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My journey to Product Management
Vinod is a Product Manager. He entered the PM profession around the time, it was just emerging in India. As a leader, he shares what he has learnt along the way. You can give a jump start to your PM aspirations, with his insights.
I was born and raised in a small town in Kerala. Apart from studies, I loved the extra-curricular activities such Arts, Theatre, Cultural Events, Sports. Speaking out for what I believed in came easily to me. I think this was the reason I was made ClassRep so many times.
By the time I finished school, I was itching for the big city experience, so I moved to Bangalore in 2005 to do Masters (PGPM) and I thrived here.
I already spoke Malayalam, Tamil and English. I easily added Telugu, Kannada and Hindi to my repertoire. Today I love working with people across cultures and geographies. This melting pot taught me the early lessons of stakeholder management.
Before the 2nd year specialisation, we had to do an internship. I did a marketing project for Indian Oil.
They were launching fleet cards and my job was to pitch it to people who drove and owned trucks. Essentially, Fleet Owners. I walked across KR Market so many times that I lost at least 10 Kg and became leaner and fit.
I decided that though I liked the new fit me and also meeting people and getting to know them, outright selling was not for me.
Thus I learnt decision making by elimination. If you don't know what you like, ask yourself what you don't like. Eliminate that. It helps!
I finished with Finance as my specialisation and joined TCS as an analyst.
A Research Analyst is trained to see the problem space without the urgency to jump into answers. It is different for engineers. They are trained to solve the problem as fast as possible.
If you are an engineer, think back to any exam that you wrote. You will need to adjust this mindset if you are going to be a Product Manager.
Maybe my training in finance helped. A finance guy, keeps a suspense account open, till the numbers are finally tallied at the very end. These 4+ years in TCS - I learnt to remain in the problem & opportunity discovery space through research and consulting.
I mention this because, quite by chance; I had added a crucial building block of being a good Product Manager to myself without even me realising it. All this was so new in India at that time.
Next, I worked for Target. I helped enable the simplification and modernization of finance systems that played into stores and e-Commerce experience.
I learnt to see the retail domain from multiple views. What do customers want? How are the doers challenged? What do the numbers say? I experienced digital transformation first hand in a Fortune 100 organisation.
A Product Manager is also entrusted with seeing things from multiple views.
This led me to Allstate. I got lots of exposure to Innovation and Startup ecosystems here. This led to my first formal break into Product Management.
I never planned or asked for it – it just happened.
Many defining moments came along. I always stood up and challenged the status quo whenever I heard “this is how it's done here”. My compass has always been, 'How users can be served better?'
The ClassRep from yesterday’s school years, can take credit for the courage to stand up to my convictions about experimenting and validating assumptions.
Doing this, I went on to build another product from scratch that saved millions of dollars for the company and won awards.
A product manager has to balance two things. First, remain undecided till he/she knows for sure what is the right thing to do. Then remain convinced and push until it is done and shows results.
I began as a boy from a small Tier-3 town in India. I have journeyed to being a Product Manager in a multinational. All because I learnt to embrace problems and stay with them till they whispered their secrets to me.
If I think back, a few things helped me to be a better Product Manager -
My non engineering background helped a lot. Engineers have to learn to step away from solution space to be effective as Product Managers. I came pre-built that way :) This is also a reminder to all that today’s technology professions are not the exclusive domain of engineers and several mindsets are needed at a successful table.
My communication skills mattered a lot. More when you are building products and solutions for a different geography. How I interacted without becoming judgemental or confrontational. How I listened and asked questions. Saw patterns.
Also, how I talked about the product. Putting myself in the shoes of the customer and telling them a story on how the product features are useful for them.
I challenged the status quo. Often I heard, ‘This is how it is done here’. My job was not to throw all of it away in challenging the status quo. My job was to keep the baby but throw away the dirty bathwater.
In a world full of remote customers, it was still important to really understand how the shoe fits on the other foot. I tried to travel as much as I could. More than that, I was never a 9-5 person. I adjusted my working hours around the clock to be accessible to my colleagues and customers. For me, Accessibility trumps proximity.
I took the time to understand the other person and build a relationship before talking shop. When I heard questions or concerns, even if they were not directly related to me, I saw them as entries into making myself useful. This was vital in the beginning of my new relationships, from across the globe.
From the beginning, numbers scared me. But irrespective of the culture or country, it is hard to argue with numbers. So, I learnt to leverage the data to tell a story. To use it to find the root cause of a problem. To extract insights from it.
I became good at running experiments to validate my assumptions. My favourite book here was, ‘Testing business ideas’. I have followed Agile Methodologies in some fashion to have smaller but several iterations so you can course-correct quickly and deliver needed value early on.
I wish you all the best in your product management pursuits and doubly so, if you are not an engineer :)