Your life’s narrative

My Life

Once again a great story from This American Life (TAL) inspired me to write a blog post.

As a product manager, nurse you are often dealing with anxiety. At a large company, ambulance you might also feel disenfranchised. You might also be feeling that you do not deserve to be a product manager, sales especially after making a bad decision or after meeting a much more experienced member of the product team that you recently joined. So, here’s how to deal with this. First, listen to the above podcast.

I’ve liked all books by Michael Lewis. He is able to curate great stories and write them in a very accessible way. His story on Emir Kamenica on TAL is a great example of the power of positive thinking and the power of exercising your choice on how to react to a given situation.

What could easily have been an “I’m a victim” story, Emir reframes his story as an “I’ve been so lucky” even when it’s not true in all its details. Yet, this has had a profound impact on his life. The power your life’s narrative has on you is staggering. So, its important to be aware of what story your mind is making up about yourself and then change it so that it empowers you instead of sucking away your energy.

Additionally, remember that Stories are what we make up to explain facts. An unlimited number of stories can explain a set of facts. I learnt this from “Crucial Conversations”. It’s a great book. Here is a summary of it.

So, first try to write down your life narrative. Who you are? And how you got where you are today? Then, do this exercise, as outlined in a simple blog post by Michael Hyatt

And, you may find that you are able to run in a different gear than today.


Storytelling as software product management skill

Telling stories as a product manager

I was reading “A whole new mind” by Daniel Pink on my flight to Boston this week and it reminded me to write about storytelling. As a new product manager I never appreciated the power of Storytelling. I always felt that it was unnecessary and that my slide decks should present the facts and the numbers and everything else will just follow.

Working on Adobe Story and Adobe Collage changed all that. What kept Story alive and got Adobe Collage to get approved was the stories they were enabling. It was not the TAM, see it was not customers but early on, recipe for any new idea to work, you have to tell a story. A story that:

  1. Establishes the problem
  2. Explains why current solutions fall short
  3. Describe, in a limited way, how your solution fits
  4. Show how the world is better for the user post your solution
  5. Brownie points if you are able to also talk about how your solutions solves a larger problem

Perhaps, storytelling is the most important skill you’ll need to develop as a product manager. Stories make your product ideas far more sellable than just a fact based slide deck.

There are great books or sites that explain how to structure a story. But, simplistically, you are trying to fill in the following blanks (excerpt from:

  1. Once upon a time… (context)
  2. Every day… (state the problem)
  3. But, one day…(your solution)
  4. Because of that…
  5. Because of that…
  6. Until, finally…
  7. And, ever since then…

Always tell the story from your software user’s perspective. Include lots of photos to humanize your deck. Be clear on the persona so that executives can relate to the problem and care for your user.

Also read, Tell to win by Peter Gruber

Ben Horowitz – The hard thing about hard things

I read Ben Horowitz’s book on my flight from SFO-LHR and could not put it down. Here is why:

  • It was really well edited and uses an optimum amount of words
  • Clear and unambiguous writing, sale illness which is great in a business book
  • It talks about challenges and various approaches to problem solving instead of providing a panacea
  • It has the best description for a product manager role I’ve read ever. The contrasts between good and bad product managers are really well thought out and inspiring.
    • Even if this is 15 years old, pharmacy it is still very relevant.
    • Of course, order not everything applies and this is written for product managers in startups and not in large companies.
  • Ben’s take on analytics is refreshing in this time of “lean” shit. Analytics cannot dictate product vision. Most analytics provide lagging indicators. Product strategy comes from making time for it.

It’s a must read if you are in business or a product manager. I’m adding it to my Product Manager book list.

Driving a worldwide business from India or any low cost geo

As a software technology product manager in India, I commonly hear that it is not possible to do “real” product management out of India for a product that is primarily sold out of India.

This is just not true. It is definitely possible to run a  worldwide (WW) product out of India so long as the India based product manager has the following skills:

  1. Great communication skills so that he or she can be the voice of the product to community of users and influencers
  2. Good presentation skills so that you can demo the product to a difficult audience and still command respect
  3. Domain expertise – you need to know your product and its application really well
  4. Business acumen – Which metrics drive the business & how to drive a change to these numbers
  5. Willingness to travel and to be very flexible with your time
  6. Ability to influence a talented development team for your software product

This is not easy and hiring for such skills is not easy. Ability #6 is largely a question of “fit’ and not qualifications. I’ve seen really talented domain experts fail in product management because their development team did not respect the product manager’s “opinion”. They wanted to work in a “lean” way and wanted to “learn” from customers rather than the PM after releasing the product to the market. This is an expensive way to learn and is not always the best way to go. I’m clearly the minority voice against lean development in 2014. I believe incremental/agile development practices can get you just as far just as fast. But I digress…

So.. why do people believe that WW product management can’t be done out of India?

This is largely an issue of losing control and becomes a larger issue if the product is a part of a larger business being driven out of another country. Here are the challenges then:

  1. Headquarter’s fear of losing control over the product if its being completely driven out of India/China/Romania/etc
  2. Headquarter’s desire to have a product representation available at all times for impromptu meetings and brainstorming sessions
  3. Inability to hire the right person for the job
  4. Level of trust in the remote development center is low.
  5. Headquarters never wanted to hire a full fledged product manager in the remote office, they just wanted someone to write specs and be the “internal” product manager
  6. Improper reporting relationship – India PM reporting to engineering or outside of the business unit’s product management organization.

All these issues come up when a strong remote product management starts to assert him or herself in the remote office. Headquarters has to then decide if they really wanted a product manager in the remote office or just a domain expert that elaborates features decided on by someone else in the headquarters.

Talented product managers should walk away from opportunities where they only get to do internal product management. Its no fun.

Transitioning to a Product Management role from a software developer

Ok. I’ve done it. Here is how I went about it.

When I was working in the US as a programmer, I realized that most of the coding I was doing did not require a lot of technical chops. For every DSP/Algorithm guy, there were 3 UI/general app developers. I also missed not being in front of customers or not representing a company. I also want to make more important decisions for a business than which data structure to use when coding a particular feature. So.. as you can see, I did not really care for the art of programming and hence I was not very good at it.

I was however, very good with people and in front of customers. So.. I decided to move into a applications engineering position, which put me in front of customers who wanted to license technology from the company I worked for. I did this by:

  • Finding people in this role already.
  • Doing any project I could do for them – in my spare time
  • Finding a hiring manager and impressing my skills on him.

While this put me in front of people, this was still not a real business role. I decided to move back to India and started as a project manager at my current company. I interviewed for a programming position but I was not hired as a programmer, they offered me a program management position instead – luckily they saw something in me that I did not. And, frankly, I was just looking for a job to keep me busy. Moving back to India from the US is hard, especially if you are unable to find a fulfilling job back home.

I spent a lot of time learning in this role and saying “yes” to new things. I socialized over lunch with different team members. I filed bugs and feature requests, which very few program/project managers did and I wrote utilities in java and Konfabulator to track bug stats and shared these with other teams and PM. I also wrote scripts to batch process bugs in our bug data base that saved other program managers a lot of time. I eventually started to manage a team of program managers and new responsibilities kept coming to me. And, I started a customer advocacy program where I set up customer visits for the engineering teams to acquaint them with customer issues.

So… the lessons here are:

  • Share freely
  • Always be learning
  • Default to “yes” than “no”
  • Build relationships across teams and geos.
  • Expand your role at every opportunity you get
  • Present often – stand up in front of a group and present ideas and status often.

Around this time, I felt I was peaking and there was no where else to go. I did not have an MBA from IIM or an engineering degree from IIT and felt that I needed atleast one of these to succeed in India. You know – educational qualifications are the new class system in India. So.. since I was doing well at work and wanted to move into the business side of things, I decided to pursue a part time MBA from IIM Lucknow’s Noida campus. My experiences there are in captured in this blog.

The MBA was great. I learned new skills and developed greater confidence in my ability to analyze data and dissect strategic mumbo jumbo. I also made new friends. Its hard to make friends as you grow older.

I continued in my existing job but was eager to move into product management. All the relationships I had build over the years with colleagues in India and in the US came in handy as when I applied for an internal opportunity in a product that I was project managing. The MBA helped. The connections helped. My experience on the product helped. My experience with the product team and their votes helped. The customer advocacy program helped. The hiring manager in India was supportive once  he saw everyone else’s support. The lessons here are:

  • Develop business acumen. You dont have to do an MBA but it helps
  • Do more than your job demands
  • Demonstrate great communication skills.

I’ve been doing this for a while now and I believe that this is the best role for my skillset. Write to me if you have questions.

Ambition and Product Management

As a product manager, I meet a lot of interesting entrepreneurs and successful businessmen. I met a really interesting owner today. He has a really large penthouse on 5th Ave in New York and employed only 5 people. His company solves, what appears to be, a very simple problem. He has been doing this for the last 18 years and he is really good at it. So good that he is now solving completely different and far more profitable problems  for his customers.

Then I remembered a two week ago meeting with another successful friend and then another plug-in developer doing really well for himself.

These meetings make me feel inadequate. I often wonder if I would do better on my own as a business owner. These guys don’t seem any smarter. They are different because they are more ambitious. They are willing to take risks or were in a situation that they had to take a chance and make it work. And so they did. Then I remember “survivorship bias“. I’m meeting the best that have made it. I do not see the many that tried and failed. Just because I see folks hat ave made it… I believe I can do it to.

Its hard to throw a big paycheck away now in the hope of making a larger payoff. Plus, for me, now.. money is not in the equation as much as it was before.  Finding something really fulfilling. Starting a business just for the money does not seem that attractive. I’d rather work on something that I enjoy or believe in.


An Extra Ordinary Business Dinner

I had a great meeting with a potential partner in the UK today.

At the dinner, we all answered this question, “What would you be doing, if you won the lottery today”?

This is a fantastic interview question and also a great getting to know you question as it forces introspection. I was surprised how honest and sincere my answer was. Here is what I said:

” I dont think money is as issue for me today so winning the lottery will not change my behavior too much. I think I will still go to work. I have a great job. I dont think I appreciate what I a great job I have because I have been doing it for so long. But, I also think I might quit my job and join my dad in his business because no amount of accolades in my current job will compare to spending the few remaining years I have with my father.”

I think I made some people cry at the table.


Others followed this up by their own stories of how they shaped their own careers contrary to what their parents, especially their fathers wanted them to do. One person’s dad wanted him to be a professional football player but he decided to pursue cricket and software after he reached 5’10” and stopped growing while other goalkeepers continued to grow. Another guy told me how his parents wanted him to join the restaurant business but he decided to go anothey way after seeing the pain involved in running a restaurant – even after he paid will own way through and earned a degree in restaurant and hotel management. The fourth person on the table recounted how he wanted to be an artist but his father asked him to consider a more economically profitable career. He chose software then and then instead of picking a highly paying job at a telecoms firm, he decided to work for a small visual effects company that was doing work for Jurassic Park. Its only now, at forty, that he is beginning to pursue art again. His father still does not approve but he cares a little less about it… just a little less than before mind you.

We also discussed how selfish you have to be to be an artist. You put your work before everything else. Friends, family, wife and children included to be the best you can be.

Its really interesting… the impact your parents advice has on your career and how an honest answer opens up the table for more sharing. I think we all felt a connection at the end of what could have been a very ordinary business dinner.

Strategy review as a product manager

Today, I’m traveling to San Francisco for a 30 minute presentation to the Sr. VP and GM for my BU.

This is the first time in the last 3 years that he wants to pay attention to what we are doing. I’m hoping that it is a good thing 🙂

While I’m really well prepared, I am concerned if he want to review our work or he wants to tell us what to work on. I know what’s important to him and have enough data to show that what we are doing will help him meet his goals. But.. like most execs, he is working on a 3 year vision of where we need to go and aligning the organization behind this vision. So.. will what I show him resonate with him? I’ll find out soon enough.

This happens a lot in product management. As a product manager, you are thinking 2 years out.. while tradeshow demos show feature you worked on 6 months ago. These demos, while exciting to customers look stale to you already. You have seen early and fully developed designs for what you plan to build in the next 12 months already. This is further amplified at the executive level as they are solving much larger problem with much longer gestation cycles. So.. just like what’s presented in tradeshows for your product looks old to you, your latest thinking looks old to your exec. So.. focusing on making it relevant for him and the problems he or she is trying to solve is they key to a positive strategy review experience.

Building a world class product

I read this blog yesterday and wanted to share my thoughts on building products.

The idea of bucketing features is not new. Almost all product managers distribute features across “themes”. These themes maybe coming down from upper management as they decide key areas of focus for the company as a whole. But, it is still interesting to bucket features for your product into the categories mentioned by the author:

  • A gamechanger. People will want to buy your product because of this feature.
  • A showstopper. People won’t buy your product if you’re missing this feature, but adding it won’t generate demand.
  • A distraction. This feature will make no measurable impact on adoption.

I tried to do so but I could not find any items in the “Showstopper” category. I think its because I have a very well established product. Maybe a lot of our “incremental features” would end up in this category. We know customers will buy the product even if we did not do all these features but we should do “a bunch”

It is also not easy for me to put any feature in the “Distraction” category. I think it would be very hard for any product manager to do so. So.. maybe its better to have your customers complete this exercise for you. You cannot be as unbiased as your customers. Customers are not afraid to call you on your bullshit.

I’ve found that Amazon’s product management process is more insightful and creating this one slide for every release is a more complete exercise than just feature bucketing.

  • Heading – Name the product in a way the reader (i.e. your target customers) will understand.
  • Sub-Heading – Describe who the market for the product is and what benefit they get. One sentence only underneath the title.
  • Summary – Give a summary of the product and the benefit. Assume the reader will not read anything else so make this paragraph good.
  • Problem – Describe the problem your product solves.
  • Solution – Describe how your product elegantly solves the problem.
  • Quote from You – A quote from a spokesperson in your company.
  • How to Get Started – Describe how easy it is to get started.
  • Customer Quote – Provide a quote from a hypothetical customer that describes how they experienced the benefit.
  • Closing and Call to Action – Wrap it up and give pointers where the reader should go next.

The most useful way for me to test the validity of a release has been to present the features to a group of customers and then give them five minutes to write down their thoughts on the proposed release on a post it. The way your customers describe your features and the over all release are great for marketing as well as for course correction. Collect their descriptions and put them up on a wall.

So instead of spending all your time on powerpoint or excel creating feature lists and benefits. Get out in front of customers and practice the pitch. Be open to criticism and take notes


A 3 year plan

I had a great chat with a friend and mentor in Seattle this weekend and she reminded me of the power of creating a three year plan. Here is what it accomplished for her:

  • Focusing on the 3 year vision or the “Why” of her plan really helped provide focus to her actions at work
  • She ended up accomplishing everything she set out to do. This was no small feat. She got a masters, got a documentary made and became a director of product development in these 3 years.

I’ve never created such a plan. This is because I have been getting reasonable success at what I’ve wanted to do and things have been going well at work and home. However things can be better at the factory. This said, I now desire to write a plan for 2013-2016 and track progress on it.

As I work on this, I think it might be better to create a list of 40 things I want to do before 40, inspired by the 30 things before 30 blog. But it is still important for me to elicit “Why”. What is the vision behind the to do list?

And.. I think it might help to break down the plan into 3-4 key areas of focus. For example:

  • Job (Professional career plan for the next 3 years)
  • Business (our manufacturing business)
  • Personal (wife, kids, health, vacations)
  • Upskilling (what to learn)

And then try to break it down by year and quarter so it looks something like this:

Time Job Business Personal Upskilling
2013 Oct-Dec
2014 Jan-Mar
2015 Jan-Mar
2016 Jan-Mar

More as I think more about this..