Product Engineering Culture in Europe has big issues

24 February, 2023

3 min read

Last updated on 24 February, 2023

Soon will be one year as I've started to work as Software Engineer in one of the biggest product companies in Europe – Zalando. I visited Porsche Digital, talked with engineers, product managers & scientists across all central Europe (since I'm helping to organise Ukraine Rust Conference). I am writing my post based on my perspective and what I've noticed for that time.

I don't want to be offensive and arrogant. Neither I want to be nonconstructive. I genuinely want to help and contribute to the solution.

It's easy to check, I'm still working and still engaged. I believe, we, as engineers, should solve problems together.

Product Managers are suffering

Many product managers I talked to, saying me the same things. They feel powerless in European organisations. They do documents, visions, facilitate workshops, but they don't have any responsibility or control over money and business domain.

Writing papers and doing retrospectives in Miro != product management.

Product management means money, business objectives and control over human and material resources.

One German product manager told me a joke (or not), that they are being taught to write documents of size of books of 'how feature should look like'.  

Product Management culture has its root in US technology companies. That's why Europeans can't simply copy and follow it. European Union has different context, and we must find and form our own product management culture there.

One main characteristic should remain. Product managers are connected to business and money.

You can't grow your product managers, if you don't give them their 'land' to own. It might be small, but ownership should be clear. And it's certainly a risk for the business owner. But if you do the opposite and focus control on yourself or only management board close to you, you 'centralize' your processes and block your growth.

Engineers are assumed as silent executors

Say in Germany or Austria you are Software Engineer and I usually hear in response: "Oh, it must be so boring, how are you capable of doing that. You don't look like person who can sit 24/7 writing code".

For me it seems like Germans imagine Software Engineers not as rich (as in Ukraine), but as 'boring job', where 'you are writing code as you are told to by business owners'.

And I saw that immigrants in Germany, who firstly didn't understand this way of working, can't protect themselves from high pressure of local engineering culture.

Ask Americans how they imagine Software Engineer. Ask Polish. Ask Estonians. There are already a lot of examples of engineering cultures where Software Engineers feel motivated and energetic. Engineering IS creative and deep job, it can't be 'boring' and you can't be 'told to' how to solve issues you're facing.

If you silently obey, it's not engineering, it's a modern slavery.

I believe there is always should be space for engineers to be engaged and thoughtful on what is being done and why. What goals are chased. How decisions were formed.

Achieve more with less

There are certain cargo-cult around how engineering / product team should look like. From my limited understanding, people assume that coworking which costs huge pile of euros in the centre of the capital  is absolutely necessary for a company to win. Or having good coffee machines. Or having Agile or Scrum master. Burning money is okay.

That's what we do as employees, right? We have evil corporations which limit our freedom and push us to do something we don't like, so we instead would burn them money as much as we can.

If you have any resources, mo matter what kind or how much, you should learn how to use them. If you can't manage resources you have, you won't be given more. You shouldn't be given more.

You can achieve great results in high constrained environment. And you should not be afraid of constraints, but seek them, because in constraints you'd find the only way to create a true art, a masterpiece be it engineering or design or anything else.

You become master of what you've doing by having and overcoming constraints, not by having unlimited resources. And coffee machine in the office can contribute to you being better in what you do, but only if you already are dedicated to win.

We have our pioneers

I love Berlin. This is a true land of freedom for engineers, artists and everyone, who wants to contribute to progress in Europe and beyond. Product Engineering culture should be forged in places like that across all European Union.

Great products are innovations. If we want innovations, we must protect product culture and defend our rights to be who we want to be.


Troy Köhler is Software Engineer living in Berlin, Germany with ~6 years of experience working in technology industry. He used to work in one of the biggest e-commerce product in Ukraine, and now works at Zalando which has more than 7 millions paying customers. He focuses his study and expertise on Rust language, complex backend systems, product development and engineering platforms.

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Troy Köhler