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Tech Lead Co-Pilots

10 January 2022
Photo by Freddie

In far too many organizations, product managers are considered the de facto leader of product teams, and those with technical acumen—engineers, designers, testers and even tech leads—are left in the position of simply executing someone else’s vision. This organizational anti-pattern means potentially valuable ideas are sometimes never heard and as a result, team members end up feeling disempowered and frustrated.

Is there a better way to meld a team to get the most out of all members? Of course there is, and it starts with product managers and tech leads working as equal partners — co-piloting the team.

After all, product managers have knowledge about the why, while the tech lead is well versed in the all-important how component of any project. The benefits of working together on the what (and the ever-important when) by building a collaborative partnership are many, including having a shared consciousness and scaling the influence of the team.

Throughout this post, terms like “tech lead” and “product manager” don’t necessarily describe seniority or a person’s specific title. In fact, these monikers can describe individual contributors and people managers, those early in their career to very seasoned professionals, and front-line workers and executives. A “tech lead” is someone who drives the technical execution and strategy on an initiative, and a “product manager” is someone who drives requirements and product strategy.

This is also not to discount the other important team members who should have an equal seat at the table, such as Design. While this post specifically talks about the division of responsibilities and perspectives between product managers and their technical counterparts, a similar framework can and should be applied to any organizational function operating in this “co-piloting” capacity within the team.

Who does what

Choosing to invest in developing a tech lead-product manager relationship won’t result in anyone’s duties changing, but the parties will gain a better appreciation about their counterpart’s role and where their responsibilities intersect. Here is an example of what that might look like: 

Product Manager (Why)

  • Defining customer needs

  • Aligning stakeholders

  • Priority and urgency

  • Product requirements/vision

Tech Lead (How)

  • Scalability, extendability, and resilience

  • Maintainability

  • Standards and principles adherence

  • Technical requirements/vision

Intersection (What & When)

  • Team efficiency and cohesion

  • Meeting customer needs

  • Quality

  • Estimates, milestones, and deadlines

Tech leads should be as visible and participatory with stakeholders as product managers are and they should also be involved in preparing and presenting joint presentations, something that demands a high level of alignment. 

Benefits galore

When tech leads and product managers co-lead the team, some benefits will be seen right away, while others will take some time to develop as trust and respect are built. As this relationship matures, those areas of ownership and focus will begin to feel increasingly intuitive, giving way for the blurring of lines and sharing of responsibilities and perspectives. Over time, a tech lead will begin to offer their informed perspective on things that one would expect to fall in a product manager’s realm (such as prioritization or defining requirements) — and similarly, a product manager will begin to understand and represent the technical viewpoint (such as thinking about non-functional requirements like resiliency or observability).

And speaking of time, the tech lead and product manager will need to schedule plenty of it together, something that can be messy at first, but failing to do so will result in missing out on a valuable opportunity for mutual understanding and growth. While the idea of adding more meetings on the calendar might feel untenable, over time this starts to pay dividends. For instance, you may find at the beginning that co-piloting the team with the product manager means finding yourself in many more meetings to consistently represent the technical side of upcoming or ongoing projects — and that is both true and valuable. And similarly, the product manager will feel inclined to participate in as many technical sessions as possible to ensure their perspective is well-represented. Over time, though, as this perspective becomes shared, the meeting load will be able to be split, as each feels confident the other can represent their viewpoint.

Tech leads can also benefit on a personal level from this type of co-ownership. They may be seen as good coaches or mentors, and their visibility in the organization will increase as they gain equal footing with the product manager. But they need to be proactive, not wait for an invitation. Acting on this excellent opportunity to emerge as a leader and demonstrate their value.

The takeaway

When tech leads and product managers work as one, so to speak, avenues for compromise, pushback, and the emergence of well-conceived creative strategies are opened. Diverse perspectives and out-of-the-box thinking will be welcomed as everyone feels comfortable to participate, and problem-solving becomes a true team effort. People want to be engaged, and when they feel a sense of shared accountability, there’s no limit to what they can accomplish as a team.

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