Straddling product and technology in large companies

Many roles at startups are for generalists. Most (good) startups want people who are interested in, and have ideas about, the product as well as the technology. This is partly because the product side of startups is generally immature — a consequence of not having reached product-market fit — and also because smaller teams make it easier for people to voice opinions outside the area for which they were hired.

As companies grow, this fluid movement between product design and implementation slows and becomes more formalized. Larger companies break down product development into product managers, who have responsibility for product spec, and engineers, who control how the product is built. Good product managers don’t try to influence technical decisions, and many engineers are uncomfortable providing opinions on user-facing product features.

For people who move from startups to big companies, it’s hard to find a role that provides the same mix of product design and engineering work that you might do as a founder or early employee at a startup. The roles have simply become too specialized to allow for hiring a single person with impact on both areas.

While some of this specialization is inevitable to allow the company to grow, I think the best teams have a strong product orientation among all team members, whether their job involves programming, QA, or product management. The more the team leadership can do to extract product opinions from everyone on the team, the more invested people will be in the final outcome.

I’ve found the following techniques work well to get even introverted team members to voice opinions about the product:

1. Regular free-form brainstorming sessions about the product. It helps if these are focused on a few product areas, identified in advance, that you are soliciting opinions on.

2. Team-based playthroughs or walkthroughs of the product. Many team members have a hard time seeing the product in its entirety, and are focused on their piece of the whole. It’s useful to get the team together on a regular basis to try out the product. For things like multiplayer games, you can have the team simply play the game together for an hour. For less social applications, one person can demo the product to the rest of the team.

3. Feedback sessions about product roadmap, hopefully before it is committed to outside the team. Providing a coherent vision brings the team together and gives people a shared goal that they can stand behind. It’s even better if the roadmap incorporates suggestions from across the team, for greater shared ownership of the product.

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