One of your PMs just announced they’re headed on maternity leave. Now what?

6 months ago, one of my Product Managers mentioned to me that she was pregnant. She had just changed roles and was a new PM, and was worried about taking time off so quickly in her new role. I assured her things would be fine, but we would need to work together to figure out a coverage model.

We considered several options:

  • One of the other PMs on the team would cover two teams rather than just one
  • I could play a full-time PM role and cede some of my day-to-day responsibilities as a team lead
  • We could ask a Scrum Master to step in and play a heavier role
  • We could hire a contractor
  • We could try a hybrid approach, where several people combine to provide coverage

Each of these options had pros/cons that are worth discussing. We immediately eliminated Option 1, because our product team is already stretched so thin with their existing work. We are driving a ton of cultural change, and asking any of them to expand their coverage coverage would slow us down.

Option 2 was similarly dismissed. Given the size of our team, and amount of partner engagement required in this role, it seemed imprudent to have me pull back on the broader vision setting in order to cover one of the dev teams.

That left us with three options: Scrum Master, Contractor, or Hybrid. A committee comprised of my soon-to-be-on-leave PM, the Tech Lead on the team, the Scrum Master, and me sat together to review the options.

Scrum Master. At first glance, this seemed like the best option available. It would provide our Scrum Master with an opportunity to learn a new role (plus, he was already familiar with our team’s dynamics), it would leave the remaining product team unaffected, and it would allow me to continue doing the support work needed for my team. However, our Scrum Master had never done this kind of work before, and hadn’t had an opportunity to build relationships with the network of partners that we need to influence on a day-to-day basis. Given the particular importance of this position, we decided this was too large a risk to some of the key projects this team was delivering.

Contractor. The consideration process for this option was much easier. While this option offers many of the benefits of the SM option above (no impact to remaining PMs, allows me to keep doing my job), the negatives were too large. Our platform is too large, and too complicated for someone with zero institutional memory to come in and hit the ground running. It would require at least 1–2 months of overlap for this to work out. Given the costs associated with hiring a contractor, this was dismissed quickly.

Hybrid. That left the hybrid option. In this option, we discussed splitting the PM responsibilities between the tech lead, the scrum master, and me. The rough distribution would be:

  • Me: writing stories, doing research, building / maintaining the roadmap, attending all standups, writing the sprint update
  • SM: running all ceremonies (standup, planning, retro) except refinement, and catching up with me whenever there was a PM need that would block the ceremonies
  • Tech Lead: running refinements, helping write sprint updates

This Hybrid option also had the massive benefit of giving me a front row seat to the PM and Dev experience at WEX, a company I had joined in a more senior role.

Overall, this seemed like the best combination of least disruption, most learning, and least cost.

Experiment Reflections. This experiment was pretty successful! The team had solid, if occasionally underwhelming, PM coverage from me, but plenty of leadership from our SM and Tech Lead. The SM had a chance to learn more about day-to-day product responsibilities, and the Tech Lead had a chance to exercise more of his influence and leadership skills.

When our PM returned 12 weeks later, our work was in decently good shape: the backlog was relatively clean, stories for future refinement were in good shape, and the roadmap for the team had been clearly articulated.

Personal Reflections. For me, this was a truly eye opening experience. First, it gave me a chance to get a much better sense of our dev processes, and internalize how our organization utilizes scrum masters. This enabled me to argue for structural changes to the way we interact with our partners, and hopefully will result in smoother delivery across my portfolio of scrum teams. Additionally, by forcing me to re-learn the details of story writing, acceptance criteria definitions, and ceremony structures, it increased my empathy for the PM experience.

Ultimately, the question remains: was this the right decision? I think the answer is yes. If you have a PM who is heading out on Maternity Leave, this approach can allow for a minimum of disruption, while giving the team lead a deeper understanding of the existing processes she manages. However, if this were to happen a second time, I’d like to try another approach. After all, everything is just a draft of the next thing.

Have you tried another approach to covering a Dev Team while a PM is out on leave? Let me know what’s worked or what you’ve learned.

Product Management, pizza, and podcasts.