What is product engineering? Our engineers explain

Engineering

By Sharon Anne Kean, Product Manager at TransferWise

Our product teams work differently to those in many other organisations. Our culture of autonomy means engineers, along with the product managers, designers and analysts must decide what it is they should be building for our customers, by knowing what will have the most impact.

Understandably, engineers considering joining TransferWise often ask us the question: ‘What does it mean to be a product engineer?’. So, to try to answer this, I spoke to some of the product engineers and tech leads in our teams and got them to share their experience of engineering at TransferWise.

At TransferWise we have a very clear mission — money without borders, instant, transparent, convenient and eventually free. We know there are many things we need to build to get there — new products and integrations with banks and partners, as well as new services that replace old services or monoliths along the way.

However, we don’t know the exact path we will take to get there. We know there are many more customers to reach in our existing markets, and many more currencies that we should launch, but because no one has done this before we don’t know exactly what we should build to get us there.

That’s why we rely on our product teams and product engineers to figure out what we should build. So what does this mean for product engineers at TransferWise?

We’re all empowered and encouraged to understand as much as we can about why we’re building a certain product, or what it is that we truly need to build,” says Jose de la Pena, tech lead for the Global Currencies Expansion team. “When I was working in the Asia region, we started to consider whether our customers wanted to send US Dollars to these countries. We organized a series of calls with different customers, and later on we had a few rounds of user testing with some of them.”

Engineers at TransferWise are encouraged to get close to customers to help them figure out what to build. “We tried to identify why this could be useful for them,” Jose continues, “What kind of experience did they expect from it and why it was important. Thanks to those customers we ended up building a product they love and that has been gaining popularity ever since.”

At TransferWise it’s not just the product managers that listen to our customers, it’s the whole product team, whether it’s through NPS surveys or feedback to our customer support team, or observing how customers interact with the live product.

“The reason we found out that customers wanted to send USD to Asia was by observing how they were using our product,” explains Jose. “We noticed how customers were consistently trying to create transfers to certain countries that were unsupported, and that raised awareness in the team that there was something our customers wanted that we were currently failing to provide. So we got to work!”

This same principle applies when the customer is an internal team, which is the case for Helen Durrant who is responsible for the design system used by designers and engineers at TransferWise. “We don’t have a product manager, so I take on most of the responsibilities of a PM in addition to being the tech lead,” she explains. “My primary responsibility is to figure out where we should focus to have maximum impact for our consumers, and through them, TransferWise customers. Being an internally facing team focused on efficiency, it’s not always easy to find data to back up our hypotheses, but we do our best with sentiment analysis of the feedback we get and through conducting user interviews.”

Balazs Barna, lead engineer in the European Expansion team is clear that as a TransferWise engineer you always have to think about the why. “While we value technical excellence, at TransferWise you are not locked in a box as a Java developer, where you can only have thoughts about the how. As a TransferWise engineer you always have to think about the why,” he explains.

That can be a culture shift for many engineers but it’s a positive one, in the opinion of Dave Hancock, a tech lead in our North America team. He spent 5 years working as an engineer at an investment bank, before joining TransferWise. He applied to TransferWise because he wanted to work somewhere that was passionate about creating positive and disruptive change for customers. “Somewhere that had a healthy culture and a clear mission,” he explains.

As product engineers we can be involved in everything from leading or taking part in user research sessions, defining the product and vision for the team, and of course, building the software solutions themselves. While we each have our core disciplines, working in a cross functional way is great for ensuring we have shared context and belief in the product we build. While perhaps daunting initially, it’s a really effective way of working for the team while also being really rewarding personally.”

Analytics discussion

Culturally, learning is an important part of the product engineering process at TransferWise, as is feedback from peers. “The biggest learning for me was how much more effective you become in an environment which encourages you to fail and learn fast, rather than trying to make sure you never make a mistake,” says Balazs.

“My first weeks in TransferWise were truly eye-opening,” explains Jose, whose previous role was in an environment where there was much stronger direction and very little margin to be creative or add his own input to what problems he worked on.

“When I arrived at TransferWise I was asked what I thought I should be doing with my time. That felt scary at first, but in the long run it just meant that I had to learn how to look for the right data, how to make sense out of it and to engage colleagues from different teams around solving a specific problem. I also learnt how to take controlled risks, try new ideas, and fail fast.”

“We prefer direct feedback among peers,” explains Balazs, “But at the same time we are always respectful and open for different opinions. As Harsh Sinha, our CTO, often says: ‘Strong opinions, weakly held.’”

Before joining TransferWise Helen was leading a small fully-remote frontend team for a US-based healthcare startup. “The whole engineering organisation had around 15 people in total and we were all working on the same app,” she reflects. “At TransferWise we have more than 50 product teams over a number of different tribes, each working independently to make TransferWise better for our customers. My job requires that we are in touch with all of these different teams, and the designers and engineers in them. So my role requires a lot more networking and talking with people from other parts of the business.”

So, if you’re reading this and are interested in joining TransferWise as a product engineer, what can you expect from our interview process? And what do we look for in candidates?

“A good product engineer always has the customer in mind,” Helen explains. “Are you happy just writing code, or will you stop to ask why you are being asked to write it in the first place?”

She also strongly believes that to craft a great product, you need to empower people at every stage in the product development process: “To voice their opinions, challenge ideas and work together to improve the product. This includes everyone from product management, design, engineering, to customer service.”

Strong foundations in software engineering with a big emphasis on testing, is critical says Balazs: “When you have an established way of making sure that your code behaves the way you want it to, it frees up brain capacity to learn more about the TransferWise way of building products”

But there’s more to it than that — some of the most important aspects are the candidate’s personal motivation, openness and communication skills, he adds.

The ability to understand and figure out what to build is also high on the list. “I expect candidates to be able to explain very clearly what the end solution will look like and why they have chosen that solution,” says Jose. “What are the trade offs being made? Is this the optimal solution for customers? How can they measure that? And, if it isn’t, why have they made the decision of implementing that one instead? These are some of the most common questions product engineers will have to ask themselves in TransferWise.”

So, that’s it for now. Hopefully this blog helps you to understand what product engineering looks like at TransferWise. If you’d like to read more about how we work check out this blog.

P.S. Interested in working with us? We’re hiring! Check out our open Engineering roles here.