What's the true role of a product team at an engineering-led organization?

Paolo D'Amico

Product

We’ve talked before about product-minded engineers at PostHog. We don’t have PMs dictating a roadmap or solutions - it all comes from engineering. A PostHog engineer has complete autonomy to decide the 'what' (prioritization) and the 'how' (solution) of the features we build, so Product & Design play a role that’s a bit different to the typical tech startup.

Let's look at how product development workflow at PostHog, the responsibilities of the Product Team, the benefits & results of this approach, the foundations required to build a team like this, and some pitfalls and learnings we’ve acquired along the way.

Product development workflow

Strategy

The product process starts with the product strategy. Our product strategy derives from our company’s goals and informs the high-level approach to Product. It may be tempting to skip this step, but doing so causes immediate problems in the execution (see pitfalls below).

For example, our current company goal is to achieve deep product/market fit by finding a handful of customers who absolutely love PostHog. With this in mind, we set out to create different product strategies that align towards this goal. An example of this was our Nail Funnels strategy, where we set out to enable our customers to dive deep into their metrics to understand conversion across different contexts.

Note that while these strategies come from Product, the process is highly collaborative. At PostHog, a strategy gets proposed with a strong rationale and details about the opportunity cost of doing it. Everyone at PostHog is encouraged to challenge and provide feedback on the proposal to improve it.

Execution

The next step is to turn this high-level strategy into scoped and actionable focus points for each sprint cycle.

For example, with our ‘Nailing Funnels’ strategy, one of the first points of focus was enabling users to build any type of conversion funnel for the different businesses and products we serve. We then enabled deeper analysis to understand conversions and drop-offs.

Prioritization

With a clear scope of execution, each team can now plan their sprint and prioritize their tasks autonomously, with engineers choosing the most important tasks to work on.

Design and build phase

Each feature we build goes through a collaborative design process involving Engineering, Design and Product. Product provides context from user interviews, data analysis, usability tests, industry benchmarking, and other sources and gives feedback on proposed solutions. We pay particular attention to edge cases and overall user experience to reach the best outcome.

Quality checks and shipping

During the development process, all team members continuously review the product and give feedback. Early feedback helps to detect and fix problems before they compound. Depending on the feature, we might also run a more structured quality test and report any bugs found, and run usability tests with potential product users to identify improvements (particularly around UX) that we might’ve missed in the design phase.

Responsibilities of the Product team

So if Engineering handles the roadmap and prioritization, and speccing out solutions is a collaborative effort, what’s the role of the Product team at PostHog?

  • Help scope out problems and solutions: A key aspect of building out a product is figuring out the right problems to solve. It doesn’t matter how good you are at building if you’re building the wrong thing. Once engineers start working on solutions, Product also helps scope out solutions, prioritizing whatever makes the most sense to achieve our goals and deliver the best user experience.
  • Gather and share context: Every engineer is empowered to make decisions on their own, not just on where to put a button, but on the entire thing they work on. Having all the right context is key to making good decisions.
  • Maintain the user’s point of view: As we get into the weeds of building things, it’s easy to forget who we’re building this for. To make sure we deliver the best possible user experience, we continuously run usability tests, feedback calls, and even watch session recordings to see things from a user’s point of view and validate or invalidate our assumptions. I can’t tell you enough how useful and often overlooked running usability tests is (more on this in a future post).
  • Provide feedback & ensure product quality: We want to build new product features and ensure we’re constantly raising the bar. We do this through continuous quality testing, dogfooding our own product, and challenging engineers to sand the rough edges even in the smallest ways. We’re also always on the lookout for remote edge cases that are easy to miss.
  • Help set up metrics and challenge continuous tracking: Building things is rewarding in its own right as you can clearly see and judge your output. It’s tempting to ignore actual numbers informing you whether your creation was actually successful or not - but remember, it’s about outcome, not output. Even if you created the most amazing product with the smoothest experience, if no one’s using it or they’re using it incorrectly, it’s a failure (and a lesson). As the Product Team, we’re constantly challenging ourselves and engineers to set up the right metrics that measure actual progress towards our goals. Doing this right also contributes more context for the next product iteration.

A note on removing blockers: It is typically the responsibility of a PM to remove blockers for the engineering team. As a dev, you come to your daily standup, mention that you’re blocked because stakeholder X has not delivered something you need, and the PM raises hell to get you unblocked as quickly as possible. When you have a strong, autonomous engineering team, this doesn’t need to happen at all - you'll own your features and do whatever is necessary to get yourself unblocked. At best, Product provides context on who to talk to or suggestions on how to get unblocked.

Benefits & Results

  • Design and build the best possible solutions: As multiple studies show1, creative solutions are generally better conceived as a multidisciplinary team effort. Having Engineering, Product, and Design involved ensures that everyone brings a different perspective to the table.
  • Work on the most important things: Context and goals are shared, and everyone is equally responsible for the deliverables. Team members can hold each other accountable to working on the most pressing issues. Also, if you’re not an engineer and think something is important to build, you now need to convince an engineer why that’s the most important thing to work on (acting as a sort of check). As an engineer, when you decide to build something, you’re committing yourself and your time - so you make sure you’re working on the right things.
  • Higher standards: With this approach, every engineer raises the bar on not only the solutions we build, but also the problems we work on, how we execute on them, and how it all ties together to our goals (or whether it’s even worthwhile to begin with). This is almost impossible when Product prescribes the roadmap and its priorities.
  • Faster turnaround, particularly on spotting and solving problems: This approach removes redundancies in the process, like coming up with a solution and needing to check with engineering if it’s feasible. Furthermore, as engineers are owners, they drive projects to completion faster.
  • Better (and more measurable) results: Beyond better solutions (output), it's about better results (outcome). If a feature isn't achieving its goal, the engineer is responsible for immediately addressing the issue with limited triangulation.

Prerequisites

Decentralized, product-minded engineering organizations are not easy to build and can be rare, even in startups. One of the biggest challenges is avoiding the common trap of PMs becoming dictators and engineers becoming code monkeys (more on this). We’ve found three essential elements your team needs to operate properly:

  1. Product-minded engineers: As an engineer, if you’re not constantly thinking about who you’re building your product for, why you’re building it, and what you're trying to accomplish, you won’t be able to execute your product vision properly.
  2. Empowered and decentralized team members: Where a designer can spot a problem, same as an engineer; where everyone can give feedback on anything; and where anyone can challenge everyone else’s assumptions and solutions.
  3. Team members with solid judgement: Because everyone is constantly making decisions (and quite impactful ones at that), you need people who have good judgement.

Pitfalls

Finally, I’d like to share some mistakes we’ve made in our iterative journey to improve the Product team, and how to avoid them:

  • Prescribing solutions: Discussions and proposals are simpler when talking about specific solutions instead of higher level problems or hypotheticals. The problem is that coming up with solutions rather than problems removes ownership and restricts the scope of potential solutions.
  • Lack of strategic and tactical direction: It’s tempting to skip having strategic direction or defining specific tasks under your strategy, but doing so manifests in poor, unfocused decisions.
  • Projects with little to no engineering involvement: You get a spontaneous idea on how to improve the product, gather some context, explore it, and arrive at a fully spec’d out solution with nary an engineer in sight (usually by accident). Two big problems come from this: a) you don’t reach the best solution because you lack important context, and b) you now have a project ready to be implemented but no engineer to pick it up. When working on ideas, however crazy, always involve engineering from the start - ideally have an engineer co-own the idea with you.
  • Strongly linked dependencies: This can happen when you have processes that rely on different people (e.g. design having to review every view that goes into the app) or heavily defined scopes (e.g. if you’re a frontend engineer that can’t touch the backend). When this is present, it’s quite hard to be autonomous and effective because you constantly get blocked by other people. Blurring scopes and removing dependencies makes it easier and faster to ship things. Remember, you have a capable team with good judgement, so no need to encumber the creative process.

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