5 Things All Product Managers Should Do for Their Engineers (And Vice Versa)
Tips from SeatGeek's Anuja Chavan
When Anuja Chavan turns on a fan in her house in Jersey City, she can't help but think about how every piece of it works.
"There are an extensive amount of things that have to go perfectly at the same time," says the former engineer (and current product manager at live event ticketing platform SeatGeek).
It was that interest in understanding how things actually worked that drove Anuja to study engineering—first electrical, during her undergrad in India, and then computer science, during her master's program in the U.S.
"I was always intrigued by the fact that with [software], you don't have to have a hundred people, or invest in a bunch of hardware that is costly, [but] you can still get things done and create things," she says.
We sat down with Anuja to hear more about her career, from her start as an engineer working in the banking sector to her current role as a PM at a fast-growing startup. She unpacked what it's been like to jump from the super-analytical side of things to the product management side—and gave us her best tips for PMs looking to connect with their teams (and vice versa!). Read on for her hard-earned wisdom.
From engineer to product management: the best of both worlds
Anuja's first job in tech was as a software engineer at a big bank, where she worked on solving technical problems and dealing with all of the bureaucratic red tape that came along with creating high risk tools while working in the securities lending department.
Four years and a couple of promotions in, she realized that her favorite part of any given project was the beginning, when she was scoping requirements. "I liked working to understand the business needs much more than I actually enjoyed developing technical solutions," she says.
When Anuja shared that realization with her friends in tech, they helped her see that product management might be the perfect fit for her, with its mix of analytical thinking and user focus. She took a ten-week PM course, but then faced the age-old chicken-and-egg problem when it comes to switching jobs or industries: how to get the experience needed for the jobs she wanted when all of the jobs she was seeing required that she already had experience?
A friend of Anuja's invited her to a SeatGeek event PowerToFly was hosting in New York City. Anuja went, loved the panel presentation (where SeatGeek engineers showed what they were really working on—a far cry from the closed-door siloed projects Anuja had come across in banking!), and hit it off with the recruiter. She applied for a PM role, was interviewed by a slate of people she was impressed by (including SeatGeek's CEO and CTO!), and accepted the offer when it came.
"The people I met were very, very smart, and it was such an inviting experience," she says. Now, after such a trying year, Anuja has become even more impressed by SeatGeek's culture: "They're so open about global awareness, about how you should treat employees, how employees should treat each other. They're walking the talk. It's not something that's put out and forgotten about; they're constantly working to empower and uplift those who identify with underrepresented groups." (You can learn more about this work here.)
Now, a few years into being a full-fledged product manager, Anuja is grateful for having started her career in engineering.
"Coming from that background fosters that mutual understanding of how things work. You speak the engineers' language," explains Anuja.
And that's just the beginning of the synergies.
5 things PMs should do when working with engineers
When Anuja asks her engineering team to add a new feature to a product, she knows that she's actually asking them to do a specific amount of technical work, which comes with tradeoffs and costs.
Her goal, then, is to help them understand why that work is important and let them know that she recognizes the effort required to do it well. And she does all of that in the 2-3 hours per day that she spends with her team in real-time, since most of SeatGeek's enterprise engineers (SeatGeek's business is broken down into two major units: their secondary marketplace and their enterprise business, where Anuja works, in which they build and sell a box office solution directly to clients like sports teams, venues, and theaters) are based in Israel and only overlap briefly with New York working hours.
Here are some other things Anuja does to create trust and respect between her and her team:
1. Keep engineers shielded from noise, not strategy.
Anuja spends a lot of time—up to 50-60% of her workweek, she says—in meetings. That's okay: it's her job to interface with the finance, marketing, and client experience teams that her engineering team's work serves, and meetings are part of that. Her team, however, doesn't need to have their days eaten up by endless syncs.
But that doesn't mean that Anuja keeps them firewalled away from the rest of the business. Just the reverse, in fact—she makes sure to plan several touchpoints where her engineers can get a good sense of the business strategy behind their workstreams. "You're not discussing just features, you're discussing why that feature," explains Anuja of the holistic meetings between various project stakeholders and engineers.
She also does regular stepbacks on the business's larger 3-, 6-, 9-, and 12-month roadmaps so that engineers' voices can be heard in the business planning process. "There are things that product may not be best positioned to foresee that engineering brings up, like scalability and system stability limitations," she says of their value-add. "Getting engineers involved early in the game doesn't hamper your progress but rather aids with them being in your story with you."
2. Use technical understanding to predict problems.
"There's this weird theory— a joke, really—of PMs being the dumbest person in a room full of experts, but I don't see that as being true, since you've got to ask the right questions at the right time to drive conversations between those experts," says Anuja. Not all PMs will have been former engineers, she recognizes, but a few technical skills go a long way. "Knowing the impact one team can cause on the other comes from engineer thinking abilities about problem solving, understanding issues before they actually become issues," she says. "Having that grasp on fundamentals lets you see prioritization problems quickly."
And beyond that, Anuja has had success leaning on her engineering background to build a relationship with her engineers of mutual affinity. "Having technical understanding in your back pocket creates overall trust from the engineer's perspective that you'll do what's right when push comes to shove," she says:
3. Unstick problems with other PMs before they impact engineers.
With 450 employees spread across consumer and enterprise teams, there are plenty of other PMs for Anuja to stay in touch with, and she prioritizes doing so a couple of times a week to discuss problems, talk blue-sky new ideas, and help coordinate workstreams before issues arise. "We have to be up to speed with what's going on in their world," explains Anuja. "If there's a need for something on a different team, it's helpful to be aware of it, whether you aid, assist with resolving blockers, or just stay informed."
4. Communicate visually.
"As a PM, communication is one of the best tools at your disposal," explains Anuja. "What most people may not realize is that visual communication has a much more profound impact on how strongly you can communicate to a broad, skill-set varied group of stakeholders, especially as a Product Manager."
Anuja uses systems diagrams, object diagrams, and component diagrams, among other forms of visual communication, to help get her team in sync. "Having some sort of pictorial representation of what's being discussed helps people make sure they're talking about the same thing, looking at the same vision," she says.
5. Ask engineers what their preferred choice of interruption is.
There are always going to be different types of engineers. Some may not appreciate interruptions with constant pings and Slack chats, while others might prefer real-time updates instead of having to wait for a scheduled call. "What I've been doing with my teams is just being open to asking them, 'What [interruptions] are you comfortable with? What are times that you're comfortable with?'" she says.
2 ways for engineers to collaborate better with their PMs
If the above section didn't apply because you're on the engineering side of the equation, don't worry—Anuja has advice for you, too!
1. Think of the big picture, and communicate that you understand it.
"It gives a product manager a lot of confidence if an engineer can think holistically," says Anuja. "When given a problem, try to ask about the edge case scenarios, the exceptions—that will get you into deeper discussions about how those things work."
Another great way to show that you're following is to repeat the requirement and confirm your understanding in engineering terms. "There are some tactical things you can do to improve your communication, and that's one of them," says Anuja.
2. Be open to explaining engineering concepts to your PMs.
"Don't assume your PM will never be interested in deeper details," explains Anuja, who suggests unpacking problems slowly so that both parties can be better informed the next time an issue crops up.
When it works, it really works
A few months ago, Anuja was working on one of SeatGeek's biggest projects to date: supporting the launch of schedule releases for several high-performing NFL teams. The project required that people across the entire global organization worked together to make the experience absolutely seamless so that fans could buy tickets, and so that our clients could achieve their desired revenue and fan experience goals.
"It was completely flawless—groundbreaking!" says Anuja. "Being able to see so many different streams work together and function properly was really fulfilling."