Of late, every conversation I have with a start-up boils down to either one of two discussions:
1) That there is a dearth of great product managers (PMs) in the country or
2) What constitutes great product managers?
Never have we arrived at a conclusive decision on either. However, it lent itself to deeper deliberation and finally this interview for the ‘Future of Work’ series with Anirban Das, Head of Product at Dunzo.
He’s had an extremely fruitful career post his MBA from IIM Ahmedabad. From an analyst to a professional poker player, Anirban has explored a gamut of career experiences including working with Zynga and Hike messenger as a product manager. He describes his first year at Zynga as a ‘finishing school for PMs’. Post which, at Hike, Anirban developed several products like Hike News – which at its peak had two billion story views, Hike Cricket, Hike Games and many more.
Dunzo happened after an adventurous sabbatical from Hike. To Anirban, Dunzo seemed incredibly promising. He was keen to work on a unique product like Dunzo, which is a three-sided platform not just for users, but also delivery partners and merchants, operating in multiple verticals and complex delivery and transaction workflows at the backend. He was also charged with building the product team at Dunzo.
Roughly, India has between 50,000-70,000 PMs and a Belong survey stated that 71 percent PMs in India do not have a software engineering degree. It also states that 77 percent of PMs hired by large tech companies in India are first-time PMs. As per a McKinsey report, PMs of the future will be analytics gurus and possibly the next wave of CEOs. Globally, there is a surge in demand for PMs and any aspirational company you can name, is hiring them by the hordes. It is in this context that we speak about what makes a good PM, the organisational dynamics a PM has to navigate and customer experience.
Read this interview with Anirban to know more about the life of a PM.
What is the future of work for product managers?
I think there are two parts to this -- some of the fundamentals are going to remain the same (despite technology advancements):
1) Customer feedback will continue to drive insights.
2) Experimentation-driven validation of key hypotheses, working across cross functional teams shouldn't change dramatically in the future.
Most of the changes I do anticipate will be driven by the next set of trends in technology. Developments in 5G, AR/VR, cloud-based gaming and AI have the potential to disrupt the companies and products of today by providing a steep jump improvement in the experiences of tomorrow. I also anticipate this creating a level playing field and it is those who understand these changes in technology that will move ahead in their careers.
How do you envision the role evolving?
The lines between traditional business managers and product managers will continue to blur and business leaders of tomorrow's companies will need to have a healthy mix of business (sales, operations, marketing, finance), product and technology skills.
As the next set of trends in technology get closer and closer to mass adoption, we may see a levelling of the playing field when it comes to product managers as well as entrepreneurship…
It is similar to what happened 7-8 years back when folks who saw the potential that smartphones and fast internet started considering entrepreneurship, product management and related career paths.
Other than the fundamentals of the role, folks with experience and exposure got a leg-up versus more experienced product managers in other industries of a past era. I see that trend playing out again as the next trend hits us.
My somewhat optimistic and biased prediction is that folks with product management and engineering backgrounds moving into leadership roles will increase compared to sales, marketing and other more traditional business functions as the role of technology in solving problems continues to accelerate.
In India, as the talent pool of product management gets deeper, only the best ones with these fundamentals will do well in this career which wasn't necessarily the case more than a decade back when the field was nascent at least in India.
What skill sets would product managers require? Can anyone become a product manager?
My view is that PMs need breadth as well as depth in their skills given the nature of the role. In most organisations, the PM role sits bang in the centre of every other business function.
So breadth wise, a PM needs basic empathy of the challenges of every function and at least a basic understanding of how every other business function works since stakeholder management and communication is a large criteria for success in the role.
Good PMs also need to develop channels of direct customer feedback. Depending on the nature of product and business it could be listening into sales calls to gain first hand customer feedback, setting up reports and metrics to measure customer sentiment in a large scale B2C app or even picking up the phone and talking to users when experimenting with a new feature.
The other skill required especially in start-ups is a healthy mix of using data and intuition. When the business environment and competitive landscape both being extremely dynamic and often ambiguous, PMs will seldom have complete data to make decisions however the getting the risk of data and intuition is really important.
And, of course, the one skill that is perhaps the core of product management, prioritisation. In most organisations, PMs are constantly processing information from customers, leadership, competition, other business functions, engineering and design teams and making decisions on what to prioritise and more importantly what to say no to! All this while also trying to experiment and innovate to try and find the next nonlinear feature or product that makes a delta difference to user's lives.
Finally, I think, the people skills required are underrated but extremely critical because in most organisational structures, PMs do not directly manage anyone and yet have to set priorities and make sure everyone is pulling in the same direction so as to deliver a coherent and consistent experience to customers in a timely manner.
Who/what would an ideal product team be comprised of?
I think a good product team, or any team for that matter has to have a healthy mix of people with complementary skill sets and experiences. For example at Dunzo, we have a good mix of PMs who have worked in the same industry/space and some for whom the space is completely new.
Similarly, a healthy mix of analytical, design, business, people and technology skills often lead to a situation where the collective output of the team is more than a sum of the parts of individual members because it is easy to staff PMs on specific projects based on the skills they possess. While hiring, it is a conscious decision at Dunzo to keep diversity in education, work experience, life experiences as important parameters in the selection process.
One last thing, which is easier said than done, but one that I learnt at Zynga and Hike is that with diversity comes differences in opinion and debate. Within the product team, one of my goals for 2019 is to set up a culture of vigorous debate on most ideas so that ideas which fail critical reasoning and questioning from peers fail in the idea stage itself.
A foundation of complete trust within the team and one of Dunzo's core values "attack the idea never the person" are the pre-requisites to enabling such a culture of debate within the team.
What is lacking in product managers today?
Not too much actually, I am glad that so many people have started considering this as an attractive career path. Back when I was in B school, not more than 1 percent of our batch was actually interested in product as a career choice but that has definitely changed today. I do wish that PMs would do more research about the company and product before interviews though.
Also and this is something I have struggled with lately and a personal area of improvement for me in 2019, I wish PMs would write more both quantity and quality. Personally, for me reading a great product requirement is like reading a great book.
How have your personal experiences shaped your product thinking?
I think more than my personal experiences, companies and colleagues that I have worked in have shaped my thinking. At Zynga, it was a very analytical and rigorous approach to solving problems. Most features we shipped we already knew the impact to a high degree, it was only a question of whether it would surpass or just fall short of expectations.
This however led to an early phase of analysis paralysis at Hike where many of the features and ideas we were trying were experimental in nature since we were trying to break network effects of Whatsapp. The Hike phase taught me how important intuition, sometimes, can be. It also underlined the importance of strong customer insights and building features off them, the most used features of Hike whether the stickers or privacy related features like ‘Hidden mode’ were all formed from direct user insights where enough number of users told us their problems/opportunities.
At Dunzo, it is a completely different set of problems because, unlike Hike, where we were looking to disrupt WhatsApp, the problems to solve at Dunzo are largely known. The challenge here really is prioritising among them given the complexity of the business and resource constraints and deciding just how well to solve a particular problem before jumping to the next one. The additional layer is also deciding which problems to solve operationally versus through product in any given time frame.
What are your dependencies when building a product -- is it the leadership, team, investors, peers or consumers?
All of them, but we prioritise largely based on consumers and the top problems that they face. Everything from the way our teams are structured to our prioritisation framework is built around the 4 sets of consumers in the form of users, delivery partners, merchants and internal teams.
What are the real world challenges in the role?
Not every problem can be solved purely by product or technology especially in a company like Dunzo. Data can be manipulated to sell any story, always looking to keep your biases in check and seeking truth instead of validation requires conscious effort. As PMs you are not actually building anything, engineers code, designers create a form of art, sales teams close deals, remembering this to keep yourself grounded is key. Hiring cannot be completely data driven, at the end it is a leap of faith for both parties.
In a utopian world, what proprietary product would you like to build?
A healthier alternative to cigarettes with the same/better metrics that cigarettes have as a category/product.
If you think about it by most traditional product metrics (Retention, Frequency, Revenue, LTV) cigarettes are probably the best product ever built.
As a user/victim of this product, disrupting this category would be a noble not to mention highly profitable product to build.
Product managers are merging the lines between business and technology. Those open to experimentation, customer feedback and seeking the truth from data can enjoy an illustrious career in project management. Product managers must take all stakeholders into account as well as be able to zoom in and zoom out of the product to build a successful business.
Nisha Ramchandani is the principal author of 'The Future of Work' series.
Published Date: Jul 04, 2019 06:07 AM | Updated Date: Nov 14, 2019 01:11 PM IST