- Joe Martin
One of the many trends among high-growth companies in the last five years has been the emergence of an entirely new role, or engineering skill set: Product engineering. A quick glance at Google search trends reveals that searches for product engineers have grown over 80% in the last year, and are 3x greater now than just two years ago.
If you’ve never encountered this role before, it may be tempting to dismiss the notion as simply another hiring label used by companies pursuing ‘rockstar’ candidates to take on the work of typically separate roles.
However, product engineering is not merely a newly fashionable hybrid role. It is fast becoming its own discipline, complete with its own tech stack and characteristics.
In this article, we’ll explore what product engineering is, how it differs from other disciplines, why it is so valuable to high-growth start-ups, and what tools and techniques are typically used by product engineers.
What is Product Engineering Anyway?
At the most basic level, a product engineer can be defined as someone who combines the skills and role of a product manager, and a software engineer. In practice, this means that product engineers can and will write code, but they also speak to users directly and take a broad responsibility for a product or feature. Typically they have a focus on frontend work, and will spend the majority of their time on engineering tasks — but not always. They can also be backend, or full-stack engineers.
At a broader and more nuanced level, product engineers generally have a deep sense of empathy and curiosity, which they use to build better products. To quote the Pragmatic Engineer:
“[Product engineers] are empathetic about how the product makes users feel and how those users benefit from using this product. They often dive straight to data about business and user metrics, getting their hands on this data however they can…They do this because of their curious nature.”
Pragmatic Engineer goes on to explain that product engineers also need to be great communicators, with both engineers and non-engineers. These sorts of soft skills are obviously typical of strong product managers, but combine especially well with the technical ability of a software engineer.
Finally, product engineers are often obsessed with data, and can use it with their sense of empathy to find new opportunities for a product or team. Product engineers will often use product analytics tools in combination with A/B testing or surveys to gather as much information as possible and to test new ideas.
To quote the Pragmatic Engineer again: “They often dive straight to data about business and user metrics, getting their hands on this data however they can. They might access it directly–if this is possible–or approach the product manager or data scientists.”
Why Are Product Engineers Important?
Strong software engineers and product managers are already among some of the most valuable members of an organization because of the outsized impact they can have. Even so, product engineers are uniquely valuable because of their ability to remain entirely autonomous within a team. Rather than relying on a product manager to set a strategy, or a software engineer to fulfill it, a product engineer is capable of doing both without support.
On a day-to-day level, this means that product engineers are often proactively collecting user feedback, spotting product edge cases and acting on the data they collect. Most importantly, they are intuiting product improvements and building prototypes to assess their impact.
To quote Sherif Mansour: “Product engineers are always seeking autonomy and fast decision making.”
Unsurprisingly, product engineers are especially potent and sought after for early-stage products or teams, when there is a lot of greenfield to explore and product-market fit may not have been established. In such environments, product engineers with the right tools can be among the most impactful members of an organization.
What Stack Do Product Engineers Use?
In addition to the typical tools used by engineers, such as a coding editor, product engineers often leverage tools used by other roles, including product managers, marketers, and designers, such as:
- Feature Flag Software: Such as LaunchDarkly or PostHog, to deploy new features quickly, or to launch beta versions of new prototypes so they can gather usage data.
- Session Replay Tools: Such as HotJar or PostHog, to collect information about how users actually engage with a feature. User surveys are often used to gather additional feedback as a follow-up.
- A/B Experimentation Platforms: Such as VWO or PostHog, to prove hypotheses and test the impact of frontend changes to a product.
- CI/CD Tools: Such as GitLab, to enable constant iteration and free up engineers to focus on product vision rather than infrastructure.
Data in all forms is also tremendously valuable to product engineers, so product analytics are another essential part of the stack. Tools such as Amplitude, Mixpanel, and PostHog enable product engineers to interrogate data in order to find new opportunities. In fact, PostHog has a dedicated program for startups that offers many perks, and a generous $50,000 of credit.
As we’ve covered here, there isn’t necessarily an “either-or” for product engineering vs. software engineering, as product engineers often contribute directly to software projects. But the rise of the discipline suggests the growing importance of being able to ship products more quickly while incorporating data-driven user feedback.