Product Developers - definition and roles

The web and the powerful and affordable computers and hand-held devices have upgraded our lifestyle and markets; the digital product sector was born.


Yes we entered the market, and some of us will have to be the versatile and experimantalist product developers that focus on the discovery and development of new products for the needs of people and businesses as offer in the free market.

Big thanks to Techpoint Charlie for hosting me for an episode on on “Product Developer” concept. The content of that episode captures most part of it, in case you prefer audio ;)

Who is a Product Developer?

In the general sense, every member in a team that is trying to figure out and validate solutions to validated problems, solutions that blend together existing or innovative technology, a strategic positioning in the market and a sustainable business model, is a product developer.

A second way to put it, other than calling ourselves a generic term that might be confused with each of our individual skills and expertise, is to say that we share a product-driven mindset, or maybe to say that we work as members of product development team.

In a previous post, Product Developers - Draft Definition, I was trying to come up of a general definition that include all these players. Here’s again the working definition of this general persona of a product developer that I pose in that post:

A person who contributes with expertise, as well as with soft skills, to the process of developing tech-enabled solutions to validated problems.

The scope of this post is digital product development (or discovery) in which software is an important component in the final product, and might as well be the most important asset to that business.

Product development teams

Product teams in this scope:

  • share interest in and understanding of product development context and techniques. Such as broad business and technological knowlege, prototyping, running experiments, data analysis, user research/interviews, agile/lean processes to name a few
  • have interest in the domain they are developing the product in as well as in gaining some domain expertise
  • maintain collectively the skill-set necessary to reliably hypothesize, design, implement and measure the outcome of every iteration
  • are empowered to self-organize and work in the ways they see fit best

The task

This team is at first tasked with getting to a Product Market Fit, either for a given business-case or for the exploration of potenial new markets or verticals.

After a solid product-market-fit has been discovered and validated, typically in the form of a Minimal Viable Product, the same team will continue to further experiment with various areas that seem necessary to improve the solution, minimize acquisition costs, improve retention, secure the positioning of the product in the market and etc. The task now is to figure out how to scale their MVP.

Scaling the product may result in increasing demands on focus and expertise in different areas of the product than the original team might be able to afford. The product team may remain at the core of all that during and after scaling phase, or may disappear as one team with clear boundaries. That depends on many factros that’s out of the scope of this post.

The roles

Typical roles and their key responsibility in a digital product team can be summarized as following:

  • the Domain Expert

    they will be the subject-matter authority that can accurately tell the team the meaning, purpose and edge-cases of the laws and ethics of particular areas in the domain the product is developed for

    • Depending on the domain of the product, this role sometimes need to be handled by specialized experts, or can be entirely owned by the whole team.

    • Nonetheless, the rest of the team would always benefit greatly if they all gain some knowledge in the domain they are developing for.

  • the Product Manager

    they own and constantly adjust and communicate the strategy in positioning the product in the market

    • as a minimum, there will be a product manager.
    • depending on the size of the team and the nature of the domain, there may be need for more managers focusing on functional (e.g. engineering or design managers) or non-functional (e.g. people or operations managers) aspects in the team.
  • the Product Designer

    they convert learnings and hypothesis into conceptual and interactive design that talk directly to the end-user

  • the Product Engineer

    they implement the conceptual and interactive designs in a working software and maintain the infrastructure behind running the software components of the product

    Read more on Product Engineer Techstack.

  • the Product Support Expert

    they are the face of the company/product to existing users/customers and they communicate effectively with them to convey user pains with the product to the rest of the team

    • this role is also often shared by the entire team depending on the domain or the stage of the product and the size of the user/customer base. In that case, product managers and designers engage highly in these activities as it is one of the most important qualitative feedback loops the have.

Interaction with other teams

Even during discovery phase, the product team might be operating within a long-standing company, a subsidiary, a venture, an agency or simply a startup that has few more players or teams that they will have to interact with in business context.

In most cases, and at the bare minimum, product teams will be reporting to their shareholders and board.

The interaction between the product team members and others maybe be carried by a representative or more, or by the whole team, depending on the size of it. During that interaction, it is important to keep in mind:

  • Trust is your main currency. Be honest, direct, clear and fact-checked in your communication and reporting. Do not over or under sell your successes or failures, and share your learnings openly with others all the time.
  • Do not allow side-track requests or communication to grow. They will certainly happen all the time. Make sure to turn the (product) manager’s attention to them immediately.
  • Don’t get the previous point wrong though. Casual chat about your work with others or theirs is a very important bonding experience within the organisation.
  • Build semi-structured channels for communications with every other team or individual once you identify that they might provide you with valuable information, especially feedback coming through from current or potential customers, market research or technological advancements in the domain of your product.