Difficult conversations

Crucial conversations are crucial because the stakes are high.

I’ve had to have a 3 difficult conversations in the last two weeks around the ownership of a project within the company. In all these cases, I felt uncomfortable having these one on one conversations but I had to. I’m glad I did because it forced early disclosure of everyone’s agendas including mine.

I was very honest and clear on what I wanted and what I was ok with. I wish I could say that all these conversations were pre planned and well orchestrated on my part. The only thing I can say was that I was clear on my goals. What I wanted out of the conversation was pretty clear to me. This allowed me to listen to arguments from the other side and empathise without giving up my goals.

I wish I could say that all these issues are now sorted. I know they are not. These issues are so important that they will need more conversations in the future to reinforce the decision we’ve come to. Such is the nature of these conversations. No ones tells you that its never over. Passionate people bring up past arguments whenever they see a window of opportunity.



An immigrant story

Nanaji told me a great story. When he landed in the UK after the Second World War the first piece of advice he got was that there are different toilets for men and women in the UK! The second thing he was told was that tissue paper in toilets is not the same as a handkerchief but for a completely different purpose so, he should not stuff it in his pocket.

Weird huh.

Apparently in 1963, India did not have separate toilets for men and women. Well… You really don’t need to and fancy places around the world are switching to unisex toilets just to ensure toilet equality for women.

The other interesting and heartwarming story is of when he arrived at Heathrow airport. He was supposed to be picked up by a taxi driver named Himmat singh. A Sardar, who was nowhere to be found. When he had all but given up, he was approached by a gentleman. He asked who he was looking for. Nanaji said, ” Himmat singh”. He said, “oh ok”.

Nanaji gave this gentleman a big hug because he was almost in tears and thought that Himmat singh must have cut his hair as all Sardars had to do in the UK. No one would hire a Sardar if he did not get his hair cut. The man was quick to correct his misconception. He was not Himmat singh but knew him since he was looking around for Nanaji as well.

Nanaji went to Nottingham. He knew someone there. This gentlemen just added a charpoy to his one room to accommodate him. There were other homes where immigrants like him booked a time to sleep and lots of people shared the same bed on rotation. He was glad he at least had a charpoy. Today this is called hot-bedding or hot racking in the army.

The next morning, his friend took him to a factory for a job the next day. This began the most horrible week of his life. 50 years late he still physically shuddered while telling me about dealing with hot oil, black and sticky and difficult situations. He was lucky to have
been able to apply for a post office job. They were th best jobs to get but only educated people could get these jobs. But even this was difficult. You had to get references for the last 10 years of your life from India to prove that you were not a criminal. He told me that at that time, post officers handled cash in the mail.

The interesting thing about this job was that the job was in London but he applied for it and was interviewed and tested in Nottingham and how his papers arrived from India, I have no idea.

Fifty years later he is a British citizen getting his roof fixed by Polish immigrants who are eager for his work. Unlike the resident Indian owned construction company that went bust and left his job in the middle.

He is concerned about Brexit and what that means for his son who is a teacher in Madrid and his Spanish wife.


Traveling alone for business

I’ve traveled alone a lot. Probably more than most people. I can tell you that it’s not fun. Especially when you can travel with other people. There is no one to talk to. No one to share experiences and no face to look at as I laugh at a good joke at a comedy club.

Everywhere I go, I see what I don’t have. Other people with company. People holding hands, kissing, talking and enjoying the simple pleasures of company.

Everyday I test my motivation and try to stay in action and do things instead of reading a book or just pursue passive ways to pass time. I also have to be ok not talking to anyone for six to twelve hours everyday. This is strangely meditative and not calming at the same time. I continually wrestle with my thoughts. I entertain fantasies where I make a real breakthrough and get clarity on life changing decisions in such times of loneliness. This never happens. Often the best decisions I’ve made are by talking to other people and not while engrossed in my own thoughts.

Often I have to actively stop thinking about work problems or problems at home so that I dont lose my mind away from home. I also have to find ways to fight depression as I settle to familiar patterns while traveling:

  1. Get up – search for places for breakfast on yelp
  2. Talk to the family
  3. Walk to work
  4. meetings ++
  5. Walk back to the hotel
  6. Search for places for dinner on yelp
  7. Eat (sometimes with local friends or customers)
  8. Watch TV or listen to comedy on YouTube
  9. Talk to the family
  10. Sleep

So yeah, its not always fun. Especially when you travel to the same place all the time.


Getting out of a slump 

If you are working on something important in a large company, chances are a lot more people at going to be involved in this project than you imagined and you have to find a way to engage and align them. I thought I knew this but I did not realise how crazy things can get. I think I almost got depressed working on this new, important project as I figured out how many conversations I needed to have and how many presentations I needed to make to get alignment. Here is a quick summary of how I felt during the last one month working on the project. 

Thursday July 4th: Down and Out

It’s so easy to get yourself down. I am having a hard week because it’s been difficult to figure out product strategy questions while figuring out the politics around it. Stakeholders are asking good questions but I’m just seeing them as roadblocks. I’m also spending every waking moment thinking about clever retorts and smart one liners to put them in their place. Obviously this is not healthy. And, for the first time in my life, I had trouble sleeping two nights in a row. 
So.. I brought out the big guns. I relied on the advice from Tony Robbins, Tim Ferriss and my dad and decided to: 
  • Write 
  • Listen to music 
  • Change my body language to feel how I want to feel 
  • Journal (gratitude, morning journal) : Could not get myself to do this. 
  • Exercise to get the good chemicals flooding in (swam or cross fit every day) 
  • Decided to treat it as my problem to convince the roadblocks and make them allies. 
  • Met an old friend from high school. Had a good chat, good Zin, unhealthy food 🙂 
  • I also decided to blog about my predicament. This was very helpful. 
I have three paths forward now: Engage my team to answer the objections Ask the roadblocks how they would pitch the idea Let my management chain know that I will need help It’s amazing once you do stuff… Depression disappears and opportunities appear. You think about things you normally won’t. You smile. You change your mindset. The nature of the problem changes. Your head reconfigures. Hope this helps you get out of your head and “save your soul” https://youtu.be/0wBDDAZkNtk https://youtu.be/0wBDDAZkNtk 

July 18th: Working through it. In Action. 

Was a really difficult week but rewarding at the end as I was able to resolve conflicts, raise issues as and get stuff sorted out within the company so that we can get good results in the long term. I did not win every argument. I did not get exactly what I wanted. But it really allowed me to hear other people’s points of view. And, a promising future. 

Update August 16th: A fantastic week

Things have gone well since I decided to stay in action and bring all stakeholders along. It prevented internal sabotage. I did have to have difficult conversations in person with some stakeholders but it was all important and necessary. Had I seen these folks as roadblocks and tried to steamroll my way through, it would not have worked. 
Onwards and upwards. 

Restraint is overrated

Restraint is over valued I was reading a travel mag on a flight to MSP and read something provocative. “Balance in life is overrated”. Passionate people pursue their passions singlemindedly, produce extra ordinary results and then burn out and need to recharge. Maybe that’s how innovation happens. Concentrated periods of singular focus and compete immersion in an area. 


Accents in India

Strange that foreign men are liked by women all over the world. And, it’s mostly because of their accent. American women love the British accent. British women love the Irish accent, etc, etc. But I’m yet to find women who love the Indian accent. Even Indian women don’t like the Indian accent! Imagine that. 
The proof points are clear. Every ad on TV, every DJ, RJ in India today is speaking in a faux American or faux British accent. In fact english olympic commentators on Star Sports in India also seem to be getting selected for having an British or American accent. Weird how the audience laps it up. I don’t get it at all. 
The same folk that comment or DJ or RJ in a foreign accent, quickly drop the accent when they have to negotiate prices, deals or deal with the real India. The use of an accent is a strategic choice. Wielded carefully in parties, interviews, dates and social interactions to make the right impression. This is really easy to see in parties in upworldly mobile places like Bangalore, Hyderebad, Gurgaon and Noida today. Almost everyone has spent time abroad and has developed a point of view on life and travel and India. This includes me by the way. 
Like the others, I’m very strategic about my accent. I grew up hating any kind of accent in us folk. After working at an American company for the last thirteen years in India, I find myself slipping into an a faux American accent when I don’t want to. I think mine’s a Californian accent mixed in with a strong northern Indian accent. I know it sounds strange. Here’s me on stage trying to speak naturally: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iCD_mw4crkk
Not sure how irritated I should get with this but accents popular media in India continue to irritate me! 

Improving an existing product

Much more has been written on validating product ideas and new product launches than on improving an existing product. A product is only new once. Most Product managers spend bulk of their time on existing products than on new products. A lot of these products are inherited from other PMs who’ve left the company or moved on to other things in the same company. So, how do you improve an existing product?

Obviously, you have to start by defining what “improve” means. New product managers generally think about adding features to an existing product because it’s an easier problem to solve than trying to figure out where the actual problem is in their product. This problem is compounded by the fact that many PMs do not own their end to end customer journeys. This is especially true in large companies where corporate marketing wants to tell the company’s story and not responsible for input metrics like customer acquisition directly. Product marketing runs it’s own ship and generally has to toe the company line on what to communicate. Sometimes your product is a part of a suite of products and only the top few things across the entire suite of products get the company’s attention.

If you inherited a product and are the lead PM on it, here are some of the questions you must ask:

What business objectives are we trying to meet?

  • Increase revenue Greater customer retention
  • Better free to paid conversion
  • Increased profits
  • Increased adoption

Which of these problems does the business want to solve in the product? For example, you can solve the retention problem by calling users that are churning, sending retention based offers outside of the product or really improve the product so that more uses come back.

Similarly, you can get free users to convert through offers or by experimenting with the trial duration or by offering free tutorials that don’t require any changes to the product at all. Or, you could build better user onboarding into the product so that new users perform tasks A, B, C, which you’ve defined as critical to the product. Ask these questions before you start working on the product.

Once the business decides the “what” only then should you move on to “how”. Generally, it is very difficult to quantify the value of a new feature. Not every product has the luxury to run an A/B test for every feature they want to put in the product. Especially when you have already paid the cost of the building the feature. So, it’s important to build as little as possible. Most teams underestimate the cost of maintaining a feature and updating it when platform changes require it. The true cost of a feature should include: Validation Onboarding, Discoverability, Analytics and  Maintenance.

Since feature estimates always go up, so do all the other costs of building a product. 

Read “Four steps to an epiphany” from Steve Blank. It helps you figure out what kind of market you are in and how you should plan your sustaining innovation work.

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Transitioning to a group product manager

It’s been more than a year and here are the things I wish I had known or had been told as I made this transition:

  1. It’s a completely different role
  2. Focus on getting things done more than doing things
  3. Be clear on what you are driving and what your team is driving
  4. Communicate! I thought I was good at it but managing a team requires more written communication, more documentation that I thought
  5. Read “Good group product manager, Dead Group Product Manager” 
  6. Accountability – be explicit. Folks don’t just do the right thing. 

Is this obvious? Probably to many but honestly it was not to me and I’ve managed a team before. 

One of the difficult things for me is to make good habits stick. With the amount of travel I do, it’s been hard to hold the team accountable for their tasks. I have started to use Trello to track tasks assigned to the team. I love that you can email directly to a Trello board. This allows me to bcc task emails to the Trello board. A little bit of housekeeping later, I can remember to follow up on these tasks in 1 on 1s. Travel makes it harder to follow up on tasks. This is why a Group product manager role is very different from other management roles. 

Also, you spend a lot of time prepping decks for internal pitches and driving alignment between various other groups in the company and championing your causes. Your wins and losses are public and drive team morale more than you think. 


Practical issues with money when you choose to work in India

If you work for a multi-national company in India, you probably have had the chance to work outside of India. Actually, most Indians working in software can probably go work outside of India. They’ve either fantasised about moving out of India or have actually done so. Some, a very few, like me have moved to the US, worked and then moved back to India.

This means that’s at one point, most of us have had the opportunity to earn in a currency other than the Indian Rupees. I knew that I was not going to make more money by going to India but I did not realise the penalty I pay on my savings my keeping them in INR. Here is a table that shows that just in the last 5 years, I’ve lost over 50% of my savings just by keeping them in INR against keeping them in USD assuming the same rate of return on the savings. 

The latter is not entirely true though. The rate of returns on good equity funds in the last 5 years offsets against this loss because large cap equity funds in India have returned between 13-22% in the last 5 years. 

So you make an absolute return of 100% on your money while losing 50% to currency losses. This means you have to take a lot of risk in India to make up for just the currency loss, but it is possible. Also, if you invested your US savings at a similar risk in the US, you would have made 8.5% annually in a DJIA ETF, giving you 50% on your dollar savings. 

Thus, if you are equally invested in equity funds in the US and in India over a 5 year period, you would net out even.  

Even if you don’t take the risk, guaranteed return on your money in India are between 7-9.5% thus giving you the 50% loss due to the currency. But, this is the worst case scenario. You net out better than UK, JPY and Euro if you were invested during the last 5 years.

Plus, salary rises in the other goes were not as high as they are in India. So, your net savings would have been less in the last 5 years if you were in the UK, US or any other geography. So, working in India in tech is better and your savings are better if you invest wisely. 

I’ll try to post a table with this info in the coming days.

Ofcourse, past performance may not be carried forward in the future. 🙂