Image by Kirill Zubovsky
Big Ideas

Engineering is Not Product Development

I spend my fair share of time helping clients understand what’s so broken about traditional product development for technology products. The more experienced the audience, the easier the task. If someone has lived through developing an innovative technology product or two, heads nod and we’re completing one another’s sentences in no time.

For the less experienced, it has been helpful to stand back and share my perspective on why product development has evolved the way it has for technology products. I recently discovered a piece of that narrative I had been missing, and one rooted all the way back to engineers starting their careers fresh out of school.

Engineering is Not Product Development

When engineers finish their academic training, they’re ready to go out in the world and engineer things. Engineering is, after all, about wrapping science with a whole bunch of additional constraints to create something that lives free of the life support system of a lab.

So, a newly minted engineer sits down, does some engineering, and develops a product, right? Wrong. Engineering is not product development.

Engineering education teaches parcels of compartmentalized knowledge pertaining to thermodynamics, mechanical design, software architecture, programming languages, circuit design, and the behavior of electromagnetic radiation, for example. Product development is not about defining what you want to build and solving a series of engineering problems to build it. If engineering is science wrapped in more constraints, product development is engineering wrapped in even more constraints.

Product development requires building things that follow not just the laws of physics and good software development practices, but also economics, industrial design, product development team dynamics, manufacturing, business needs within an organization, and most importantly, customer desire. Product development has in part evolved the way it has because engineers define how products are developed, and most engineers (especially those who haven’t yet developed a product) think engineering is product development.

There is little appreciation for product development being an entirely different discipline, and one that isn’t taught in school. Yes, many engineering programs attempt to simulate product development through lab courses and team projects. This is infinitely more helpful than book learning alone, but all the forces at work in a real product development environment can’t be adequately simulated in an academic environment (and usually product development is not highlighted as a skill separate from engineering anyway, so it’s not easy to fully leverage the learning opportunity).

Mindtribe’s secret sauce is providing both engineering and product development guidance. Engineering being engineering, and product development leveraging that engineering in the best way possible to ensure our teams build successful, innovative technology products that customers love. The two go hand-in-hand, yet the need to be skilled product developers is generally missed by engineers. If product development was more broadly acknowledged as a discipline separate from engineering, engineers could more effectively avoid what’s broken with traditional product development.