Your Startup Needs a Product Engineer Immediately

Who’s in charge of building your company’s product?

Unless you’re flying solo, there are probably multiple answers to this question. But that’s changing. The role of “product” within almost all industries is trending toward less emphasis on product management and product marketing, and more towards using technology and data to determine everything from what we’re building to how we’re selling it.

It’s the science of Product Engineering, and your company needs one of these engineers, preferably at the executive level. Probably now.

The Evolution of Product

Let’s start by taking a quick walk down the path of entrepreneurial history. It used to be that a company was started with an idea and someone to sell it. We can go all the way back to plucky quacks shilling Dr. Kokane’s Good Tyme Health Elixir and things of that nature.

When business became Business, let’s say around the middle of the last century, companies were founded and/or led by enterprising folks with a grip on growth — MBAs from Ivy League schools who were maybe already monied and connected. People who knew finance, deals, politics.

The technology revolution that exploded from the garages of the 1970s made it mandatory that tech become a part of the product process. And still today, we have the traditional pairing of the business founder/leader and the technology founder/leader. One needs the other, or at least needs to supplement the other side with a well-run team.

When we see both business and technology talents baked into the same person, that tends to be rare. An engineer who can sell? A leader who can code? Unheard of!

These people are no longer rare, and we need them building our product. The CEO builds the company, the CTO builds the technology. The Chief Product Officer wields the technology to grow the company.

From Management to Marketing to Engineering

I’m going to use myself as an example of how product science is evolving with this new dual-threat skillset.

I’m an industrial and systems engineer by education. I was a developer early in my career. As an entrepreneur, I’ve been in the hybrid role I just laid out for the last 20 years, having started, run, and sold several companies along the way, both building the tech and leading or co-leading the org.

Up until a few years ago, I never would have considered myself a product person by skillset. I still don’t call myself a product manager. I use the terms product developer or product engineer when describing what I do.

That’s because product management is commonly thought of as project management, but managing a thing instead of a service. Product marketing also gets lumped into product management, but on the sell side, in roles like customer success. Even product design, especially on the tech side in UX/UI roles, is considered product management.

Here’s the thing. Over the last 20 years, what I do really hasn’t changed, but the emphasis on it and importance of it has, especially in startup.

I’m not a project manager, I’m not a marketer, I’m not a designer, but I do all these things when building a product. I was a developer, and I still code, but I don’t code into production. I use code to figure out what to build and how to sell it.

And I’m not alone.

The Ranks of Product Engineers Are Growing

Almost every single up-and-coming product leader I talk to these days is a former software developer or engineer. Most of them have at least an entrepreneurial bent, if not already a founder or an early startup employee. All of them are frustrated, at least a little, with how their role is laid out.

On the other side, software developers have always had a tough time maturing. They tend to age out like athletes because there’s always younger folks with newer knowledge coming in cheaper. Also offshoring. Senior developers usually either turn to project management, which they hate, or people management, which they’re either ill-equipped for or… they hate. Some will get into sales, some become entrepreneurs.

With the exception of entrepreneurship, none of what I just described allows the former software developer to apply the massive creative experience and invaluable real-world business knowledge they’ve acquired over their software development career.

But wait! There’s a huge gap in the org just screaming for that kind of knowledge.

Product Engineer: The Arbiter of Quality vs Delivery

The CEO wants customers at all costs. The CTO wants excellent software at all costs. The CPO settles this dispute with ultimate authority, using that aforementioned knowledge and experience, along with data and a growing number of new tools and methods, as the power vested in them.

Day to day, the product engineer is tasked with building a product that grows the company in their target market. This means the product engineer has to know a lot about a lot.

The product engineer must use their technical experience and creativity to work with the development team to prioritize what needs to be done against what can be done, when it’ll get done, and how much it’ll cost for what return.

To understand that return, the product engineer must use data to discover what customers need and how much value they’ll find in filling those needs.

To determine that value, the product engineer should be able to use technology to prototype new features and feature sets, figure out how they fit into the user experience, and understand how they impact the product as a whole.

Then the product engineer must use their industry knowledge to work with sales and marketing to redefine the product, making it drop-dead simple for the customer to find the new value immediately.

To verify that value and build on it, the product engineer must use technology to create feedback loops to determine what should be built next. They interpret the results against their industry knowledge, take that back to the developers, and the cycle starts all over again.

Product Engineer: The Industry Expert

That industry knowledge is where a lot of the product engineers I talk to find the most joy. In just my last two roles as CPO, I’ve had to become a non-technical expert in auto repair, journalism, publishing, fantasy football, trucking, insurance, cable television, corporate earnings, education, and about a dozen more.

Product engineers can’t just know enough about these industries to be able to talk the talk, they have to know enough to disrupt them, to figure out what those industries need before the players themselves do, and fill needs that might not even be needs yet.

This all comes down to technology, and knowing not just what’s changed, but what’s changing, much like I try to tackle in these posts themselves, and how that’s going to impact the market their serving.

The product engineer is the perfect hybrid of technology and application, which brings growth, which is why every company needs one. And the sooner, the better.