16 min read

Career in Product Management

Career in Product Management

This is the transcript of the talk by Gaurav Nemade presented at Git Commit Show 2019.

About the speaker

Gaurav Nemade, Product Manager at Google AI shares his career journey from a Computer Science Student to product Manager. He shares his wisdom and answers burning questions for developers who want to become a Product Manager. He has been a PM with these teams for close to three years now and as his focus area, he is sort of a research and development PM.


How do we take some of these cutting-edge technologies that are being developed at Google AI research and bring them to google products? So some of the things you may have heard about conversational chatbots, understanding sentiment, and emotion from textual content compressing like smart reply which are like the small chips that you see at the bottom of the messaging apps for easy responding of messages. These are some of the things that I'm working on and super excited to be here.

A quick update on what I'm going to be talking about today. So just high-level two things: what exactly is the job of a product manager and if somebody is interested in getting into product management, what are some of the tips I can offer? Let's jump into the first one: what exactly is the job of a PM? I think this part is one of the most unclear parts in the industry because there is no one type of PM for example you can be a back-end developer, you can be good in java and some of the related technologies but for PM's, the skill set is not that tangible. So let's talk about some of the things that are common across different companies for the product manager role and then we can dive deeper into some of the case studies. The first key responsibility of a product manager within any team or within any organization is to figure out what game are we playing, what game should we be playing, and by game here I mean what kind of things we should be focusing on and what kind of products we should be building. So in simple terms, defining the product strategy.

Imagine that you see a cute little guy with the guitar. I'm just gonna use an example if you want to build and I like learning guitar so I'm just using this analogy for obvious reasons. I cannot share a lot about the stuff that I am doing at google so I just decided to use an analogy and an example for how to think about this. So think about a case where you are in a company and you have to build an app for guitar learners. So the user base is guitar learners. Now there are a lot of questions that come into the picture as you are thinking about building an app for guitar learners. One is like, what kind of solution should we be building so should it be like peer to peer, a network of guitar tutors, and people who want to learn. It could be like Uber for the guitar which is kind of a gig economy. The second option could be, you can just create a collection of guitar chords. So think about it like Wikipedia, where you are not helping people connect to tutors rather you are just providing a list of guitar chords. The third potential option could be, you are creating a tutor app where the users can play the guitar along with some of the things and learn by doing. So think about a karaoke-style guitar learning app where you're playing, you can see the notes moving with you, and then it identifies when you have made a mistake and then gives you back. So all three of these are the right kind of potential solutions that you could be building for a guitar learner. Why should we be going and that is the job of a product manager to figure out how to evaluate what solution to build on similar lines. They have to identify for the product like what is the goal, why we are building this, what is the overall goal for the company, does the company want to increase users, does the company want to earn more revenues with this particular app or is this just a side project that they are testing it out. So based on these a lot of answers to the product changes the other things are around like what game we should be playing is just understanding the user pain point. So based on the user pain points, the product manager figures out that we should actually be building this and not this, and then the last thing is the overall industry and the trend in this area. The PMs figure out like " hey in the music learning industry these are kind of the trends that are going on we shouldn't be targeting x and y because it is a crowded space and it is not solving the user problem versus this sounds more interesting. "So just to recap the first and one of the most important responsibilities of the PM is to figure out what game the team should be playing aka what is the strategy for the product. The second high-level responsibility that a PM has is around prioritization of efforts, while this may seem very intuitive or easy like " hey yeah we just have like we have the list of features and we just have to prioritize" This is one of the most difficult things so continuing with the example of the guitar playing.

Let's say that as a PM you have decided that we want to build a tutoring app for guitar, so guitar tutoring app, the karaoke for the guitar that I was talking about earlier. So concerning that, the PM goes out and figures out what are the kind of features that we should be building. It could be a library of cords lessons with progressive difficulty records. Actually what the user is playing on their guitars and maybe like picking up mistakes using an ML model. So an ML model is always listening to what you're playing and then based on that, it can identify whether the chord is right or wrong and then nudge you that "hey like this doesn't seem right, you should play it this right" So once there is a list of these features and there could be like a lot many of these like interesting features that come out. The PMs essentially figure out what the prioritization of these should be, which of these should be built in phase one, which is kind of a minimum viable product phase, which of them should be in phase two. So here I add an ML model because this is a good feature but it is not the core product itself somehow. So this should go in phase two and similarly they do it for 25 others for other features but one of the hardest things to do as a product manager is figuring out which features we should not be building and at the end of the day it comes down to resourcing and limited engineering resources. So prioritization is usually a balancing act between what the users are requesting, what the business needs, and what is good for the product. In the short and the long term, you have to manage the short term versus the long term because if as a PM you're working only on short-term things. You will not hit the long-term goals of the project.

If you're only working on the long-term things, then kind of short-term takes a hit and your user base may not grow. So I love this code if everything is a focus, nothing is the focus and it is the responsibility of the PM to define what the focus of the team should be through ruthless prioritization. So this was the second prioritization of efforts and the third high-level responsibility is around execution. So at the end of the day, the job of a product manager is to ship products and they need to do whatever it takes and they essentially do whatever it takes to ship the product. So some examples of that are having clear specifications: talk about what needs to be built and why we should be building that and analyzing user data. So if you don't have a data analyst or a data scientist in your team you as a PM would be responsible for crunching the data and doing all sorts of things. For example, if you look at the data and figure out that some of these lessons are being played a lot, based on that you can take a call that I should add this as a featured lesson on the homepage of my app or something like that. So good product managers usually go and see the data almost every day and figure out what the user trends are. As a PM, you're also the quality analyst of the product, if you do not have a dedicated QA you have to be the dedicated QA. If you don't like to play the guitar or if you don't play the guitar I'm afraid you have to kind of play your own game. You have to learn to play the guitar and test your product every day.

PM works a lot with cross-functional teams and fills in for cross-functional needs. In a startup, there may not be a marketing campaign manager or a sales guy or a UX guy, or a partnerships guy, it is essentially the responsibility if you offer PM to essentially fill in all these gaps. So for this slide in a nutshell the idea is that the PMs do whatever it takes to ship strong products, so these were the three things as I said to figure out the product strategy. I think at a high level these are sort of the three most important responsibilities that the PM has in any given organization. Let's jump into a little bit about if you want to get into product management how would you essentially do it but before that one of the questions that I get asked a lot is especially from engineers. Should I get into product management? Should I be a product manager? So I usually say it depends and let's talk about what I mean by that, so there are positives and challenges of every field including PM. Let's start with what are the positives and what kind of things you get out of being a PM and then we can jump into some of the challenges. So the first one is solving a real-world problem, not to say that software engineers or other roles do not do that. I think they also do that but I think the product manager role is at the front and center of identifying the problems, so day in and day out as a PM you will go out, talk to users, understand what the pain points are, and try to come up with solutions. I think the PM role is much closer than any other role in a standard organization concerning these. I think this is a wonderful positive. The other one is breadth versus depth, so as a PM your breath would be high but your depth or let's say that some of the tangible things would be below. So you get to work with industry experts, you get to work with cross-functional teams like legal, sales, marketing, and so on. The amount of information you get from these different fields is super high compared to other specialized roles, for example in software engineering, you would primarily be focused on driving some of the execution aspects on the features. I think one last thing is around leadership training. So the product managers essentially define what we should be building and why we should be building in a development cycle which essentially means what should be the focus of the team and what should be the strategy of the overall team. This is kind of in a way for some of the key things that leaders do. So this is a good training ground for leadership, again not to say that software engineers do not get this training. I'm pretty sure that software engineers get this too. It's just that with the exposure and being at the front and the center of the problem, I think the PMs get slightly more than some of the other roles. Let's come to the challenges, so I guess one of the biggest challenges that PMs face is they don't have tangible skills that they can call out. For example product sense, which is essentially what product we should be building, what feature we should be building is an important PM skill but you can't put that on a resume. It's hard to justify that on the resume versus as a developer you can clearly say that I know java. The second challenge as in a PM role or as a PM is leading without authority. So PMs rarely have direct authority over the software engineers and by authority, I mean like management chain. As a PM, you are always dependent on another team which kind of has to build the product and if you are not able to influence them then the thing that doesn't essentially gets built. So influence is a very important skill set in a PM world and it can be frustrating sometimes that you are clear on what needs to be built but the engineering team or the tech lead doesn't agree with it and because of that, things are being stalled. The last is that PMs are busier than most of the other roles. In some sense, meetings are a way of life. You have to ruthlessly prioritize your time and figure out how you can take out a few hours a day to essentially get work done.

Lastly, I think this is very well said. I read this quote somewhere that if a product succeeds it's because of the team because everybody did what they are supposed to do but if it fails. It's because of a PM because as a PM you are bringing all of these things together and kind of running the ship in some sense without having the direct authority. If it fails, it's essentially on the PM. Here are some quick tips in terms of how to prepare if you want to be a PM. Concerning some of the key things that we talked about were product and strategic insights. I would say to build this sort of skill set, you should start by studying a lot of case studies in terms of how some of these products got to where they are. Let's say how Uber became. Uber started with the discovery phase in terms of how they started, how they understood the customer problem, what was the minimum viable product they built, what was the matrix that they were looking at, and so on.

If you see an HP laptop, why is the keypad this way or why is the keyboard, why are the keys designed in a certain way. So just be curious about a lot of products around you. I think communication skills are by far one of the most important things you need as a PM. You will have to negotiate all the time with your engineering team with a cross-functional team to get resources and to get things prioritized. To tell people why something needs to be built or more importantly why something should be dropped. If the feature is somebody's baby, it's very hard to convince people to figure out that we should not be doing it. I think understanding different types of PM roles is important so there are different types of companies or rather you can look at it from different angles. There's a CPM which would be PM of Instagram or YouTube, PMs for AWS or GCP. Similarly, across hardware-software, front-end, VMS, back-end technology, PMs, and so on. So the skill sets required for these may slightly be different as a back-end PM, you would have to have very heavy knowledge of the software engineering stack versus the front-end PM, you'll be more around growth and metrics and like front-end components.

The last thing I think is doing the interviews well is super important. The PM interviews are very-very different from what a typical sweet interview looks like. They usually focus on case studies in terms of if you have to build a product let's say if you have to build a refrigerator or an alarm clock for a blind person, how would you essentially do it. So the common themes there that they would be looking at is do you have the product and strategic insights? Can you think about the problem analytically with the metrics at hand? Is it a creative solution or can you communicate these things effectively? So these are sort of the main criteria that are usually judged in a PM interview. Preparing for that is gonna be important and just I think if there was one thing, one takeaway from this particular slide is if you want to get into the PM role after analyzing the pros and cons, you decide that this is the right field for me. Then one of the most important things you can do is think like a PM and get into that mindset. If you are looking at a laptop or if you are looking at a phone or a particular app, I always think about what I would do if I were the PM of the product. So that makes you think about something very critically. Always be curious and figure out if you were the PM of the product what you would do and there is no better way to get into the PM mindset than that.

The last thing is that I just wanted to share my journey to product management. So I did my B. Tech in computer science and my journey has been a little bit of testing it out. I did my computer science after that I did a few software engineering internships. During the internships, I kind of felt that development is super cool but I probably do not have the patience to sit around and debug things on stack overflow. I decided that I wanted to try something else after college so I started as a management consultant which was separate from technology. I was doing financial consulting in some sense. While doing that, I realized that this is too far away from technology. So I came back into the technology world. I tried starting up my own company in a technology domain and then worked for a startup for a bit as a data analyst and then I ended up in Google as a data analyst. I was doing a lot of ML modeling, data analysis to figure out how to churn data, user insights, and so on. When I did that for a few years, I realized that probably my skill sets are more aligned to the PM world because I like talking to people. I think I have good communication skills, negotiation skills. I like to be at the front and center of problem-solving. A lot of the things that I saw in a PM role were aligned with what I wanted to do and what I was good at. That was the reason why I decided to jump into product management. However, I know a lot of people who did not like it and jumped back to their previous roles. Software engineers who started as a PM and then moved back into software engineering. data analyst who tried out product management and went back into the data scientist world. So it's not everybody's cup of tea, I know it sounds like product management sounds cooler these days but I would like to say that figure out whether you want to do it and you are potentially good at some of these things and if you think that is the case then kind of try upskilling yourself and getting into that field.

Now it's time for questions and answers.

Q1. I am in the investment field but wish to make a switch. As a PM role seems something I could do, do you think this is a feasible idea?

These days the product management role is being seen as the transition role from a lot of other areas. For example, a lot of consultants are getting into product management as well a lot of co-founders when companies get acquired are joining in as product managers unless they are super tech-heavy and they are interested in the engineering field. I would say that this could be a good sign segway from the particular field that said PM is not just the only area that they could focus on. There are a lot of roles in marketing, sales, and legal. I don't know if they have a legal background, for example, project management is another one that is getting like the technical product. Project management is getting a lot of sites in the tech industry. Overall, I would say that the PM is one path but do think about what you are interested in. what your skill sets are and then evaluate some of these other options before finalizing on product management.

Q2.Is product management for new graduates a good idea?

I think there are opportunities to go into product management right after school. One of the things there's good or bad about product management is that there is no formal education. You can be a software engineer and you can get into a company as a software engineer but none of these schools essentially teach you product management. For two to three years, it's kind of something that the skill set is something that I feel you can build over time. I think the advantages are that you usually have a lot of these companies putting you on a learning trajectory. So you'll have these like rotation programs in some sense where you're doing six months with one team and six months with another team. At least some of the larger companies do that so you get that exposure to things right out of college and yeah, there is no unlearning that needs to be done. For example, if somebody is moving from a different domain, they have to kind of unlearn certain things to get into the hat of product management. ao right out of college, I think this is an exciting opportunity if somebody can get it but again however my answer goes back to it depends on if you are passionate about coding and if you think you are good at it. I would say crack software engineering roles because maybe that is something that you would like but if you are interested in understanding a larger strategic picture and solving the problem by working closely with the customer, I think the PM role may be for you. The short answer is yes, there is an opportunity to go into PM roles after school. However, it might be slightly limited because people usually want experienced PMs in some sense but that said, the most important thing should be based on the challenges and the positives. I talked about figuring out what drives you and based on that, decide yourself.

Q3.How is the difference between salary and benefits?

So between software engineers and product managers. I don't think there is a significant difference in salaries and benefits. Product managers are typically seen as part of the tech organization itself so I don't think from what I know there isn't any significant difference between salaries of PMS.

Q4.Is there any impact do you see because of covid 19 specifically in product management roles or let's talk about Google?

Ao concerning product managers, one of the key things PMs does to work with a lot of cross-functional teams. So it is a lot about building relations at times and relationship building on video conferencing can be challenging as you can imagine there are no water cooler talks. The conversations are usually very transactional, so like one of the biggest things that have impacted my role at least I can work effectively over GVCs as well. It says that the relationship aspect kind of takes a hit a little bit.

Q5. Would you like to share your thoughts on the theme of the conference which is the pursuit of mastery? and with that question can you also share one of your favorite books.

I think I'm super huge on continuous learning, I think I read in one of the books just some days back that formal education will get you a living but informal education that you do will get your fortune. So it's essentially what you do after you have gained formal education which counts in some sense and I'm really big on learning one of my favorite books. I would have to say switch by Dan and Chip heath is probably one of the recent relentless. A book about how to bring about change in any organization or any personal or professional life essentially talks about if you have to change something how do you essentially go about making that change.