When To Hire For Engineering vs. Product

Think about a favorite digital product you use every day.

What appears to us as users and customers is the result of extensive planning, collaboration, and refinement within the company that built the product. And the dynamic that drives this complex process forward is led by your product managers and engineers.

But when forming your team, it can be tricky to decide who to hire and when. The demands of building a product when you have limited time and capital can make it even more challenging to make the right choice.

What to Build vs. How to Build It

To know which role your team needs most at a given time, you first need to understand the core differences between engineering and product management.

The simple answer: product managers are concerned with what to build, while engineers define how to build it.

For this reason, it’s important to have product managers involved in your company as soon as possible. That’s because product managers will act as translators between your business goals, the problems you’re trying to solve, and how engineering will support.

If product managers are responsible for laying out the pieces of a product into a coherent, impactful journey, engineering must define all the steps that make up the journey’s trajectory—and find the best way to reach the journey’s ultimate goal.

When it’s time to hire for engineers, you need to look for voices that will encourage a healthy tension within the product team. This isn’t the same as conflict; it’s the expectation that your product leaders and engineers will own their core roles and speak up when one side is outweighing the other.

Additionally, product managers should empower engineers with the information they need to make informed decisions on their own. Doing so lets engineering own architecting the product, without requiring the product manager to approve their choices every step of the way.

Timing Is Everything

It’s true that many product companies will outsource engineering in the earliest stages. While that’s certainly an option, outsourcing for too long can be expensive and time-consuming; most of all, a long-term relationship with engineers outside your business might mean they won’t be immersed in the strategic partnership your product needs to thrive.

If you’re in startup mode, now is the time to bring in an engineer. That way, they can be involved in the critical process of problem definition—led by your product manager—and the research they need to envision the best solution. If this isn’t possible, think about how you can document the information your future engineers will need to have agency over their product decisions.

After your product is market and you’re trying to scale, the decision to hire more engineers or product managers hinges on the context around you. Are you keeping up with the plan described in your product roadmap? Are you meeting the demands of your company leadership, your users, and your customers? If you don’t have a clear answer to these questions—or if you’re struggling to even find the time you need to ask and investigate those questions—it’s time to grow your product team. Conversely, if you don’t have a shortage of answers or ideas, but you are struggling to execute, that’s when you need to look for your next cohort of engineers.

At all stages, documentation and shared retrospectives between engineers and product managers is key to keep the story concrete and all sides aligned on the guiding vision.

A Balanced Relationship

No matter where you are in your product company’s journey, the best organizations cultivate a strong partnership between engineering and product management. Companies continuously sustain that partnership by creating cultures of openness, communication, and respect.

Whether you’re working with a single engineer or with a full team, engineering should be immersed in solving your problem as much as your product managers.

Are your engineers around for serendipitous conversation? Or are they only serving as recipients of your direction? To create a balanced relationship that will evolve your product to its best form, you should strive for the former, and keep engineers invested in the entire journey.

Summary

Building out your product and engineering teams is a big step for your business, and if you’re like most organizations, you can’t afford to hire everyone at once. The trick is to learn who is the right strategic hire, and when.

For further reading, take it from the product managers and engineers themselves: 

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