I think we’re doing something wrong.
We should remember what our goal is when hiring developers: to build a product. Of course, the technology is critical and, as a developer-turned-Product-Manager myself, I know the drawbacks of choosing an inappropriate framework or programming language. But we should keep in mind that we’re working together to ship a good product to the market, not to use a new edge technology or to make gold-plated code; we must make it clear that that is our priority from the very beginning. And to that end, I think we should be hiring Product Developers.
What is a Product Developer?
Don’t panic! A Product Developer is not a new “class” of developer nor a new tech position to cover in your company!!
It is a just a way to describe a developer who cares the product details as much as the technology behind it. It’s someone who, in front of an unclear spec, taps you on the shoulder and asks you to clarify, rather than blundering ahead blindly. It’s someone who spots a translation that can be improved and emails you a more appropriate version. It’s someone who, if she thinks the feature can be done in a better or faster way, will tell you her idea.
I was the kind of techie that was often bothering my Product Manager with that misaligned text on the Terms & Conditions page, or the inconsistencies between the search icons on the customer-facing and backoffice pages. Some of you PMs with a technical background probably find that familiar 😉
Of course, we shouldn’t forget that the Product Manager always has (or should have!) the last word on every product decision, and the product developer needs to accept that. In the same way, we PMs should be capable enough to explain to them why we decided to take a given path and, in doing so, still keep everyone on board.
A Product Developer should excel in the (often undervalued) soft skills or interpersonal skills. Clear communication, effective collaboration, pro-activity, active listening, teamwork, empathy, commitment, and so on. All of them play an important role, and matter as much as technical skills in the current workplace – especially if you’re trying to build empathy with users, and rapport across the team .
So, the next question is: how can we identify a product developer in the recruitment process?
How Do You Hire Product Developers?
I’ve been involved in the recruitment process for technical people as both a Technical Lead and Product Manager, and I’m actually a strong advocate of involving PMs in the process of hiring developers, mainly in the interviews. We work closely with the engineering team, so we should be allowed to give our opinion about the people who will join the team and work with us.
To try and spot Product Developers during the interviews, we PMs can ask certain open-ended questions like:
What would you do if you receive an incomplete or confusing specification for a feature you have to develop?
Or we can present a hypothetical situation where the interviewee needs to choose which action she would take. As an example:
Imagine that tomorrow is the deadline to launch the feature you’re developing, and you detect a UX issue. You’re pretty confident that releasing that change will lead to user frustration and misunderstanding. Your PM is not available and you have to choose between spending a couple of hours trying to contact the Chief Product Officer in order to work together on a quick win*or a workaround to solve the issue, or spend the time you have finishing the task as it is detailed in the specification. What would you do?
We can also show the candidate a mockup created for interview purposes, full of UX mistakes and UI inconsistencies, and ask her what she would change, or which issues she can detect.
At the end of the day, we’re trying to assess whether the candidate has the proper soft skills and general product awareness in addition to their technical abilities. Soft skills are increasingly as critical as hard skills in today’s work force, so they should be very significant in the technical hiring process.
So, what if you’re a developer and you want to be a product developer? What can you do?
How Do You Become a Product Developer?
My first piece of advice would be to join a company whose products you love . If you want to be invested in a product, and gain a holistic view of it, then there’s nothing better that being a power user.
One of the best ways to improve your product-related skills is to start a side project. Build a website or a simple mobile app related to anything you’re passionate about. It’s important that you enjoy running the project, and avoid seeing it as an obligation. A side project will also build up your résumé and show off some experience launching a product.
As a passionate developer, you probably read several technical books in your spare time (or at least, you should!) Every now and then, try some UX-related books like The Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman or Don’t Make Me Think by Steve Krug. They can help you better understand the point of view of the user or customer.
Improve your communication competence. Practice active listening. Ask questions, and repeat what you’ve understood back to the your conversation partner to make sure you’re understanding and being understood. You should also learn to take non-verbal communication into account – your body language can reveal more than you think! When it comes to communications in generally, try to keep it as simple and short as possible, and tailor your message to your audience.
There is a lot of reading you could do on how to effectively communicate with people, in particular books like Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most or Nonviolent Communication.
Collaborate with your peers whenever possible. Collaboration increases productivity, allows you to grow as a professional more than simply working in your cubicle, reduces internal conflict, and inspires a sense of community within the organization.
Try to find out how people are using the product you’re working on. If you’re currently working in a company that does user testing sessions, ask your PM if you can attend a session as an observer. I’ll almost guarantee that you’ll see users interact with your product in ways you didn’t expect.
Remember that as a Product Developer, it’s important to focus as much on soft skills development as you do on traditional hard (technical) skills.
To start with, we should remember our main goal: to launch a product to the market. Product Developers always keep that in mind, and go further than simply coding what they’re asked for. They know how to work closely with other functions and co-workers, removing constraints and helping everyone to do their job effectively.
We should also remember that, these days, teamwork is the right way to work. We all need to encourage multi-disciplinary work where teams cut across organizational silos, because we all know the organisational whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
So, product managers, what do you think about this Product Developer concept? Is it what you’re looking for in a technical role, or do you feel it’s going too far on product involvement for a developer? I’d love to know what kind of dynamic you’ve seen working well in your teams!