Product Management

Transcript of my interview with 

The team from recently reached out and wanted me to answer some questions to help upcoming PMs understand the domain better. Never one to pass up an opportunity to talk, I agreed - and here is a structured transcript (link to their post).

People reach out to me on LinkedIn for a peek into the Product Management life every now and then, and I figured that posting this here might be a good first breadcrumb for these young padawans (says the recently-turned-30 old timer).

What’s the biggest task you have worked on in your career till now?

At a high level, two things come to mind. My work on open-source at BrowserStack, and my initiative to revamp webpage performance at Amazon.

At BrowserStack, I have a very unique responsibility as the product manager for our Open Source office – which means I create the strategy and direction of our investment in anything open-source. I get to lead iconic open-source projects like Selenium (where BrowserStack is a sponsor) and NightwatchJS (owned by BrowserStack), and help them create next-gen software testing experiences for the internet. This is “big”, because:

  • The market is fascinating – a traditionally QA-oriented Java based software testing market is shifting to software developers testing everything in JavaScript. Projects like Cypress and Playwright have disrupted the space and caught traditional players like Selenium on their heels. While we are still market leaders in user share, I think it is clear to see that there is a yearning in the customer base for a better way to do things. However, I believe that the fundamentals of my products are solid, and with a mixture of customer-oriented product development and evangelism, we can really win the hearts and minds of our existing and future users.
  • I am in a unique position where not all BrowserStack customers are my users, and not all of my users are BrowserStack customers. This creates a dichotomy where I need to be “the voice of my users”, without having a very direct line of communication with all hundreds of thousands of them! It makes a SaaS PM’s position very challenging, but equally fulfilling when we get things right. Thankfully, that happens often enough to keep me going.

At Amazon, I was the product manager for the Detail Page (the page on which you see product details / images / reviews and add stuff to cart). One of my biggest contributions was to create a UX strategy that will work for the ‘the next billion’ – users in developing countries with access to internet, but on a poor network and low-end hardware. In a way, it is a little easy to design features when the underbelly of computing (I/O bottlenecks from a poor network, computing bottlenecks from extra-low-budget phones) is not exposed to you as the PM. Given these constraints – not just for one or two features but for the whole page and a user’s journey through Amazon, I was really made to weigh the ROI of every byte, of every CPU cycle. In the end, my team and I created crystallized the buying experience down to broad product categories, and coupled with our understanding of all sub-personas of the buyers and categories, we came up with a ‘sliding scale’ of the richness of experience. The more resources you had, the ‘richer’ your experience will be – but even the most barebones experience is completely functional. In the end, whether you’re buying the latest TV from a fibre-optic wireless connection on a Mac, or buying fertilizer for your farms in the hinterlands on a budget Android phone– you won’t feel like Amazon doesn’t care about you. ‘The Everything Store’ sells everything, so everyone should be able to buy anything.

What’s your advice for aspiring PMs?

This is very cliché, but chase your customer’s mindset. There is a concept called ‘the theory of mind’ – it was a big milestone in the evolutionary journey of humans – because of which you can ‘understand other people by ascribing mental states to them (that is, surmising what is happening in their mind).’ A successful PM has their customers’ thought process down to, dare I say, a framework. More realistically, they are able to reason with themselves and others from a customer’s point of view. Know their pain, know their joys, know the why / how / when of their usage of your product. If you have multiple personas using your product, have a “average” frame of reference for all of them. A significant amount of a PM’s job is in taking a leap and going for ambitious goals, but informed leaps > educated guesses > toss of a coin. Obviously, this doesn’t mean that every customer ask goes on the roadmap. Sometimes you won’t give customers what they want, but you are the one who should know what they need – and they can obviously be different things. There’s a famous quote I lean on (which Henry Ford probably didn’t say) – “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” Know about the horse, build the car.

What do you cherish the most as a PM?

Impact – both short and long term. Additionally, the expertise with which you’re able to understand the market and the customer. In no other role do you become an expert in the business domain to the extent you do in Product Management.

What are your core skills as a PM?

If I had to pick the most important the seven most important skills for a PM, they would be:

  • Customer empathy – know your user and the problem to solve
  • Creativity – the solutions aren’t always straightforward
  • Communication – no one else knows what’s in your head
  • Prioritization – every single problem can’t be solved, and not everything should be done right now
  • Writing – your head is not large enough to hold all your thoughts
  • Big picture thinking – all the bricks should make a wall, otherwise you’ve just scattered bricks all over the field and no one likes that
  • Patience – everything takes time

I’d say that my experience has drilled most of them in me, but I am still prone to bouts of impatience every now and then. Oh well, we all have our areas of growth.

In my previous life as a software engineer, my background was in analytics as well as high-scale infrastructure. Some things that have transferred really well from there, and give me an edge over others who probably haven’t travelled the same road:

  • System design
  • Data analysis
  • Formal logic
  • Hypothesis testing
  • Difference between POC and scaling

Any recommendation for books / blog / newsletter ?

My top 5 books for any product manager are always these 5:

Instead of blogs and newsletters, I would recommend communities (who can, in turn, pick out the best content for you!):