Product Management has become important of late, thanks to the growing awareness about how important products are to our economy and society alike, and also owing to the increased confidence in startups as a viable career for India’s talent. From a time when the acronym ‘PM’ used to stand for Program Manager or Project Manager, now people don’t get surprised if the first connotation of PM is – Product Manager. In fact, surveys have put Product Manager well ahead of Program Manager or even Business Analyst as the most sought-after profiles.
PM remains a less understood and heavily aspirational title and role to have, and in an attempt to dispel some myths and add some ‘method to the madness’, last week UpGrad hosted a panel discussion at their Bangalore outpost- UpGrad Xchange.
The panel comprised of some seasoned PMs who have made the transition from ace developers to owning products, and those who have migrated from a business or an artistic role to being hands-on in developing compelling products. We had Vamsi Krishna of Rentomojo, Ranganath Krishnamani of LiquidInk Design, Vishrut Shukla of Zivame, and Arun Iyer of Ola; and it was yours truly as the moderator for the session.
However, in this post, let me offer you the key insights gathered being a moderator and ardent audience alike. Consider these as FAQs for those preparing for the role of Product Managers or even remotely related. These are from horse’s mouth.
The ingredients of being a good Product Manager
A PM role could be thought of as a confluence of three key aspects- technology (how it works), business (the value realization and capture), and design (how it feels). Most PMs begin as technologists where they have learnt, often the hard ways, on how to code and ‘make things work’, and then gradually pick up the ropes of business vocabulary and acumen.
Vamsi calls it as the golden triangle of Apps, Operations, and Payments. Arun, very nearly, identifies product management is a role of ‘defining the problem’ and only then solving it. Often an appreciation of the problem remains elusive, and hence we miss out on creating great products.
The skills and temperament required to be a PM?
The foremost ability that all the panellists pointed out is that of ’empathy’, or being one with your customer. Since a great product has to be ultimately adopted by somebody, it’s best to know and be like the customer. This calls for extremely good listening skills, and patience.
Also, since a product has to be shipped (someday), the virtues of being decisive, assertive, and communicating it well are essential.
Yet another aspect that emerged during the discourse was of having a strong point of view, or as Ranga says ‘a taste’ towards design, and, in general, about everything around you. As Vishrut identified, if one aims at adding value, the graduation from a technology role to learning business, and then the design would be effortless.
How important is the exposure to an MNC?
Almost all the panellists had spent considerable time working with MNCs, often as developers and then product manager, including tenures at Microsoft, Oracle, Cisco, and Adobe, amongst others. When quizzed on the virtues they picked during their MNC days, they were quick at suggesting the aspects of structure, discipline and holistic thinking that MNCs or even large India firms offer.
For instance, while working with Microsoft, Vishrut learnt a whole lot on product deadlines, managing contingencies, and bringing to fore the collective expertise of his team, while being in charge of a novel product. Such exposures, early on, prove to be vital while working in a high octane startup environment.
How different is a PM role in B2C vs. B2B setups?
This was a real eye-opener for me. Since the rhythms of the two setups are radically different, both in terms of the volumes and longevity of engagements, the role of a PM varies. While narrating his experience on working with firms like Fidelity and Oracle on one hand and now Rentomojo, Vamsi pointed out the importance of agility and bouncing-back from failures as the quintessential of B2C product roles.
Similarly, with the consumerization of enterprise technologies, Vishrut opined that the chasm between B2B and B2C is fast shrinking and agility is a need of the hour everywhere, more so in the startup arena where a few moments of downtime could well lead to a havoc.
How does one build the expertise of being a Product Manager?
In our panel, we had a neat mix of those who did secure an engineering degree followed by an MBA and then had Ranga from an entirely different background, the fine arts. However, two aspects around competence development stood out- 1) continuous learning; and 2) taking new opportunities.
With the rapid change in the technology landscape, continuous learning, mostly through online courses (Microsoft’s Satya Nadella leads the way here), and then the likes offered by UpGrad, remains as the way forward. Equally important is the manner in Ranga and Arun shaped their careers by taking half-chances right from MNCs to startups like Redbus and Ola, respectively. However, there is no denying the fact that each of the panellists was well aware of the shrinking shelf-life of their knowledge base and were keen to augment on an ongoing basis.
What is the hard skill required to be a product manager?
Well, the list is rather lengthy, however, analytics coupled with a business sense tops the list. As Vishrut puts it succinctly – as a PM, one needs to have an intuition and then back it up with data; Arun impresses upon the imperative of having a big picture view and defining the problem well; Vamsi calls for loving your job and on continuous learning; and Ranga remains a big fan of iteration and collaboration.