How to become a Product Manager

First of all, you are aiming too low. If you do everything I ask you to do below, I’ll be surprised if you still want to be a product manager.

Secondly, I get asked this question a lot so I’ve decided to come up a course for this over a long term but here is an actionable outline in the interim. If you want to transition to a PM role in your company or otherwise, you need to excel in these skills to get noticed.

  1. Customer empathy or Domain skills
  2. Business skills
  3. Strategic thinking skills
  4. Communication skills
  5. Educational qualifications

It is always better to be great in one of these skills than being mediocre in all of them.

So, how do you build these skills?

Domain skills

Immerse yourself in the world of your customer. Seek time from your manager to spend a day or two with each segment of your users so that you can represent them in meetings in the office. Empathetic customer representation will get you noticed at the office.

Start building your network of users that are open to taking your calls respond to your emails to discuss your product. Get to 10 such users within 30 days. Make sure these 10 folks are not all from the same segment.

What’s the sign of success

You have a healthy network of users and you can list a day in their life as a user of your product. You can list their problems. You can quote their response to, why they like your product. You can draw a flow chart describing their workflow. You can list the folks they work with day to day and their titles. You can list other product that users tried before using your product.

Homework 1: Use powerpoint to document your activities in this area.

Business skills

Start your own business online.
Get an audience of 2000 people interested in your opinion before you build anything.

If not, learn about software businesses by listening to podcasts or reading blogs. Pay attention to numbers being shared on these blogs. For example: In June 2016 ConvertKit had a monthly recurring revenue of USD 100,000 and a margin of 50%.

How are software product sold?
What is the role of marketing? How do they do it?
What is the role of sales? How do they do it?

Learn how to validate ideas in the shortest amount of time.
• Create a kickstarter campaign for your idea
• Build a landing page for your idea and drive customers to it.
• Build a video for your idea
• Learn how to create wireframes to explain your idea
What’s the difference between a B2B business or a B2C software business? Why does the GTM difference drive different behaviors for the product team? How do the normal business metrics differ?

Homework 2: Create a presentation on what you learnt. What surprised you. Present to your friends and let them critique it.

What’s the sign of success

You can quote specific numbers and metrics in meetings. Instead of saying, “A lot of users want this feature” you say, “Between 10-20% of our users in segment “A” will find this feature useful based on conversations I’ve had with users”

  • Try to sell something. Start with smaller commitments:
  • Get people to buy your idea
  • Get people to give them your email address
  • Get people to give you < $5 for something you sell on gumroad or amazon or ebay.

You will get noticed at the office.

Strategic skills

Get reading.

Learn about the business world and how software businesses compete. Its much better to read about small businesses than large businesses. Buy and read HBR case studies in your domain.

Know that all business have to worry about Customer acquisition, engagement and retention. So, what are the most common tools that help business owners in these areas?

Understand normal what numbers for:
1. Click through rates on emails
2. Click through rates on web CTAs
3. Typical retention and conversion numbers of different software businesses
4. Software business models that work and why
a. Freemium
b. SaaS
What pricing strategies have been tried and work in your industry?

Homework 3: Create a presentation on what you’ve learnt. 10 slides only.

What’s the sign of success?

You have a point of view on product strategy and roadmap that you can defend. Since this is the highest value add activity in a business, its hard for a new person to claim mastery here, however, having a point of view on the world and is based on more than opinion helps get you noticed.

Communication skills

Do lack of writing and language skills coming in your way?
Most people are not going to call you out for bad grammar, wrong choice of words, and for rambling on and on unless you are really bad. So, if you are being called out already, you have a lot of word to do.

Few other questions to answer:

  • Do you look forward to communicating your point of view?
  • What would be your preferred communication channel – writing, drawing, speaking?
  • Do you have people around you that are great at writing, speaking? Why is that? What do they do that you don’t? Can they evaluate your skills in writing and speaking?

Most normal Indian folks like to speak fast in English. For a long time, speed of delivery was the only measure of language competence in our country. This has led to bad behavior. Slow down and be careful about the words you choose. Ensure people understand what you are saying before you rattle off another sentence.

Tips on writing

  1. First things first. Write! Write every day. Start a blog, even if its private. Stick to a schedule.
  2. Write everything twice. The first draft is never the final draft
  3. Write in short sentences
  4. Use spellcheck and grammar check
  5. Don’t use words that can be misconstrued misunderstood
  6. Remove every extraneous extra word and sentence
  7. Read other people’s work.

Tips on speaking

  1. Record yourself presenting on a topic for 5 minutes and play it back.
  2. Watch ted talks and youtube videos on presentation.
  3. Learn Graphic Design
    1. This deserves a long post. Let me know if you want it.
    2. Start with Canva.com or Spark.adobe.com for free

Homework 4: Go back and fix the design for each of the presentations you made in the past three homework assignments.

What’s the sign of success?

How often are you misunderstood? Are you able to influence the outcome of a meeting? Do you feel good about what you write?How consistent were you on your blog. Did you publish at least 80% of the dates you said you would?

Educational qualifications

This is a big blocker in India. I’ve always said that educational qualifications are the new caste system in India. It’s a bit harsh to say this but in a country with a large workforce, people are trying to separate the wheat from the chaff. Educational qualifications are a good, quantifiable, defensible in a large company.

So, get an education that matters. If you don’t have a bachelor’s degree from a Tier 1 college, get a Masters from a tier 1 college. If you can’t get a master’s from a tier 1 college, get a part time masters, if you can’t get a master’s degree even then, then get a degree in the US. Its easier to get in US universities and it can really broaden your horizons.

If you can’t solve for education, get a mentor that believes in you and move groups, companies with her so that you can get the opportunities you want.

Sign of success

In career conversations, people do not quote your educational qualifications as a blocking issue. Or, doors that were closed yesterday are open today.

If you do all the above then chances are that you would get more interested in starting your business than becoming a product manager. That is a good thing. If you still want to be a product manager, then know this. It’s a lot of communication and selling your vision internally and monitoring metrics.

Working on new product ideas

Most product managers dream of working on a 1.0 project. They are unencumbered, new and yours. I am working on two 1.0 projects and the going has been slow and frustrating. If you do a good job as a product manager, you should constantly question your assumption before you put any resources

I was sharing my frustration with an influencer over a long walk in Hamburg when an interesting thing happened. I told him how I was confused about the path forward. I told him that I was getting conflicting messages from different stakeholders and customers. I told him that I wish I can really see these projects through and that I was worried.

People are normally happy commiserating. He did not. He heard me and then at the end of my rant, he reminded me what a luxury it is to be able to think big about your industry without any personal risk. He reminded me that I should enjoy the process of product discovery and not link it to an outcome. He reminded me that there is joy in doing what I was doing regardless of whether it was successful or not.

This was so refreshing and so needed. I had forgotten what it meant to be in the present.

Thank you Christian Glanzmann

–Anubhav

People I’m grateful for

There are so many folks at Adobe who’ve contributed to my growth.

Naresh Gupta – who started the company but asked me to move back to India before he would even interview me for a job at Adobe. I did not get selected after the interviews, which is another story. In 2003, lots of non resident Indian’s were shopping for offers and wasting his time. Naresh also encouraged me to invest in property, which turned out really well for me.

Lekhraj Sharma – He’s been my manager for about 10 of my 13 years at Adobe and was the only reason I got selected at Adobe after I could not get selected as a software developer. Lekhraj has had the biggest impact on my career and l have a lot to thank him for. His kindness, his sense of fairness and commitment to the work is uncompromising. He also supported me leaving his org to move to Product Management.

Barry Hills – Its 2005 and I’m trying to figure out how to really make program management work at Adobe India. Barry led program management at Adobe for the creative products. He is perhaps the most encouraging and positive manager I’ve met. He told amazing stories over expensive bottles of wine about the counting crows and Julia Roberts. I still remember them 12 years later. Strange.

Erica Schisler: The one person who really believed in making Adobe India work from the get go. I actively sought her mentorship and she was generous. She put with accents, cows mooing, stomach infections and bad connections over Indian landlines to make the Adobe Media Encoder and the Premiere and AE extension teams work at Adobe India. She also took interest in developing people. She brought enormous energy and follow through to everything she did. Cut through the bullshit and politics and just got shit done. Taught me everything I know about program management and working with people.

Raman Nagpal: Was my first manager at Adobe. Helped me understand how to navigate Adobe and integrate and add value. Very astute observer of people and their motivations. Taught me how to read people. Encouraged me to invest in property in Gurgaon. Both these things worked out really well for me.

Ashish Agarwal: My sounding board on everything we were doing to build a program management organisation at Adobe in 2003-05. He worked with challenging people at Adobe and was able to keep his head straight through everything. He was very clear about his goals and he taught me how to look out for yourself and how to manage things when the going gets tough.

Amit Kumar Singh: My second sounding board at Adobe on program management. Unfortunately he worked with some of the worst people at the company, who got personal, seemed difficult and unnecessarily demanding. He worked through this mess and left Adobe on a high. He taught me how there can be a great life out of Adobe. He also taught me the value of being an honest, dependable ally.

Pankaj Mathur: Taught me about people. He demonstrated how differently motivated people are. He taught me how easy it is to misunderstand people and how lack of vocabulary to express your true intent can hurt you. He also taught me how not be afraid of asking hard questions, uncomfortable questions.

Rajesh Budhiraja: A fantastic leader. No one at Adobe is more dedicated to the success of Illustrator and more passionate about making a difference and building world class products out of India. He’s been doing that for the last 15 years. He also understands “ownership” better than most people. He knows how to drive engineering organisations and get shit done. As my partner in engineering, he’s always pushed me to be a better product manager and a better people manager.

Anurag Wahi: A leader with polished and considered opinion. Anurag taught me what to say and when to say it is much more important than just talking because you have the floor.

Rahul Vishwaroop: I’ve worked with Rahul for a long time. I’ve not seen a better people manager. He genuinely looks after his team and encourages the team members to grow and find their calling. He knows how to set goals, monitor them and get things done. He taught me how to manage bad performers. He taught me how to read people and have the conversations that needed to be had.

Shamit Kumar Mehta: Stoic and Calm. Shamit taught me how to keep calm and work through the madness to get things done. He also impressed me by the way he sought mentorship and friendship in the company. He is the only person who moved from a program manager at Adobe to an engineering manager to a Sr. EM. Fantastic accomplishment. I haven’t met anyone who has a low opinion of him. He knew how little his product managers knew, he knew the politics but it never let him stop contributing beyond what was expected of him.

Neeraj Nandkeolyar: Taught me about Art. Taught me about life. Taught me about passion. Taught me everything I know about Illustrator, InDesign, Print and introduced me to many interesting people and experiences.

Yogesh Sharma: Taught me how to communicate clearly and use design to your advantage. He taught me empathy.

Michael Ninness: Taught me how to value my own self and my needs. He taught me how to tell stories and how to have many difficult conversations everyday without blowing a fuse. He taught me the value of a great presentation. He probably made more of a different to my quality of life than any manager I’ve had at Adobe. He’s also asked me better questions than any manager I’ve had.

Paul Gubbay – Storytelling, Alignment and strategy. Paul’s amazing at all these things. Lots I can learn from him. I don’t think I learnt as much as I could have from him, which is mostly my fault.

Vineet Batra – Engineer par excellence. He taught me how single handedly a strong engineer or two can completely change the game for your product. He also taught me how no nonsense execution works. He reminds me of principal researchers and scientists like Mark Davis and Ken Gundry at Dolby Labs. They knew their stuff just like Vineet and stood head and shoulders above the rest.

Bert Bischoff, Joe Bibbo and folks at Nemesys: My first part time job in Austin was at Nemesys music technologies. Bert gave me the chance to work for Nemesys. I would not have been able to pay my tuition at University of Texas at Austin without Bert. Bert, Joe Bibbo and the Van Buskirks taught me what it meant to work in a start up. It learnt a lot at Nemesys and I’m forever grateful to them.

There are so many others that I’ve failed to mention. My team members that I’d managed out of Adobe and folks that left my team taught me a lot and in a short amount of time. Its better they remain unnamed.

–Anubhav

Building alignment in organisations

Building Alignment in organisations

I recently pitched our 2017 plans to executives. I was told that the ideas are sound but what is our overall organizational point of view of these ideas? If one product team leads with an idea, will other teams follow along later. Are they bought in?

This remark seems well thought out but it seems way above by pay grade to drive alignment across the entire company on what I think is right for my product. I’m not the only PM who has felt this way. I think every PM, who is trying to do something big runs into this in a large organization.

So what do you do?

When I heard that comment, all I could think of was how many more meetings just got added to my calendar and how I will have to help others to see my POV and buy into it. My mind immediately went to the power centers in the company and who will be the most important influencers to speak with. And, who do they listen to. How can I get into the ear of those guys and gals.

I was thinking about all the folks who are not ready to change their mind. I thought why do I have to do this at all, its not my company. Why do I care so much about this initiative, fuck it. Let me move on to other things I can do for my customers that don’t require organizational alignment. Sell the easier stories while the company makes up its mind on issues of broader importance.

I thought of other PMs who have it easy. Who can push through their initiatives because they are closer to the throne or have more organization support. I thought of all the roles in the organization where I need to plant my ideas and build an army of allies that come to my aid like Foster Tully at the battle of the bastards.

Who will be my Gandalf the white when I need him?

Perhaps I was thinking too much.

Thinking was not going to help. Action will. Or so I thought.

Three weeks and many a meeting later and no closer to organizational alignment I am writing this post to show what you must do and wrestle with to pursue big ideas. Hope this helps others. It certainly helps me get it out there and solicit advice.

Good product managers get into high stakes meeting after getting organizational alignment. That is the craft of product management. I still need to master this.

–Anubhav

Confident Product Managers

Very few things irritate me more than confident product managers. PMs that can fake confidence even though uncertainty abounds get on my nerves. I guess it’s because I’m not one of those Product Managers.

Folks like Jason Fried, DHH seem to never talk about their anxieties on Medium. Neither does anyone else frankly. Just like Facebook shows you everyone’s brighter side of life, Medium posts by PMs and founders show off their confidence in predicting the future. Very few PMs or designers talk about the forks in the road and the many paths they could have taken and how they all looked reasonable and defendable.

They don’t talk about organization realities that did not allow them to pursue their vision. They do not talk about the lack of resources or the lack of talent in the organization. They do not talk about building alignment in an organization. And, how hard and often unrewarding that is. They don’t talk about uncomfortable conversations. They don’t mention crucial decisions taken because someone with more cache in an organization wins over data. Or someone with better copywriting and presentation skills wins over rationality and how that is ok.. because its perceived as passion.

They don’t talk about long plane rides full of anxiety and the prep work before these crucial conversations. They don’t talk about the constant pitch deck rewrites and narrative changes. They don’t talk about the challenges of being remote or away from the HQ and trying to push for ownership on larger initiatives. They don’t talk about the VPs and Sr. VPs that have never met customers but have a POV on the UX of your product. They don’t talk about how hard it is to stay positive and optimistic amongst all of this. They don’t talk about how difficult it is to not order that one more cocktail on an expense account on many a dark evening. And, how hard it is to pick yourself back up again.

Coz’ that would be a downer wont it. Why be a downer?

Sorry if this seems like a bit of rant but It needs to be said. Product managers, especially in large companies need to know that their job is hard and why it is hard.

I am much more comfortable being vulnerable. But, I often wonder if this sits well with executives or if it just makes me look weak. Many books and articles talk about faking till you make it. I don’t think that works for me. Wouldn’t you be better off stating risks and assumptions and being vulnerable? I guess not. Your engineering team, your designers, peers and stakeholders are looking up to you for leadership, confidence and guidance. Which is why to me, confidence in a PM is just like an oil spill on an ocean of anxiety. Or the 1/10th  of the iceberg floating in an ocean of uncertainty.

Why don’t we acknowledge this reality? That this is the craft of product management.

–Anubhav

My love for comedy

The Meccas of comedy

I’ve actively cultivated my love for comedy. I visit the comedy store every time I visit London or LA. I visit second city and UCB and second city every time I go to Chicago. These places have given a lot to comedy. And, comedy has given a lot of me. 

As a child, I distinctly remember listening to an audio tape of Johnny Lever, a young standup comic/impersonator at that time, making the audience laugh hysterically in Mumbai. This audio was recorded in 1989! Johnny Lever went on to become a famous comedy actor in India.

I was in New York City again in October 2016. I went to the Comedy Cellar and to the UCB in Chelsea to the see the ASSSSCAT 3000 show on Sunday. It was fun. It was also clear that the Chicago shows are better even though folks were lining up two hours in advance of the free ASSSSCAT 3000 show at 9:30PM on Sundays.

I’m heartened by the recent interest in stand up comedy in Gurgaon, especially. You can actually attend a standup comedy show every weekend in Gurgaon now. Interestingly there isn’t any improv in Delhi. Improv is a great tool for telling stories and learning to be really present in a situation. I hope we get some good improv here soon.

–Anubhav

Shadowed Qualities – Good Tape, Great Story

I listen to the startup podcast from Gimlet media fairly regularly. Last week’s episode was groundbreaking in a lot of ways.

What a fantastic episode. It’s raw, personal and honest storytelling. Its great tape edited to produce an even greater story. It was so poignant, it made me cry. Alex Bloomberg’s personal journey felt so relatable since I went through a 360 survey not too long ago.

While I did not get as deep with the analysis of my own survey results, it was clear that I had work to do. I could not carry on the way I was. I needed to develop my time and team management skills. This is not something I enjoy. I’m much better at managing my own work than the work of my team. I’m still trying to get better at this skill that I really did not care for, much to the detriment of my team. I’m also getting better at stepping back and really holding more people in the team accountable for outcomes.

Finally, I also remembered how I had written off Alex Bloomberg’s effort in my post 2 years ago. I’m happy he did not listen to me. I’m happy I did not bet any money on a negative outcome for hearstartup, which is now Gimlet media and it doing over $10Million in revenue and employing 40+ people in Brooklyn. I still dont think they have a big exit ahead of them but they are onto something.

Picking winners is hard.

–Anubhav

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.

–Anubhav

 

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.

–Anubhav

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.

–Anubhav