter
One Knight in Product newsletter
I've forgotten more programming languages than you've heard of 👴🏻
We’ll talk a bit about working with developers in this issue. Before we get into that though, we need to call out that product people aren’t developers and don’t have to have a development background. However, some of us do have this background. This is great, but sometimes it can be tricky to forget that it’s not your job to dictate technical solutions to the team. I don’t care how good you were at bubble sorts back in the day - let the developers do their jobs!
Level up your technical skills with Skiplevel
Speaking of technical skills, we’re coming to the end of the podcast being sponsored by Skiplevel. If you struggle with communicating with dev teams and understanding technical terminology and concepts, check this out. In episode 98, I hosted Irene Yu, founder of Skiplevel, an on-demand training program that helps professionals and teams become more technical in just 5 weeks… All without learning to code. Learn the knowledge and skills you need to better communicate with devs and become more confident in your day-to-day role with the Skiplevel program. Go to Skiplevel and use code OKIP75 to get $75 off the program until the 15th June, 2022.
New podcast episodes
I’ve released two more One Knight in Product podcast episodes to check out since the last newsletter.
Firstly, we have Radhika Dutt, author of “Radical Product Thinking”. You may remember Radhika’s name as she’s actually appeared on the podcast two times before! We just can’t seem to quit each other and it was great to have her back on. We talked about why you shouldn’t include revenue as part of your product vision, how to avoid iterating towards ethical failure and much more. Check out the Radhika Dutt trilogy right here.
Secondly, we have Nicole Reineke, VP of Innovation at Iron Mountain and co-author of “Compassion Driven Innovation”. I spoke to Nicole about some of the themes from the book, including the core reasons for innovation failure and some of the ways we might increase our odds of success. Check out Nicole’s episode here.
Guest hosting duties
Not content with waffling away on my own podcast, I was also invited to guest host on Mind the Product’s podcast! I was brought in to interview Lily Smith, Head of Product at Bower Collective and usually the co-host of The Product Experience. We interviewed each other about our mutual thoughts on what makes good Product Managers. Check the episode out here.
Book recommendation
I’m sure you’re all aware of the wonderful Christina Wodtke, author of a variety of business & design books. I interviewed Christina last year about the re-release of Radical Focus, a mix business fable and actionable framework for using Objectives & Key Results (OKRs) to set your business up for success.
Christina is big on the concept of empowered teams, which is part of Radical Focus, but has also written a book dedicated to this topic. The Team That Managed Itself (T3MI) is another business fable that explains how to set teams up for success and avoid falling into the self-defeating pit of micromanagement. I recommend both books!
Why can't we all get along?
I got my first computer, a ZX Spectrum 48K+, when I was 10. I had been desperate to get a computer since I’d seen my uncle’s ZX81 at about the age of 6. The best thing with computers in those days was that you were thrown straight in the deep end; no fancy GUIs here, you had a blinking cursor and could start programming straight away. I was instantly hooked.
I started my working life in a call centre. Yes, actually making calls. I eventually worked my way into the IT support team there and spent the next 20 years or so in a variety of technical roles, including data analyst, front-end developer, back-end developer, full stack developer all the way through to leading technical teams before moving to full time product management and product leadership (yes, I’m pretty old).
I’m sharing this not because I’m trying to show off, but because I want to be absolutely clear about one thing. I love software development, and I love software developers (ok, two things). I’ve worked with, and continue to work with, some truly wonderful developers. Developers are the lifeblood of any well-functioning product company and can truly help us achieve the most amazing things.
But we should also call out that some developers can act like absolute tools 😅
I’ll emphasise that 98% of developers I’ve ever dealt with are brilliant and wonderful to work with. But there’s a vocal minority who are contrarian to the point of belligerence. In the context of this piece I’m talking about one particular aspect of that; the developers who loudly criticise product managers, as well as shout down the very concept of product management as a practice.
This was called into sharp focus when a product manager posted a video on TikTok, talking about her product management role whilst in a swimming pool on a company retreat. What started out as a light-hearted take on product management turned this woman into a hate figure amongst some. There were a variety of comments that could fill multiple newsletters, but I’m going to stick to the line of attack that “Product management is so easy that people can just phone it in from a pool. Oh, and by the way, we don’t even need product managers because developers can just do it. Oh, and all product managers are basically scum and I hate them”.
Fabulous stuff, I’m sure you’ll agree. Let’s investigate some of the reasons behind this attitude.
Everyone thinks everyone else’s jobs are easy
We’re all full of cognitive biases, and the concept of egocentric bias is not going to surprise anyone; the idea that our own lives are harder than other people’s. In this case, I’m specifically talking about this in a professional context. This is primarily down to ignorance about what those jobs entail, and the naive assumption that cash-strapped companies are going to pay good money for people to sit around doing nothing. It’s also really easy to judge people’s entire jobs based on the interactions they have with you, and ignore the stuff you don’t see.
Or to put it another way, I’m pretty sure some product managers reading this probably think that QA people have it easy, or Salespeople have it easy, or Marketing have it easy. And so on, and so forth until the end of time.
Yes you do need product management, and yes this probably means product managers
A common refrain from some developers is that companies don’t need product managers, because “Company X didn’t have product managers and they did fine”, or because the product managers that they work with “get in the way of the really cool stuff they could be doing”, or “hey, product management is just about moving tickets around and who can’t do that?” or “hey we just do what the founder says anyway!
The point here isn’t that you need product managers as such, but you definitely need the fundamental practice of product management. That’s not to say it’s not possible to accidentally happen upon success by randomly applying technology and hoping something useful happens (pretty much the whole thesis behind Web 3). But if you want to make a difference you need to have a deep understanding of your users, their problems and how technology can help solve that in a way that can support your business.
Do you need product managers to do that? Sort of.
Wait, what? Aren’t I arguing against myself here? No! The point here isn’t that product management is some members’ only club. Lots of people from all over the organisation probably have what it takes to get good at product management. But product management is not an optional extra or a part time job. It takes time, you need to do it continuously and it needs to be done well. If you’re spending all of their time doing product management as a developer, you might as well own up to being a product manager because you ain’t going to be doing a load of developing.
Yes, developers can be product managers, but why would they want to be?
I worked as a joint developer / product manager in a past role and it was hard. I basically found myself working two jobs for the price of one. I’d do all my product stuff (talking to users, working with stakeholders, refining the strategy, prioritising stuff, writing up user stories etc) in the daytime and then I’d end up going home and working till 2am on code reviews, bugs, features etc. Ultimately I ended up doing neither of them well, burning out through overwork and stress, and eventually quitting and going into full-time product management.
We have to call out that there are many business or user-curious developers out there. Many of them would make fantastic product managers, and there are plenty of examples of people making that move. But there are also developers who just want to spend their days developing stuff and getting better at developing stuff.
It’s also difficult to imagine a developer who complains about one meeting a day and wants constant “maker time” being a successful product manager.
But yes, there are some dysfunctional companies out there
We have to call out a higher order problem here, which is that there are some pretty dysfunctional product companies out there. Plenty of companies where top down, Taylorist micromanagement abounds, with loads of politics and vested interests, leaders that are immune to reason or hard data and everything is based on Highest Paid Person’s Opinion. In situations like this, product management teams are in exactly the same boat as the development and UX teams, treated as service departments and made to implement whatever leadership or the sales team say (generally with a big fat deadline attached).
The thing that kills me about this is that you have the developer and design teams shouting at Product Managers in this type of company. You have the sales team shouting at product managers. You have the leadership team shouting at product managers. Everyone’s shouting at the product managers! The same product managers who have themselves been explicitly and aggressively disempowered. Now, to some extent, this is part of the deal for product managers. But I’d like to see more empathy from other parts of the business. Especially developers, who should be our natural allies!
And yes, there are some poorly performing product managers
Finally, we have to call out that there are some less-than-ideal product managers out there. I would argue that there are 2 real reasons for this:
  • The PM is underperforming and they’re not getting made better
This is a failure of leadership. It’s the product leader’s responsibility to coach their team, help make people better, correct disruptive or counterproductive behaviours, and ensure that PMs are set up for success. Ultimately, they may need to find them another role or move them on.
  • The PM is underperforming and the company is explicitly or implicitly rewarding this behaviour
This speaks to the dysfunction mentioned above. Leadership teams that set product managers up to fail should not be surprised that good product managers leave for better opportunities. They’re left with the people that are happy to work in these ways, and this may lead to some of the behaviours that developers complain about the most.
Wrapping it all up
Product managers and developers should be the best of friends. We’re all in the same boat! Let’s sail in it together.
We product managers should do our best to represent the true value of what we do, but also give appropriate credit and praise to our designer and developer counterparts. We should also do our best, within the bounds of what is possible within our companies, to bring our colleagues along for the ride and treat them as fully empowered, strategic partners in our (and therefore the company’s) success.
Hopefully this was interesting, and maybe even helpful. In any case, please share this with any product-aligned friends you think might enjoy it!
I’m terrible at advocating for myself, but if you ever feel like buying me a coffee that would obviously be appreciated. If not, I love you anyway ❤️
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