Doing Product Management Right

Question: What is the role of a product manager in a technology company?
Interviewee: You know it’s a very ambiguous role to be honest, there is no real definition that you actually can put together, I think it just depends upon what the context and what product you are really building and what context of the company is.
Typically, I look at a product manager as somebody who is pretty much the CEO of a small and medium business without actually being called the CEO of small and medium business. Your job is to actually do whatever it takes, you know. It could range from doing operations to actual product work to analytics to helping out engineers to design to legal to whatever it takes to actually make sure your product launches. And at the end of the day you are filling in all the holes in the eco system to actually get things done.
And so from my perspective the simplest definition of product manager is somebody who is responsible. At the end of the day you are responsible for making sure the product launches, if it launches then so you basically spread the credit among the team and if it fails you take the burden of blame and shoulder on and try to launch a product again.

Question: What are the three attributes of a successful product manager?
Interviewee: From my perspective you should have a very broad sense of the eco system. I am a very firm believer in what we call ‘generalist product manager’ which means that it doesn’t really matter which sector of product you’ve to attack you should just basically be able to go and adapt to the eco system in which you’ve to actually work in.
And so if you are a generalist then the first attribute that’s very important is somebody who has a very broad sense of the eco system in general. When I talk to a product managers interview them for roles, usually I could be asking a question on video ads eco system and then switch over directly after that to games and from their I might actually switch over to social networks and may be ask something in enterprise.
So from my perspective they should have a very well formed opinion they don’t need to go very deep and they should have a very broad understanding of a variety of different eco systems. So that’s one attribute I look for.
Second in general they should’ve a lot of understanding of the technology underlying the products. And this is important because you can’t really make very important business decisions in the business of what we call technology without really understanding the ramifications of your call.
A lot product managers come in and they make a call and it’s actually almost infeasible to actually build technically, you don’t not only lose credibility with the engineers but also end up at kind of you know slowing down the company and making wrong calls.
And so I’m also looking for people who have the right technical underpinning it doesn’t necessarily mean a technical degree but you should at least understand the technology behind the product you are building, so that’s the second thing I think is very important.
The third one is little intangible, it’s really very difficult to find out I call it ‘emotional intelligence’. You should have the ability to know how to lead and leadership actually could be from the front, from the back or from the middle depending upon what the situation of the team is.
You should be able to take the team and drive it such that it launches and be able to do it in a way that you don’t necessarily have to be in front on the stage always talking you could be the guy in the back just pushing things along.
So if those three things come together then usually that’s a sign of promise, let’s say promising sign for somebody who is a product person.

Question: Any mistakes that Product Managers make, differentiating great product managers from good ones?
Interviewee: I thing the first one that I’ve seen a lot of product people make is the fact that they confuse the idea of being a product manager with the idea that they are the ones who are always going to be leading! And so I’ve seen lot of product people do basically very quickly devolve into giving commandments or saying things like this needs to be done and being dictatorial in the way they actually operate in the team. It’s a very very bad place to be, your job is to be a manager of products, your job is not to just automatically manage teams of course you’ve to influence them to make sure they move in the right direction but you’ve to do it with a lot of empathy for the work that the teams do. So I think that’s a very common mistake that I’ve seen product people do and I think they should avoid that. We should try to figure out how to actually when people and move people through influence, so that’s one that I think is the common mistake.
The second one is typically I’ve seen product people get too much into details of what they are building and so you spend so much time in the weeds that you become almost emotionally involved with that product. You get to a place where you’ll lose perspective of what the actually implication of the product is and the only way to actually you know circumvent that issue is to be able to always remember your products, your role of your product is to be in the service of the consumer, whoever that consumer might be, could be company or a user. And so at regular intervals step back and ask yourselves is this something the user wants, is this something that’s going to make the life better and if you could actually figure that out then you probably on the right track. If you are not doing that you might end up building something that you like but nobody else cares for!

Question: What are the major gaps in the Indian product management eco system compared to Silicon Valley?
Interviewee: I think there are bunch of different gaps. I think the primary gap in the eco system here is the lack of leadership and role models. I think that’s a very big important gap. What happens in the Valley why you actually come out of the school and you just join teams there is enough role model and mentors who are actually around you who teach you what it is to be a great product manager the best practices are out there is enough hand holding happens in the formative years of your career where you learn what the right thing to do is!
Unfortunately we just don’t have enough people who actually in terms of quantity in the Indian eco system to be able to do that. And I think it’s going to get better it’ll take a generation or two for start-ups and companies to get there. But today I’d say that’s a real gap. In fact program like these can be help fill that gap in the absence of actually having enough real people who have done great product management role. So I think that’s something to think about.
The second gap that I’ve noticed is just the ability to really focus on data and analyse data and think about the consumer every step along the way. I’ve seen a lot of product management in India is very intuitive so people actually kind of gut feel the way out and build stuff. Unfortunately that’s usually not the right way to build stuff, gut feel and instincts really do matter but you’ve to actually make sure they are validate with real data and with real conversations with consumers and users.
I think that’s missing in the eco system, we don’t have really good data practices we don’t have enough data infrastructure that we can actually use to actually make the kind of calls that we need to make.
So I would say that these two things I would want to actually make sure change in the ecosystem one would be to actually make sure there is really a strong network of great role models, coaches, programs that can actually help product management become better and the second is to actually improve the data infrastructure of the country.

Question: What are the top challenges while hiring new product managers?
Interviewee: I think in the Indian eco system as I mentioned the first issue is 07:51 back in the Valley we are used to actually having directly from all the top schools you know technical schools business schools mostly because they’ve a wide amount of exposure to a variety of different topics, the schools are much more well rounded they are kind of courses you are exposed to are much more diverse so therefore people who come out are really creative and I think in India we have a little bit of a dearth of that typical undergrad does not provide that much of a diversity in terms of exposure to variety of different issues that people face so we’ve to actually supplement that with real life problems and things that we have to do once we actually hire them so that’s generally a struggle for us.
And I think the second struggle is, and this is getting better in general the Indian system is the ability to think outside of the box, be creative I actually think product manager especially the ones that are starting off should actually should mostly mildly disrespectful of the hierarchy and they should be very open to coming up with crazy ideas then be able to ram them through because usually the best products come out of that. Indian eco system sometimes tends to be little bit more of a hierarchical and then they are actually does not lend itself to the kind of creativity we want.
Now having said that I think with the current wave of entrepreneurship things are changing but you know a lot more has to change over time.

Question: How important is an MBA to have a successful career in product management?
Interviewee: Not important at all and this comes from somebody who had an MBA, I can tell you that the best product managers that I work with are people with high energy high empathy high understanding of what kind of user problems there are and they observe very well and they have a sense of pulse of the users and then they use a lot data to actually figure out how to solve that, none of these thing is necessarily the prerogative of an MBA!
Sometimes we typically, we go to schools and hire, business schools and hire people there because we’re tend to find more people in a more congested cluster who are like that but I actually contend that most of the things the business school teaches them does not really add to any of these. It is just a self selected group of people who actually match up to product management.
So from my perspective you know we need to find people like that and it’s irrelevant whether they have business school degree or not. And you know if you are actually somebody who is interested in actually getting into product management I would probably spend a lot more time trying to just understand the underpinnings of the technology having opinion on wide variety of topics in the world in terms of the space in which the technology is operating in, take and put yourselves in places where you have to lead through influence and if you can do all of those things very well and you know how to structure programs and take them to launches then you are automatically good product manager notwithstanding a business degree.

Question: How does a PM establish trust and leadership with the team?
Interviewee: I think a bunch of different things you can do, first of all the biggest thing you’ve to do, product management is in its most clearest form is relatively a thankless job, you know if you really really do you job very well and the product does well you’ve to make sure that your team is actually getting a lot of the credit and you are with them and helping push things to the next level and if it’s not doing well then you’ve to buffer your team from the negativity and make sure you absorb lot of it.
So I look at it in its clearest form to be very selfless role and more you can embrace that, it’s very hard for people to do that but the more you can embrace that the more successful you’ll be as a product person and so to me what you need to do is basically look at the kind of challenges your team is facing and go in and actually solve them.
Your role is primarily to make sure you can build and launch a product to do that if you’ve sweep floors you should do that, if you’ve to bring like food and make sure you feed the engineers at regular time you should do that, if you’ve to do analytics you’ve to do that, if you’ve to talk to lawyers you should to do that, so whatever it takes to fill the holes and when you actually do that automatically the team starts to believe that you’re going to take care of them and when you do that then automatically there is a leadership influence that comes in where you become somebody who they can look up to and know that you will take them to the next level.
So it’s a difficult ambiguous role but also an extraordinarily fun and interesting role because you are doing all sorts of interesting things to actually make sure you launch the product.

Question: What does Google do differently to enable thought leadership?
Interviewee: I mean look, there is always a talk in the Valley about Google school of product management I obviously believe in it you know that’s where I learnt most of the my jobs in terms of product management. I think there are few things that Google does very very well. First it actually is it leads through some amount of decentralisation so there is really no top down mandates to actually go to stuff.
What actually happens when you let people come up with ideas and you combine that with hiring very very smart people, is that they come up with very interesting ideas and they’ve the motivation to actually take it to the next level to actually to launch it.
So one thing Google has done very well is actually free up people so that they can come up with crazy ideas.
The second thing it does very well is that they actually provide huge emphasis on engineering and product management as the tools to actually drive the business forward.
There are many companies in the world who are sales oriented companies. There are many companies who are actually a BD or other operations oriented companies Google is firmly in engineering and product management oriented company.
When you do that then you actually allow people to create things and innovate and actually push things forward I think that’s the second thing it does.
It also has spent enough time creating enough space in people’s lives, employees lives so that they can think of interesting ideas. We used to have a 20% program especially in the first few years of Google’s existence where people would have 20% of their time to go to whatever they want to do. There were some people who were actually building gardens like vegetable gardens and then there were other people who were building email products. Gmail was a 20% product, Orkut was a 20% product all of these came out not because Larry said or Erick said you need to actually build these things they came because they gave the people the space to say ‘go build whatever you think is interesting’ and if it is actually something that will have traction then we’ll actually back it.
So to me you know the biggest thing Google has done is assembled probably the smartest people in the world and then given them the freedom to actually go think and build crazy stuff. When you do both of those things together you automatically get success.

Question: While building a future product, should a PM be worried about saying too many “no’s” than “yes” to management decisions?
Interviewee: I think that’s something the management should be worried about more importantly if they are actually hearing a lot more of ‘no’s’ than ‘yes’. Typically you know this happens a lot in the industry, I’ve gone through multiple roles where my name was nickname was Dr. No, the job was actually say ‘no’ to things. I think product management is the art of actually not what you do is the art of choosing what you shouldn’t do and the core product strategy is in being able to say ‘no’ to lot of different things and then being able to say ‘yes’ to certain things.
The key is not the fact that you’ve to say ‘no’ or say ‘yes’ the key is what strategy, what structure and framework did you put in place that actually validates that. And so to me it’s okay if every single day for most of the request if you are actually saying ‘no’ but back it up with framework that is consistent there should be set of principles that people can look at and say “okay I understand, you basically said here are the three things that we’ll do and here is 10 things we’ll not do and since the ideas that I’ve are in the other 10 things where you are saying ‘no’”. If it’s illogical it it’s inconsistence, if it’s not backed with a strategy, if it’s not backed with data then you’ll quickly lose credibility and you will be known actually just a way to stonewall the organisation moving forward.
On the flip side if it’s logical and coherent people will respect you for it so I’ll give you a quick example to explain this you know.
When we were dealing with Motorola it was a turnaround situation the company was bleeding millions of dollars every quarter hundreds of millions of dollars every quarter we’d to make sure that we’d a strategy, now what is the vision of a mobile device company? It’s to build a great mobile device! What’s the strategy? The strategy was we’ll not do… every single pixel in the phone will be in the service of the user we’ll not do anything that is not at the cusp of hardware and software because pure software any mobile app developer can build, we’ll do stuff that will actually makes android better.
Now if you look at these three different rules every time somebody would come up and say “I’ve an idea” I’d usually ask them “is this idea in the benefit of the end user?” not me not the partners but the end user. Or is this idea something that actually only we because hardware company can do? Or is this something that will make android look better? If it is any of those three I’ll entertain the idea if it’s none of those three I’ll say ‘no’.
Now it’s coherent the framework makes sense to them and people want to actually work on it, so saying ‘no’ is okay as long as you can back it with the coherent framework.

Question: What is your advice to aspiring product managers?
Interviewee: I think the key to being a product manager is to realise that the end results the outcome of actually being an effective product person is that you’ll become a leader in the technology industry and if you want to be leader then all the core attributes of a leadership apply.
You’ve to have an understanding of the area you are working in, you’ve to have emotional intelligence, you’ve to have great communication skills, you’ve to be able to inspire people to actually do crazy stuffs with you, you’ve to have the ability to manage programs very complicated programs and take them to next level and because you are in the area of technology you better have a lot of credibility working with technology.
So I would spend my time honing the skills in those spaces, you’ve to be very entrepreneurial, in effect almost all strong entrepreneurs at some points have to be product managers, all strong leaders who are CEOs of great companies comes from product engineering background in technology world and so therefore these are the kind of skills you need to hone.
I would spend a lot of time being very observant of the world around you, ask yourself what kind of problems people are facing and then see if you’ve any ideas on how to solve that. I would spend a lot time actually reading up all sorts of technology trends, you’ve to be always on the cutting edge of all the tech trends that are there so that you know how to actually solve the kind of problems you saw.
I would spend time really trying to be in positions where you can lead but you are not really anointed the leader! It could be as simple thing as leading a hike, could be a choreography, it could be a impromptus sketch, it could be a actual start-up it doesn’t matter what you do put yourself in a place where nobody is saying you are the leader but actually you’ve to lead by influence.
If you do these things then you’ll slowly and steadily become a much more effective product person.

Question: Any advice to early stage companies who are hiring their product managers?

Interviewee: I think the fundamental advice I can give you guys is that you know India has had some very great companies that has come out of the tech ecosystem. Those companies came or built in an era where the biggest competition in front of them was lack of infrastructure and believed that large companies can be built and so that’s cool and that’s something we should all respect.
But the truth is that today your largest competition is not that lack of infrastructure your belief your largest competition is the worlds’ greatest product and tech companies. You are competing with Amazon or Facebook or a Google at every single way in every single step along your way. And therefore you cannot compete by just being operational throwing people at the problem you’ve to start by almost assuming that you are not going to have people that you cannot have rely on operations it’s too expensive for you and then build using product and technology if you do that and only if you do that can you scale to such a place where you can solve problems that this large country has today.
And so you know focus on product, focus on technology that’s the only way you can scale, focus on consumer, use 21:04 and actually most importantly focus on ingenuity of economics if you do all of those things you will end up building the next Alibaba, the next Google, the next Facebook.

Punit Soni - Former Product Head , Flipkart
ABOUT THE SPEAKER
Punit Soni - Former Product Head , Flipkart - A seasoned product leader focused on mobile sector, Punit has been responsible for all aspects of product development including crafting strategy, building teams and executing to go to market for leading brands like Flipkart, Motorola Mobility and Google.
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