Making the world flat, one programmer at a time. Vivek Ravishankar, Co-founder at HackerRank. #PNHangout.

Vivek from HackerRankI am one of the founders of HackerRank, formally called InterviewStreet, where we are building a platform for programmers to hone their skills and companies to streamline their recruiting process. Currently we are a team of 66 split across Palo Alto and Bangalore and we have been signing up companies like FB, Amazon, VMWare, Bloomberg, etc. as our customers while simultaneously growing our developer community. We originally started off with a platform for mock interviews but we pivoted based on customer feedback and we kept iterating until we found a gap in technical recruiting which we discovered had a huge market but was struggling from a recruitment perspective which is why we chose to go ahead and tackle this domain.

CodepairTo aid in this recruitment process, we recently launched Codepair – a tool for real-time technical interviews. With this tool, you can view, edit and execute code in real-time in over 16 programming languages. When interviewing someone for a programming position there are a number of biases which both the recruiter and the candidate encounter. Factors such as the programming environment, spoken language, etc. can impact a recruiter’s decision when hiring someone. In fact, I remember my first interview where I wrote a syntax which the interviewer wasn’t familiar with. It was a new syntax and was correct but due to the lack of familiarity on the interviewer’s part we spent over 15 minutes debating over the validity of the program. Though I now understand why I didn’t get the job, that situation could have been avoided if I had a product that is so home to the environment of a programmer. Ultimately when you as an interviewer are taking a decision on whether to recruit a candidate or not, it is your bias right? You are processing a set of data internally to gauge if this person is going through to the next round or not and we want to make sure that we can eliminate as many of these biases as we can.

With Codepair, the primary bias that we are trying to eliminate is the environment that you put the candidate in. For example, you maybe interviewing candidates from outside your country and because of your accent they might miss out on a couple of words or they can miss out on certain catch phrases in your challenge or in your problem. So we built a problem statement based on this issue where you can actually view their code in real-time and you can walk through the different scenarios in the candidate’s code, i.e. for this particular scenario this maybe the output and for this particular input this maybe the output, etc. The idea of Codepair beyond the fact that it can be a pair programming, support on-video and video integrations and so on is the fact that we can eliminate all of those biases and give both the recruiter and candidate the best tool or product which is so close to what they would be use for programming in their normal day and objectively measure the ability of a programmer or candidate to come on board. We have a lot of features which might not be so obvious initially but when you start using it the experience just becomes so much better. For instance, a lot of people conduct phone interviews or attend phone interviews with their phone between their ear and shoulder and that’s not the most comfortable way. So we brought in the ability to call and have a video. So a lot of these features are implemented with great care which is why using Codepair for technical recruiting is an absolutely great experience.

Why you will lIn terms of customer acquisition, we at HackerRank are focused on building an amazing content team. We tried running ads in the past but through feedback from our customers, we realized that that wasn’t the way forward for us. I am really excited about the content team and I think that that will be a great way to increase our customer-base. With respect to enterprise customers we have a very strong sales team. We have a SDR team and so on and that has definitely increased the customers coming on to the platform but for the hacker side of things, things have been relatively organic

We have learnt through experience that data beats intuition and market averages because of which ours is a very data driven organization.  As a result, everyone in our team has a complete understanding, almost to the granular level, of how many new people we are able to attract to the site from different sources and what constitutes a success namely a user who keeps coming back to our site regularly and how do we make sure that everyone falls into this cohort. This is what I wake up to. This is what our product managers’ wake up to.  To process all our queries in a day while staying on top of our game, we rely on this very data. We care a lot about ensuring that the customers, whether it’s a programmer that’s hogging a challenge or an enterprise company which is trying to make and view reports, have access to features as quickly as possible as product is essentially a function of user experience and the speed at which you are able to help users get things done.

HackerRank has scaled rapidly, though not systematically and obviously there are a lot of things that are broken but we are constantly learning from our successes and failures.  Now is the time where we are scaling at such a rapid pace that things have to be in order for it to actually get the effect of the scaling. Moreover, technology is such a critical part of everyday life and it is only going to get more critical as the world moves on because every industry is being driven by technology. Consequently, it is critical that a company hires the right people by stream-lining their recruitment processes. This way we intend to act as the backbone of organizations by aiding them recruit better and smarter. We want to make the world flat completely based on meritocracy and this is the problem that we are tackling at HackerRank i.e. how do you make the world flat?

#PNHANGOUT is an ongoing series where we talk to Product Managers from various companies to understand what drives them, the products they work on and the role they play in defining the products success.

If you have any feedback or questions that you would like answered in this series feel free to email me at appy(dot)[email protected](dot)com. 

 

 

 

HackerEarth: an online technical sourcing and assessment solution – Sachin Gupta, Co-founder. #PNHangout.

HackerEarth is a Bangalore based start-up which helps companies hire programmers. It was started in 2012 by Sachin Gupta and Vivek Prakash, both of whom are alumni of IIT Roorkee. HackerEarth provides solutions for the technical recruitment space – one is an online assessment tool which is used by organizations to assess both internal and external candidates. Another solution acts as an engagement platform for companies when sourcing employees. With respect to internal candidates, companies typically use HackerEarth to conduct online challenges to assess their employees’ abilities. On the other hand, when we consider recruitment, there are primarily three stages during recruitment – sourcing where you source candidates, assessment which involves psychometric assessment, technical assessments, etc. and selection which is obviously where the candidate is selected. Our focus is primarily on stage one and two and our approach to these two stages differs from that of a typical recruitment agency. Our approach is to conduct an online hiring challenge. It is like an open test that we conduct on our community of developers. People come and participate in these challenges and based on their performance, we shortlist candidates. Since we began we have conducted numerous challenges, so we now have a large user base whose skill sets we’re aware of.

The test, or the challenge, as we call it, gives us a good understanding of a candidate’s programming proficiency. If they have performed well in the challenge, we know the candidate is good. We then aggregate their coding activities from online sources like StackOverflow, GitHub, etc, combine all this data to understand their core skills/strengths and we match it to a company’s requirements.

When we began HackerEarth, we were keen on working with early stage start-ups but we quickly realized that even if we give them good candidates, the number of hires wouldn’t be very high. So we decided instead to focus only on series A, series B funded companies. At that time InMobi, was a marquee client for us. Later on, Practo, FreshDesk, came onboard and we were able to fulfill their hiring needs too. We found great success in working with growth stage startups. Once we’d established some presence in the market we realized that the SaaS assessment tool could be sold to larger corporations too. Companies like Symantec and Citrix became our customers because our tool because of the time it saved them in assessments. Also, the product was much more stable and much more mature by then.

On the non-hiring front, we conduct exciting programming challenges which engages the developer community. We have a big following now. In addition, all the users on our platform are high on quality, high on skill sets and this in turn made sourcing from HackerEarth very effective.

Obstacles overcome:

The three main challenges that we have faced since we started-up are:

  1. Selection/Identification: As our company has expanded over the last 20 months, the most recurrent challenge that we have encountered is identifying our focus and priorities at different stages. If you can do this, you can actually build a very good company. When it was just the two of us, our challenge was to identify a MVP. We had interacted with a lot of people but there has to be a point where you need to sit down and start working on a product and in spite of this you will always feel that you don’t have enough information. You need to rely on your gut instinct and know why you entered that market or why you are building your product. Combine this with the initial user survey that you did to come up with an MVP and then proceed.
  2. Sales: Another big challenge for us was sales as both of us co-founders have a technical background and we had very little connection to the industry and even lesser knowledge of how to sell. In addition to the MVP we also needed to identify who are our target customers were because in many instances, potential customers expressed interest when we discussed our idea with them but their responses when we spoke to them after having built our product was very different. In our case especially, since we are a B2B solution in some sense, it was very important for us to identify our customer set as we were going after the entire technical hiring gamut. So we had to be extremely choosy. Now that HackerEarth has grown, we have a strong client base, revenue has been coming in and people are becoming more aware of HackerEarth. Building a good sales team was very important for us.
  3. Scaling: After a few successes, we realized that we needed to expand our customer base and accelerate in that direction. User acquisition is one of the most pressing things for us because we are essentially a marketplace as we have developers on one front and recruiters on the other side. It is similar to a chicken and egg problem. If you don’t have developers, you don’t have recruiters and if you don’t have recruiters you don’t have developers, so we have decided to focus more on getting developers to our platform and this is currently a challenge that my team and I are tackling.

Metrics is a must

Being a tech intensive company, the first thing that I would absolutely look for in a Product Manager is how driven the person is with metrics – you should be able to define what numbers you should be tracking, what are the time lines, you should be able to understand the sales figures, etc. By using tools like google analytics, he or she should be able to use a CRM to track sales, they should be able to use analytics to see how users are performing, they should be able to work with mix-panel and other tools to understand how users are interacting with the product and then be on top of these numbers because personally I believe product management is about tracking these numbers and making actionable decisions based on them.

HackerearthSecond is someone with actual previous hands-on experience with technology. If they still work with technology that is even better because sometimes, say you want to build a hack for marketing or you want to implement a small feature that your customer requested which typically would take say half an hour of work and you don’t want to disturb your team, you can go ahead and implement it yourself. So this is hands on technical skills, if not current, then at least experience with working with technology in the past.

Third is having domain knowledge. So somebody who has worked with programmers, somebody who can understand what programmers want and also understands recruiting because at the end of the day, the problem that we are solving is recruiting. We are helping companies hire programmers better. So if I can’t understand the pain point of a recruiter then I would not be able to build a product for them.

In addition, I believe that some sensitivity towards design is required. HackerEarth is a very design sensitive company. So the product manager also should understand what good design is. I don’t really expect them to create good designs but they should be able to understand what is good, what is bad and then work with the designer. One of the challenges of being a PM is actually working with the designer because designers tend to form a certain view point about certain things, so they are very passionate about what they see and sometimes what they see or what they feel or what they think or believe in may not actually translate to what the users want or what the business wants.

At the end of the day, being a product manager doesn’t mean you know everything. You could be wrong but to be a good product manager you need to be someone who is really passionate about solving a particular problem.

#PNHANGOUT is an ongoing series where we talk to Product Managers from various companies to understand what drives them, the products they work on and the role they play in defining the products success.

If you have any feedback or questions that you would like answered in this series feel free to email me at appy(dot)[email protected](dot)com. 

 

Interakt – an all-in-one customer engagement platform, Sudhanshu Aggarwal – Product Manager and Founder @ Fizzy Software, #PNHangout

Fizzy Software was founded in 2007 when I was doing my under-graduation in the US. Back then the Facebook platform had just come out and we saw that this could be an excellent opportunity to build some interesting apps on their platform and the first Facebook application that we built exploded well on the market resulting in us developing more Facebook and I-phone applications. We eventually sold most of those applications because those platforms were very new and we weren’t sure what this would end up resulting in. So we saw an opportunity and we cashed out our applications. I then decided to join Zynga as a Product Manager, where, for over a year, I worked on their internal gaming social network initiative which was developed to compete with Facebook. This turned out to be a great learning experience – lots of very smart people, lot of insights, focus on scale, speed and analytics, etc. However I chose to return to India in 2010 and resumed operations with Fizzy Software where I started a team in 2011 which focuses on design, analytics and feedback to build products and solutions for ideas that we came across.

Interakt.co

The idea for Interakt arose from a recurrent pain point that we observed while developing our products at Fizzy Software. Just to clarify, Interakt is an all-in-one customer engagement platform that brings lead capture, user data, email automation, live chat, web notifications and feedback under one dashboard. Over the previous years when we’ve built products, our goal was always to solve some problem. So we would find that one simple problem or pain point that we were facing and we would build solutions around that.

interaktAcross all these products that we built there was one underlying theme namely “customer engagement.” No matter what product we built, whether it was a B2B product or a B2C product there was always an angle of customer engagement involved i.e. how do you capture customer information, how do you understand what are they up to, how have they used the product, etc. Typically you would engage with your users by maybe sending a marketing email, automated email, informational email or transactional email. They might also have a query so you would want to respond to their support queries, get their feedback or engage in live chat. So there are currently a lot of different methods that websites and mobile apps use to engage their customers. Once we had built a number of products we saw this as one of the main underlying issues that we had to deal with every time we built a product. That is when we started diving deeper into what other solutions were out there and we learnt that we could build a solution which was probably better and more comprehensive and delivered the right value because of which we decided to build Interakt as a central customer engagement platform to allow you to capture, engage and entertain users.

Picking and Choosing

Currently, in terms of customer acquisition for Interakt, we are doing a number of things as I think it is too early to predict what is going to be the biggest customer acquisition driver in the future for us but content writing is a very big thing for us. We are also now trying to formulate a social media strategy where we use Twitter, Quora and other tools to generate more leads and reach out to more people and get their feedback from there. Other than that we are constantly parsing and collecting information about start-ups from blogs and other sources and putting that in our database and reaching out to them. Another big segment for us is our integration partners. We’ve integrated with Shopify, Prestashop, bigcommerce and we are going to be going after their customers and will hopefully win some partnerships and cross promotions with those platforms where we sell it to their customers. People are already used to SaaS based platforms and they understand the value of having everything in an integrated solution. So just like Shopify handles all the inventory management, sales, payment transactions for e-commerce stores, etc. hopefully Interakt could be the place where you manage your customer engagement, supporting your customers, sending them more personalised offers, etc.

At Fizzy software, we have a diverse portfolio of products. So when building a product, we first ask ourselves if we are building this as a viable business or are we building this just because we see a problem and we are really passionate about it. This is something that has helped us determine things going forward. Consequently, we have built products like EmailList.io, LaunchGator, etc. where the idea was we wanted a simple solution where it just did something for us where other solutions didn’t satisfy our need, irrespective of generating revenue from the product. In these cases we built these products almost as hackathons and just opened up these products other people. We sometimes even open source the code if we think it can be beneficial to others to see how we’ve done things. In the extreme cases where we do come up with ideas where we think these are really models or opportunities that could be big, then that is when the decision is to see if this a B2B product or a B2C product and based on that the revenue model decision or the business model decision comes in. We have clearly defined that any B2B product will be a SaaS based play and with respect to any B2C product we want to stay away from advertising. This is an internal decision that if we are doing a B2C product it should be something where there is an alternate source of revenue rather than just advertising dollars because in order to make a lot of money on advertising dollars you need millions and millions of hits on a daily basis.

While building our products, what has been important for us is being clear about the objective. What I have noticed through various discussions that I have had with regards to a MVP is that people have over thought the scaling aspect of things. For example, when I have 100,000 users or 500,000 users I should be able to do this which, in reality, is technically not part of your MVP. The whole idea of your MVP is just to put something out there and figure out your product market fit because getting to a 100,000 users is a very big challenge and it takes probably lakhs of rupees or a brilliant product or some other product features in there which will allow you to grow that rapidly. Dropbox had its own referral system. Evernote just had a great product to capitalise on. So a lot of people focus on scaling which is one thing that we’ve never thought of. Whenever we are building something we prefer to just plug-in basic features that work for that moment and if we have to re-do it once the product goes live, that’s fine. So scaling is definitely one thing we pushed back at.

Product Roadmaps are driven by customer feedback

The core philosophy has been about being able to build that basic MVP in addition to having transparency across the board. We want to make sure that whenever someone is building something they have a clear vision in mind and that everyone in the team is aware of what the other person is doing. Before we build anything however, we require thorough research into the competition and what tools are available in the market in order to enhance and build our product at least on par with what is out there today. I think doing enough market research and gathering enough feedback from people that is basically what should be your first step before you decide to build anything because unless you have Steve Job’s capability of just envisioning something and coming up with a break-through product on your own, most people rely on customer feedback and there is really nothing better than that. So just getting out there and talking to people and figuring out what their response is in order to shape your product’s future is important. A lot of times we’ve been guilty of not doing that. We just went with our gut instinct when we thought that the idea would make a cool product but then we’ve realised, from a big picture perspective, that customer input and feedback from all the stake holders is ultimately what should be driving your product roadmap.

#PNHANGOUT is an ongoing series where we talk to Product Managers from various companies to understand what drives them, the products they work on and the role they play in defining the products success.

If you have any feedback or questions that you would like answered in this series feel free to email me at appy(dot)[email protected](dot)com. 

Reach, Revenue, Retention – Sampad Swain, Co-Founder and CEO at Instamojo. #PNHangout

Logo-FullSampad Swain is co-founder and CEO at Instamojo – a platform that lets you sell & collect payments instantly by just sharing a link. Today, individuals & businesses are using Instamojo to sell & collect payments for digital downloads, physical goods, event tickets, services, subscriptions & much more. He was also the co-founder of WanaMo.com and DealsAndYou. In this #PNHangout he spoke to us about his journey at Instamojo and the Instamojo Mantra.

The marriage of commerce with payments

The basic premise around which we started Instamojo was – how can we help the common man accept online payments from his customers. Payments typically have always catered to people who understood technology or who could afford to have a team who understands technology.  So our aim was to cater to the rest of the world who are not tech savvy.  He or she wouldn’t necessarily use technology but he or she would accept payments from her customer and it is around this hypothesis that we have been building our product ever since.

Now what we were doing at Instamojo is bring the convenience of online payments to the common man which essentially meant marrying commerce with payments. Moreover, as we had started the company in the US and not in India, we realised that we had to funnel our core hypothesis to one of bringing payments to a non-tech savvy person.  So we knew we had to build a structure around this.  India is the first market we are trying to get a strong foot hold in and we are working on expanding to other geographies using the same model where you can share a link and you can collect payments with it. We are skimming the surface of what we are trying to achieve at Instamojo but the last two years have been a brilliant journey of us not only building the product but also learning how the payment system works as there are a lot of stakeholders (such as the banks, regulators like the RBI, etc.) involved and more importantly, our customer base has expanded to over 10,000 customers worldwide and it continues to grow.

The evolution of Instamojo

Our journey from when we began to where we are now has had three distinct phases:

The idea phase:

When we started, we wanted to release a product to the market which caters to non-tech audiences collecting payments and we realised that the easiest way to do this was to give the Instamojo user a unique URL (a.k.a. imojo.in payment link) which he can share with his customers over sms, email, social media, etc. which they can click on to pay for his product.  This was the core product that we started building.

Sampad Swain BWWe were not concerned with releasing a perfect product when we began as our main focus was to test if our hypothesis was correct. So we knew that we had to release the product as soon as possible and then iterate rapidly based on the feedback we received from our customers. In fact from the idea to the release it took about 3 weeks to roll-out the product to the market. We would talk to our customers’ everyday through social media channels like twitter and blog posts where they would give us their feedback which we would then allocate to one of three different buckets – reach, revenue and retention. Reach was our primary focus early on, so we built features at Instamojo which accentuated that portion of the business model. We had to ship products which catered to the statement of reaching more people as early as possible. Take feedback, iterate and make it better every day, so that when somebody comes back to use the product again they would see that it is a better product compared to what they had used previously.

The product building phase:

The product building phase started when I went to Silicon Valley for six months where we were part of the 500 start-ups accelerator program in Mountain View – California. At this point we had crossed the reach phase of our three buckets and we were looking at enhancing our revenue channels. So we focussed on features that helped us increase our revenue month over month and we released around 24+ features which aimed at increasing our revenue base. After Silicon Valley, we went onto to raise almost $500K from our investors and now with some money in the bank, we decided to focus on retaining our customers.

The business building phase:

We now had gained traction in reach and revenue. So we began building features to retain our customers. For example if a user had previously faced issues while using Instamojo, he would consider using a different product. So the idea was to keep the platform as simple as possible without demotivating the user. The user would share a link and collect payments; nothing else thereby providing a simplified user experience. This is how the product has evolved from idea to conception in the last 18-20 months.

The Instamojo Mantra:

At Instamojo, our philosophy is very practical i.e. release those products which are more data driven to the market because the chances of getting a product right in the market increase significantly as data never lies. Consequently, we do everything based on the three buckets i.e. revenue, reach and retention. It is critical to understand what matters to the business because when you are a small company, your resources are limited and your bandwidth is limited. Since you have to do more with less, it is very critical that you are aware of what the business needs right now. Also, I have seen very few companies who have succeeded at focusing on these three aspects together early on.

So when implementing features, we keep a tab on the customer feedback that we receive as we already have thousands of feedback requests from our current customers. We then try to tag the feature request to the three buckets and we analyse which bucket’s problem this feature will help us solve. If our focus is revenue and the feature falls into reach, then it would not be worked on at that instant. Implementing a feature because I love how to engineer it is something that we have never done.

There are three specific traits that we look for when adding someone to our team

  1. The person should be more engineering driven in their mind-set. When I say engineering driven I mean that his software should do more work than human effort should.
  2. He or she should be an independent “tinkerer” i.e. he or she can work independently while working as a team and he or she can basically tinker with a problem statement.
  3. The most important one for the company is a get shit done attitude – getting up and saying that I can get this done and doing it quickly.

These three aspects are what we really care about and this is what our Instamojo culture is.

#PNHANGOUT is an ongoing series where we talk to Product Managers from various companies to understand what drives them, the products they work on and the role they play in defining the products success.

If you have any feedback or questions that you would like answered in this series feel free to email me at appy(dot)[email protected](dot)com. 

A perspective from the other side – Seema Joshi, Lead Product Manager – BMC Software, #PNHangout.

In this #PNHangout, Seema Joshi, Lead Product Manager – BMC Software, shared with us her insights about Product management and the challenges and scope on the road ahead for Women Product Managers.

Why did you choose to be a Product Manager?

There are two aspects to why I chose to be a Product Manager. The first is related to the evolution of the Indian IT industry and the second my personal journey.

The Indian IT industry, after its beginnings in the 1980s, saw good growth in the 90s with the economy opening up primarily due to high cost arbitrage. During this time the industry was dominated by the services sector. In the 2000s, the industry was maturing rapidly due to economic downturn pressures and consequently margins were eroding and cost arbitrage decreasing. The services industry still dominated the IT sector as the cost arbitrage play was becoming increasingly competitive. We also began to see larger R&D centers, mostly captive, setting-up base in India. Now, in this current decade, the focus is shifting to total product ownership. With increased expertise as well as domestic markets, startups and VC eco-system expanding, product management is becoming a critical part of success. It is more critical than it has ever been. While we do have a growing leadership presence across companies in India from a R&D product and project delivery stand-point, product management and product leadership focus needs to be stronger to deliver great products to local and global markets through entrepreneurship or intrapreneurship. Product management clearly has a large role to play in shaping the course of the Indian IT Industry.

I am a Bachelor of Civil Engineering and I began my career as a structural engineer after graduation. While I loved my work building peoples’ dream houses, factories, bridges, etc. I knew that I was more productive and happier working with people. So, I took up an opportunity with eGain Communications- a product company in Pune in a customer facing role where, after sometime in this role, I moved to the sales team as I thoroughly enjoyed working with in a customer oriented role. We were a small team targeting new territories which meant wearing various hats from lead-gen, pre-sales, solution consulting, account management all the way to acquiring business. It wasn’t always easy, but it was challenging and educating work. After a few years in this role, I was offered a position in the product management team and the decision to move wasn’t difficult. I think I always was and still am a sales person at heart. So the proximity of working with customers to find solutions for their problems was important to me. At the same time, I had seen typical enterprise sales cycles span anywhere from 6-12 months. I now had an opportunity to bring to the table my experience of working with customers, their needs and expectations from solutions, etc. and, with the outside-in perspective to help build the product, I could indirectly contribute to getting business from a greater number of customers beyond my sales territories! The product management role was like a win-win.

It was both the opportunity and the challenge to be a Product Manager that got me into the role nearly a decade ago and it still continues to be my passion!

Great, you’re a Product Manager. So what do you really do?

I’m often asked this question and I have begun enjoying answering it, so much so that I have two versions of answers. For the people interested in a short answer I tell them – “As a PM I do lots of conversations using a ton of post-its, a set of lenses and glue.”

For the ones still with me, I tell them: a PM is responsible for the success of the product to maximize business value through the product’s lifecycle depending on the business goals—be it driving market share, revenues, customer retention or whatever the focus for that product might be in its life-cycle at that point. This requires a PM to have good understanding of the unsolved problems in the market to identify market opportunity. To do this effectively they need to bring out the post-its and engage with customers to understand problems in their context and what their pain points are.

They then need to use their short-term and long-term lenses to review this vis-à-vis corporate strategy, internal strengths, risks, funding, competitive landscape, etc. to come up with a business strategy to address the market opportunity and product strategy to build a kickass product.

With the strategy in place, they need to communicate with the entire value chain to help deliver this—right from exec approvals, working with engineering to build the product and with marketing to convey the planned product value, sales tools and processes to ensure sales is able to effectively sell to the right buyer and with support to ensure customers understand how to use the product in the desired way, etc. They need to be the glue between cross-functional stake-holders to ensure right execution.

Though a PM might not be responsible for each of these areas, it is very important for every Product Manager to still have what I call the imbibed-CEO attitude. You may not call the final shots in each case, but if you do not align and orchestrate various aspects while driving your areas of responsibilities, you might reduce the odds of your product’s success. A Product Manager really must be passionate and enthusiastic about everything related to the product to make it truly successful!

Managing a product demands multiple sources of information and skill. How can a Product Manager prepare herself for this role?

A Product Manager needs lots of post-its, glue and conversations as they do their daily jobs. Conversations are typically of two kinds—one in the listening mode to gather insights and the other communicating what to do and not to do and conveying value and ways to get there. The PM does not need to be the encyclopedia, but needs to know different ways to get this information that can go into the encyclopedia. It is really a mix of art and science!

There are recommended practices for the entire productizing process that can be used to source and communicate information effectively. Individually a PM can focus on some of the following to do this well:

  • Be a good listener: It is never about what the product can do. It is always about what the product can do for the customer. Engaging with customers and the market to understand problems in their context is critical. This involves being able to ask the right questions, understanding customers and their business and what their key pain points are as means is to identify pervasive problems.
  • Good domain understanding: It isn’t a pre-requisite for a PM to be a domain expert right from the beginning. However, to engage effectively with customers requires being able to do it in the context of their domain. So a PM needs to quickly get a good handle on how things work. Regular interaction with customers and prospects is definitely a great way to do this as well as following analysts and thought-leaders in the industry, tracking competition, attending industry events, etc.
  • Build an analytical approach to problem solving with a business-centric mindset: It is not about picking the first or the easiest solution or solving the problem of the noisiest customer. To derive the next set of outcomes, having understood the unsolved problems in proper context, requires being able to quickly analyze scenarios, potential opportunities, dependencies, financial implications, impact and mitigation plans. PMs need not be experts in each aspect but he needs to be able to evaluate options and work with the value-chain towards achieving business goals for which time and cost is critical!
  • Communicate effectively: Effective communication is the hallmark of a good PM. A PM is required to constantly communicate with various stakeholders to achieve a common objective i.e. to build a product that delivers value. For instance, a PM needs to communicate
    • Business opportunity and solution recommendations to execs for strategy and funding approvals
    • Product requirements to engineering to build the right product
    • With marketing to articulate solutions and convey the right value messaging
    • With analysts or customers to convey the solution and its value

If you fail to sufficiently communicate any of these, it could affect success!

  • Leadership and self-leadership: It is important for a PM to bring in the right vision, energize teams, influence, and be good at decision making for many a time it is about right prioritization and timely decisions. This cannot be done without passion for your product and its success. While good processes help reduce risk, even at an individual level, a PM needs to take charge and align and inspire teams towards their goals.
  • Belief, patience and perseverance: There are no two ways about it. In product management you’re in for the long haul. It is about a product’s journey towards success. If you want things to happen overnight, or view it just as a set of tasks from one release to another, you might end up taking the wrong paths. Keep the focus!

Women Product Managers – there are a few of them. Is it a disadvantage to be a woman?

Overall the gender diversity ratio in the Indian IT industry is approximately 25 % women, which is better than others. However, most women are still in traditional roles like HR and Marketing and to some extent engineering, technical-writing and delivery-centric leadership roles. The presence in product management and product leadership is still really small. In fact, in my 8 years of being a PM, both at my current and previous company, I have been the only woman PM in India. Of course it is a little different when it comes to global teams.

In India I have been on many forums and meetings where I am the only woman. Being a woman PM tends to have a two-fold challenge. For companies, organizationally, product management as a function is still not mainstream; it is getting better but it still isn’t there. This is further compounded by the lower women ratios overall and within the function.

One of the common challenges most Product Managers need to overcome is related to change—recommend change in strategy, change in practices to address opportunities, culture of organization, etc. If you’re the only woman in the room driving this, be ready with all kinds of data-driven reasons, proof-points and if-else conversations to make the change management smooth and effective to avoid “but, this is not how we’ve done it in the past” objections.

Beyond that, at a larger level, the challenge is a common one irrespective of roles—to have better diversity across hierarchies in an organization. If companies want to make a notable difference in diversity, it is crucial for them to cultivate a culture where women not only end-up taking more traditional roles like HR, Marketing, etc. but also actively encourage women to take up roles along technology leadership (as architects) or product leadership (product management and innovation) as we take the Indian IT industry to the next level AND if we don’t want women to be left behind once more time to only catch-up later!

I would also like to give a shout out to women in the industry to gear up for this and be prepared to play your part. Remember that what got you here won’t get you there and these days “lean is in”, so sharpen your skills to make a difference. For a better outcome tomorrow, it is a choice we have to make today—as individuals and corporates!

Is there a bright side for Women as Product Managers?

One of the key things for a Product Manager is to empathize with users and to care for the overall experience. Women tend to be naturally more attuned to this. They also come across as effective communicators and influencers. A PM needs to do a lot of communication as there are various stakeholders to be managed across ranks and a Product Manager has to be able to influence by bringing out the reason and value of why things need to be done the way they need to.

Being great at multitasking is a benefit as well. Recent studies are converging with the hypothesis that women are found to be better at multitasking than men. A Product Manager is always juggling between different things and different people and yet needs to keep all tracks aligned. It helps to be able to prioritize tasks, organize time and most importantly keep calm under pressure as they rapidly switch between activities.

Lastly, their leadership styles help too. PMs not only need to nurture a product from conception through its life-cycle but also drive larger teams towards a common objective without having any authority over them! This is corroborated by the increasing number of women taking up significant roles in corporations. Women Product Managers are definitely making a mark. Marissa Mayer’s growth from a great Product Manager to being the CEO of Yahoo is a testimonial to it. So there definitely is a bright side for women as Product Managers.

#PNHANGOUT is an ongoing series where we talk to Product Managers from various companies to understand what drives them, the products they work on and the role they play in defining the products success.

Product Management Principles across industries are the same” – Pandith Jantakahalli, Sr. Product Manager – iPublishCentral. #PNHangout

#PNHangout is an ongoing series where we talk to Product Managers from various companies to understand what drives them, the products they work on and the role they play in defining the products success.

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We recently had a chance to talk to Pandith Jantakahalli –Senior Product Manager at Impelsys, about his experiences as a Product Manager and his take on the role of a Product Manager. Pandith is an MBA from The Indian Institute of Management Bangalore and is also a “Bangalore boy” having grown up in this city. Here is what he had to share with us:

The path to Product Management

My career has had three distinct phases. The first phase was in Engineering where I started as a software engineer at Sasken as part of a seed team which developed ADSL modems and then moved to increasing levels of responsibilities as an engineering manager. The second phase can be broadly classified as a business strategy role where I worked for Mergers and Acquisitions. Here I was an integration manager for a company that we had acquired while I was at Sasken and I also worked in business roles where I helped the executive team make decisions by analysing different situations and suggesting how they need to be done. The third phase is that of a Product Manager.

imagesWhat interested me in Product Management, after having done multiple roles both on the business and the engineering side, was a desire to understand the big picture and play a pivotal role in deciding the success of a product and it has been my passion and interest ever since.

Within this third phase I have had three stints. The first was for a product that I had initially developed which dealt with licensing ADSL technology. In 2002, when I took over as the Product manager, the licensing business model had died out. So the challenge here was to find a new business model for this product. In my second stint I worked at Mindtree where we developed a suite of video surveillance products. This product had been in development for over a year so the challenge here was to get initial customers. Currently I am the Product Manager for a product called iPublishCentral which is a platform for delivering e-books. This product already had a large customer-base so the challenge here was to scale revenues and increase profitability.  So I have been fortunate to see different products at different stages of evolution.

Gauging the pulse of iPublishCentral’s customers.

Fortunately for us, at iPublishCentral, we are strong in three segments: the society publishers, the stem publishers and the children’s publishers and what has worked well for us is our focus and referrals from our existing customers. It is a small world and we are increasingly realising that the sales hinge on referrals. Consequently most of our customers go back to existing customers for references to understand how we fare on various parameters. So even though we have a sales force in different geographies, the key for us has always been good references from existing customers which converts a prospective customer.

We have 4 to 5 different inputs for developing our roadmap for iPublishCentral. First is the feedback we receive from existing customers and prospective customers that we work with or we intend to work with. The second is through customer support that we provide for our publishers. This way we are able to interact with a publisher’s end customers and understand some of the pain points of our customer’s customers.

A third source is the various stakeholders within the company itself i.e. the sales team which talks to existing and prospective customers, the executive team, the product managers including me all regularly have weekly and fortnightly calls with our keys customers. You also have market and competition and you have an understanding of where the market is heading and what the competition is doing and we also have our own sense of what we feel is going to happen in the market and what changes and disruptions are taking place.

Based on these inputs we have our business goals, revenue goals, customer acquisition goals, customer satisfaction goals and we prioritize each of them. We then identify maybe five or ten things that need to be done to achieve each of these goals and these are then broken down into themes. Once these themes are prioritized we start working on individual features based on impact and that is how we broadly layout the roadmap saying these are the goals, this is where the market is going and this is the time horizon in which we want to get things done.

Product Management Mantras:

From a product management perspective, one of the core principles is to help a company achieve its goals by understanding why the customers are using or hiring your product. You have to be able to understand what job the customer is trying to do and you should have a solution that will solve that problem or help the customer accomplish that job in return for money, attention, etc. anything that the company can monetise. Most product managers do not have the luxury of infinite amounts of money to devise a way to monetize the product later. Very few companies are in that position. So the core job of a product manager is to understand how the company can make money by providing a solution that the customer is seeking and not only should you be delivering that solution, you should be delighting that customer because only when you delight the customer are they going to talk about you and you will have more customers coming in through word of mouth, etc.

Having worked in different industries, from the domain’s nature and the competitive nature of the environment – the business environment itself they are all going to be very different for different industries but from a core product management perspective these principles are nearly the same.

Constant Communication

One of the core challenges that I have seen across all my three roles in Product Management is having everyone in the team on the same page i.e. constant communication across different functions within a company in terms of what the priorities are and what needs to be done now in order to keep everyone aligned and have clarity on the goals. This is a challenge all Product Managers have to confront. This, however, also depends on the culture of each company and how they tackle this communication conundrum. Some companies prefer a written document which becomes the basis for all discussions which then gets continuously updated. The other way is to have regular stand-up meetings where all the outstanding items are discussed and only the key decisions are stored in a central place which all team members have access to. So there are various techniques and tools to keep everyone on the same page and depending on how things have evolved within the product you create specific ways of overcoming these challenges that work for everyone.

A + B + C combined makes a Product Manager

The key skills required for Product Management I would say are being able to communicate the vision of the product and ensure everyone on the team has clarity and vision of what the goals are, written and verbal communication skills, analytic skills, design appreciation, capability to get into the mind of a user and think on her behalf to deduce what would make the user happy and delight them. I am also becoming increasingly convinced that a background in psychology really helps because you have to be able to understand the motivations and biases of people and understand people, customers and your stakeholders really well. Saying no to things is another crucial skill to have because you will always have limited resources and a lot of things to do. In addition, being able to ship the product; you can keep trying to work on something, trying to get it perfect and not release it. As a Product Manager, you have to have the guts to take whatever you have developed to the market, get feedback, iterate and improve it. So it’s a lot of skills that are required but the core ones are more on the softer side.

Now Product Managers by nature are very curious people so they would try out multiple products. If you look at their tablets, it would have a lot of apps installed on it so they can understand what the product is about and they will be able to sniff out details which you think are really not important. If you ask them what their favourite product or service is, they will be able to exactly tell you why they like the product, 20 things they would do to improve it, constantly have ideas and above all they have a good attitude in terms of getting things done and getting along with people as they are very good at understanding people. People who do well understand the user, so people with a psychology background or a design background have an edge over those who think a little more analytically or logically. I believe a person with a lot of diversity or a person who has done a lot of roles would definitely do well in a PM role.

Any tips for aspiring Product Managers?

I am a believer in theory and reading books does help but actually doing the role of a PM is the best way to go about understanding this role. A Product Manager will always have a ton of work on their hands so the easiest thing to do is to talk to your own Product Manager to ask him how you can potentially help. Actually doing bits and pieces of a Product Manager’s role would give u a good feel of what a Product Manger does and you are, in turn, contributing to improving the product. Of course you will have to convince the Product Manager that you are capable of handling the role but a good PM would be able to arm out some piece of work which is both interesting to you and useful to him.

If you have any feedback or questions that you would like answered in this series feel free to email me at appy(dot)[email protected](dot)com. 

 

The Services Industry moved India back 20 years in terms of building Products” – Arvind Jha, #PNHangout

In 1986, when I graduated from IIT Kharagpur as a Computer Science major, I had picked up an obsession with building products. Soon after college, I had joined DCM Data Products. DCM like other players in the Indian market, were very focussed on product development, as the product culture for designing computers, or writing compilers, etc was prevalent in that era. We as any other product company at that time were focussed on the fundamentals, such as, what a product should do, who would use such products, how we would market the products and how are we going to support such products.

As the outsourcing business kicked off in India, in 1991, the focus had suddenly shifted to a services mind-set where the question had suddenly changed to how efficiently and effectively can we utilize the 40 man hours in a week. The focus in the industry had pivoted from building a product to becoming a programmer, from market access to talent factories. Although India had built a 100 billion dollar services industry in this time period, we had also effectively moved back 20 years in the product industry.

Market Understanding is the key to building products

I had joined Polaroid – the leader in instant and chemical photography in the late 90’s. I had first-hand seen a how a dominant market leader was blindsided by major disruptions. Polaroid had a tough time adapting to the shifting consumer trends towards digital. The company had spent lot of time and resources in converting film’s to digital and digital to film, however, what the executives did not see that the Polaroid, was that film had no chance to survive in the digital medium.

MusselsEventually the company filed for bankruptcy and was sold. I had moved on earlier to Adobe, a company that was a leader in the software product space and was just setting up shop in India. Adobe was a solid product oriented company, with a lot of innovative products and a lot of leverage in the market. We had almost 5-10 million users for each products, and just sitting in on such big products gave us a huge amount of education. The challenge we had against was, could we build a product culture at the India office. The opportunity came after a couple of years after working as extension teams to the major products. We got the opportunity to “own” a full release of PageMaker. Since the core team was busy with building InDesign 1.0, PageMaker had been neglected and revenues were declining as the ecosystem of operating system, creator applications, graphics, printing etc had moved on. The task was to update the product on an “old” and complex code-base with minimal resources such that the revenue decline could be slowed down, enough to give InDesign a good chance in the market. We identified a lot of opportunities in the usage workflow, which our competitors did not take advantage of. These along with in numerous byte sized elements that had incrementally improved the product allowed us to present a case to the executives. The management had fortunately agreed to take on this mammoth task of transforming page maker. It turned out that the PageMaker 7.0 release increased the revenue 1.5x times and extended the long-tail significantly far in excess of the expectations.

The Innovation Bug

When you get hooked onto new and innovative stuff it gets harder do the maintenance sort of stuff. I started Adobe Connect, and also Adobe Enterprise Effort. Adobe in India had however at that time moved its focus in maintaining some of its older products, and I had then decided to move away to join a video start-up and learn how to build a product and a business from grounds-up, with a view to move to my own start-up in 3-5 years. The start-up was in video play-shifting, a similar solution to SlingMedia, where a user can take a video signal and encode it, and using a wire transmit the signal remotely to where the he is. We implemented a local area, wi-fi based video streaming and a peer-2-peer protocol for tunnelling video to a remote user. We got a NASSCOM innovation award for this product. However, one of the founders of the company had a tainted record with an IPO/investors and though we had great technology and user traction, it was impossible to raise funding unless the founder was removed from the company (which he did not want to let go). Since I was directly involved in meetings VCs and investors at that stage, I felt that the possibility of collateral damage to my professional reputation was very high given the founders manipulations and therefore I decided to exit from the company to launch my own start-up.

We launched Movico where we tried to establish ourselves in the video transactions space. The idea was to build a tool that would allow content owners to build scene based metadata and indexes for their video collections and we would offer tools for the users to extract, join, create new content online. In hindsight, we were way ahead of our time and especially after the 2008 economic turmoil, the funding needed to build the product and business had dried up. We had to can the product and look for alternate ways to keep going. So we turned our strategy around a bit, went into OPD services, built a reasonable revenue base and started looking at mobile apps.

Filmy Filmy!!

A couple of years ago, my friends started a mobile distribution company, Lava, focussed on brining tech/manufacturing from China and building a distribution brand in India. They did rather well and scaled the business to top 5 local Indian brand level within 18 months. In 2011, they asked me to help setup a smartphone team/capability for them since it was clear that android was going to be  huge disruption for the phone business. I got the chance to understand the phone ecosystem – from chips to software. I could see that for Lava to be successful in the smartphone space, we would have to move into a premium zone. So I helped build an Android R&D / competency centre. This attracted the high-end players to speak to Lava. One such player was Intel, who were looking to get into the phone business but not finding any takers. I realized that Lava could gain significantly with Intel as a partner. The profile could change. We negotiated to bring the Intel technology to the market under a new brand, Xolo, pitched as a premium brand with “Intel Inside” (Xolo today is a well known brand by itself).

The association with Lava had given me some useful insights into what the Indian consumer was looking for, and based on this I decided to move away from the device side to focus on building a portfolio of apps that were primarily in the content space – News, Film, Movies, Songs, Indian books and Indian Magazines. My gut-feel is that once the smartphone pricing falls under Rs. 2500 level (I expect this to happen Q4 2014) the demand for consumption of this Indian/local/regional content will be large and we can build a large digital media business powered by apps/server side technology. Although we had many competitors in these areas like Gaana.com, we knew that our expertise with video, content algorithms, focus on integrating new technology to deliver consumer benefit would win in the long run.

An example of this is our app “Filmi Filmy”. The market has over 7-10 major hindi film music apps. However, none of them have a great video experience.  At the same time consumption from YouTube has been growing rapidly. Content owners have published over 10,000 free movies and over 30000 free songs to YouTube. Using some smart algorithms and our video technology expertise, we have launched the first ever chitrahhar-on-the-go app, Filmy Filmy. It brings your favourite film songs with the original film tracks for you to enjoy in video. And we plan to build an ecosystem around this – sharing playlists, screen shots, quizzes, memes – ideas to engage the users and let them create new content. Make the video transactional (going back to our Movico idea).  I’m happy to say that within 3 weeks of launch, we were the top new music app in India. We were featured at #8 in the indian app store in the music category in India and #1 in Pakistan. We are currently grossing over 1000+ downloads/week. Soon we will have Android and Windows version of this app ready.

Innovative Business Models and Market Understanding is Key

With Filmy Filmy, we have implemented unique business models built around in-app purchasing. We knew right from the outset that this was not an App we can charge a premium for. Even if we went down the advertising route, we would need close to 4-5 million downloads for the product to be sustainable. Hence, keeping this in mind, we went down the in-app purchases route, that allows users to purchase and create his own own playlist and share this with his friends. For example, on Valentine’s Day, we had allowed our users to create a playlist to express his emotions and share this with his beau. We were quite interested to see that this model had gained quite a lot in terms of traction and revenue.

We currently target the Indian Diaspora, such as the Middle East, SEA, etc. We provide limited content access for free, but we monetize through some innovative means. Product Managers usually play an important role in understanding the market and identifying the right channels to monetize this content. My passion is to be ahead of the market so I am always trying things. Sometimes it works, sometimes it does not. But the team has a fun time all the time.

India as a Product Nation

A lot of young companies come to me saying, that we are doing an Indian version of a US business model. What sorely seems to be lacking in the pitch is the consumer profiling on how their unique solution will tackle a real world problem. I believe that one is to one direct modelling of US business models may not work. I would much rather here a pitch from an Indian company which states that they have the market insight to say that there is a large enough need in our Indian Audience, and our solution can meet that need in an innovative way. The focus should change from “we can do it” to “we know this about the Indian Consumer”. However, I’m very excited that the product industry has now matured and is no longer learning to walk, we’ve reached a point where we can run.

Creating a platform needs a broad vision and a long leash from investors– Ranjit Nair, CEO of Germin8. #PNHangout

Ranjit has a PhD in Computer Science from University of Southern California and is the CEO of Germin8. In this #PNHangout we had a chance to catch up with Ranjit on the challenges of building a platform and finding the initial market fit.

Ranjit-PRCIMSMarket research companies world over found conducting surveys about brands and products difficult. People were reluctant to take surveys and those who did take these surveys were not representative of the target audience, eg: housewives and retired folks instead of working professionals. We saw a trend where people would often go onto social media sites and/or company owned channels of communication such as emails to express themselves. Hence, as a solution to this market research problem we developed NLP algorithms which were capable of understanding opinions expressed in textual conversations. These algorithms were designed to perform functions such as topic segmentation, topic identification and sentiment analysis. Although these theoretical problems were interesting to solve, it was far from being a product that had much broad commercial appeal.

The push to create a market fit for Explic8

By March 2009, I had assembled a team to develop a commercial product that harnesses these NLP algorithms in order to draw actionable insights and leads from public and private communications channels such as social media and emails. To fill the missing features that could make this product commercially viable, I had challenged my team to build a working prototype in 23 calendar days — just in time for the General Elections in India. Our goal was simple, to analyse what people globally were talking about politicians and parties during the election and make this data available to the public.

This sprint drew us closer to creating the foundations of a minimum viable product which solved a market research pain point (i.e. reliability of surveys). But we knew that the technology we had developed could also solve pain points felt by customer service, sales and corporate communications. For example, this tool could be used for lead generation by a sales team by finding conversations where customers had expressed a stated or latent need for certain products.

An expanded vision could mean a larger product development cycle, but it was worth it

We knew that if we expanded the product vision to solve problems beyond just market research and in multiple verticals, we were setting ourselves up to be a little unfocused; instead of narrowing the focus on one specific problem, we chose to develop a platform that could be used in different applications. We chose this approach because there was no market player who had taken the platform route and attacking the larger market would make this product more feasible. We were lucky to have the support of our investors to back us up on this decision.

We, as a product company, were a little bit ahead of the curve where we sometimes ended up with features that the Indian market wasn’t even ready for. When we launched our product, we realized a lot of the features we built weren’t actually being used by our customers.  For example, we have a feature that allows our users to analyse sentiments not just at the brand level but also for each of the brand’s touch points. We realized that apart from a few brands, most were satisfied with just using the overall brand sentiment without concerning themselves about the sentiment for each of their touch points. We preserved this feature and as users evolved, this feature became one of the differentiators that is now used by most of our customers.

Hindsight is always 20/20 and as we went about from concept to production there were many ups and downs that I think are common with every start-up. We would battle between adding features that add functionality and features which made the product more useful, usable and scalable. I think if I had to do things a little differently today, I would have focussed a little more on marketing initially and a little lesser on building many features. However, we have reached a point where our product speaks for itself and customers from a variety of industries are interested in using Explic8.

Platform and Goals

We are now more than a product but a platform. Explic8 is one of the apps which reside on our platform and we’ve built it in such a way that it could be used in multiple use case scenarios such as analysing emails, chat conversations, etc. We also allow third party applications to use our API to develop their own tools. Analytics that comes from our app is very industry focused. For example, if you’re an automobile brand, then the insights you receive will be benchmarked against competitors using metrics and sources relevant to the automobile industry. Hence, the insights you get are highly actionable. The sentiment algorithm is tuned for each industry, for instance “unpredictable” in the context of a steering mechanism would be treated differently from “unpredictable” in the context of a movie plot. We are also in the midst of expanding our platform to encompass predictive analytics.

If you have any feedback or questions that you would like answered in this series feel free to tweet to me: @akashj

“We think more like Product Designers, and less like Product Managers” – Bharath Mohan, Pugmarks.me #PNHangout

(This passage is a summary of the conversation with Bharath Mohan. The audio transcript can be found here.)

Adopters of any new innovation or idea can be categorized as innovators (2.5%), early adopters (13.5%), early majority (34%), late majority (34%) and laggards (16%), based on a mathematical Bell curve put forth by Everett Rogers in his book titled “Diffusions of Innovations”. The book broadly suggests that if you have a product that is of value, you often times have to pave the path for the consumers to be the beneficiaries of this idea. It’s the product designer’s role to design how a product is used across the dispersion of users. This ultimately determines the principles of design and the features that your product consists of.

bharath-photoWhile I was doing my PhD in IISc, I worked on designing a myriad of algorithms for information retrieval. A typical internet user reads content that could range from currents events, such as the war in Syria, to topics as specific as Product Management. I’ve always dreamt of a system that can bring the most relevant information to a user – without the user searching for it. Pugmarks.me connects the context in which you are browsing through these articles by following the digital trails you leave behind. It then uses its context engine to recommend the next article it considers you should read packaged in a seamless experience.

Designing Pugmarks.me has been an exciting experience, which included research in algorithms, building a real time crawling and retrieval system, and constantly learning from users. We’ve followed some Mantras in our product development – especially because the product requires inputs from multi-disciplinary areas. Everything has to tie in, to each other. Nothing is known prior and has to be learnt along the way. A “product management” approach would not work. A “waterfall” model to design would not work. “Powerpoint presentations” would not work either. Our product management is less of “management”, and more of design and evolution.

The Pugmarks Mantra

Unlike Facebook or Twitter where the problem’s technology core is simple and scaling is complex, our problem’s technology core is complex akin to the likes of Google’s search engine and NEST. Hence, over the past 1.5 years our product has been opened to a smaller set of users which gives us data to refine the product further ultimately paving the path for a larger cross section of consumers to enjoy the benefits of the product.

pugmarks-character-evolutionSome of our Mantra’s are:

  • Be metrics driven: Once we analyse our features metrics we identify ones that are successful and bolster them to make these our ‘super class’ features. While we do this, we bin our users into “Fans”, “Tried but dropped off”, “First day drop-offs”. The ‘tried but dropped off’ is where we focus our energy on. We do data analysis, interviews and direct emails – to understand why they drop off. What we learnt is that they mostly drop off because of the “inconvenience” of a new product; either added latency, extra memory consumption, instability of the browser, etc. These reasons give us new things to work on and improve.
  • Usage versus Users: We are building our product with the goal that even if few users come to try out our product, they all stay back. Between usage and users, we prefer high usage between a small number of users over low usage in a high number of users. If our product cannot engage users for a long time, any amount of marketing will still not help.
  • Focus on real Virality: Virality is often confused with just having a Facebook share or a Tweet button, or slyly making a user talk (spam) about your product in his social channels. Virality for us is the inherent quality in our product which makes the user want to talk about it. We consciously ask ourselves, “What will our users want to talk about Pugmarks to someone else?” These viral loops must be strengthened and not social share buttons.
  • Constantly question your assumptions: In our initial iterations, we felt our users will be concerned over privacy. Soon, we realized that the paranoid would never use us anyway – even if we gave them a lot of control. The ones, who used us, felt we were not building good enough models for them. So, we moved away from user supervised learning to a completely automated learning system. We imagine our current user telling us, “I’ll tell you everything about me. Now help me in ways I’ve never seen before”.
  • Continuous Integration: We never take up features or tasks that take more than two weeks to launch especially one’s which require a lot of people and require extensive build times and planning. If you finish the code and if it’s lying unused, there’s an opportunity cost lost because that code could very well engage a user or maybe incite him to talk about the product to someone else. This is a loss for us, hence, we continuously integrate.
  • Own the full user experience, end to end – From messaging to user touch points to the backend algorithms: A user doesn’t appreciate information until it is delivered in a way that is useful to you and is needed by you. We obviously needed a team that was capable of building this experience end to end. Our team considers every aspect of the product, from the touch points to the user, how the product interfaces with the user and also how the product communicates with the user using the technology algorithm we created.

pugmarks-airplanes#PNHANGOUT is an on-going series where we talk to Product Managers from various companies to understand what drives them, the products they work on and the role they play in defining the products success.

If you have any feedback or questions that you would like answered in this series feel free to tweet to me: @akashj

The Atypical Product Manager – Nishant Pandey, Naukri.com #PNHangout

Every Byte Counts 

Earlier I worked as a field engineer in Schlumberger, providing Drilling Services. Drilling is a very high tech, and arduous task; whether it’s on land, on a river, on deep waters. My job on any rig was to determine the direction of the oil well and properties of the rocks we burst through – its density, its resistivity, its shear strength, its porosity. We did this via real time telemetry of data from sensors placed on the rig as well as from sensors that were sent many kilometres down into the earth. All this data came to our computers in bytes of 1s and 0s. We had to be rigorous in analyzing every bit of this data as any misinterpretation could mean the difference between finding oil or water.

The Atypical Product Manager

After working for Schlumberger for 8 years, I did my MBA from ISB-Hyderabad. There I met Hitesh, then the COO, and he hired me to Infoedge. Having a background in oil drilling and sales, my knowledge of the internet was limited. I wasn’t hired for any specific, well defined role. When I joined, I did  a bunch of assignments related to Online Marketing, TeleSales, Competition Assessment etc. After a few weeks of such ‘consulting type’ assignments, I was asked if I would like to head the Product Management team of Naukri.com.

My understanding of what a Product Manager does was next to nil. I assumed programming was an essential part of this role. However, Hitesh and Vibhore allayed my concerns, explaining what my role would be. I was told, by way of an example in a lighter vein, “If you leave Naukri.com to the Techies, it would look like tables of data, with very little aesthetics to it. If you leave it to the Marketing team, all you would see is banners all over the site”. Although this was clearly exaggerated, they went onto to explain that this means that the Product Management team acts as a pivot, to the Sales, Marketing, Technology and other teams, keeping the many teams’ expectations in consideration while evolving the Product in a way that benefits the users. This sounded interesting and it seemed right down my alley, so I was excited to take this challenge up.

Key Victories

The reason I brought up my experience as an Oilfield engineer is because it built a rigour to pay attention to details of planning and nuances of execution. Whether it is drilling for oil or whether it’s for improving an internet product, making logical, data based decisions and teamwork are key to success. Moreover, in both the jobs when you make a pitch to various stakeholders, the recommendations have to be crisp, strong and  factually correct. So, interestingly, I was able to bring learnings (a lot more than one would imagine) from my previous job and apply them to challenges here.

  1. Communication: The goal for any business is to increase the returning visitors. In our case the only way to achieve this was having relevant jobs for candidates and communicating them to our users in a manner that was effective and didn’t look like spam. Hence, we worked on every email communication to be crisp with a clear call to action. The subject lines, signatures, salutations, the contrast in colours, the font type and font size had to be well thought through. The team also brought about a complete re-vamp to many aspects of the site communication and interfaces, and we have sometimes seen a massive jump in our metrics just because of this.
  2. Transparency in information and no silo’s: Every stake-holder must be privy to the same information, and every one must be spoken to in the same voice with the same data. This has been one of the critical things that the Naukri product team ensures, especially in terms of decision making and dissemination of site metrics.
  3. Improving algorithms: Naukri has over 15 algorithms running on different applications, and sometimes you see 3-4 flavours of the same algorithm depending on which page you are querying from. The challenge of matching a CV to a job is that a CV, which consists of thousands of words needs to be matched with a Job Description, which also consists of thousands of words – and our algorithms have to determine which are the most important of those words that need to be matched, and which words are to be ignored. The search and match algorithms have in recent times changed significantly from the earlier versions of them. We have had fantastic results and this has been thrilling for our team.
  4. Growing the team: The up-curves in advancement in Naukri have been good because of the superior PM’s we have on board. It has reached a stage where the product team has become greater than the sum of its parts. One person cannot know everything about a product especially with a complex product like Naukri. So the only way to achieve effective results is to have a very strong group of 7-8 people amongst whom collectively every piece of knowledge is available, and that they work as a transparent team within and with other teams.

The Power Of The Marginal

I’ll just sum up with something Paul Graham talks about in his essay ‘The Power of the Marginal’. He states that “… outsiders, free from convention and expectations, often generate the most revolutionary of ideas”.” In my personal case I was an outsider to the internet business and that helped me contribute new ideas and ways. In hindsight, my exposure to sketching, photography, reading, writing and an interest in Psychology helped me appreciate the work that goes into the Design and Marketing of our product, and allowed me to contribute to it.  This automatically involves you with the other teams at a whole new level and leaves a lot of room for collaboration. Who knew hobbies and interests developed decades ago would help me shape my job? Hence, I feel a PM with a diverse background, someone who is as good with Divergent Thinking as with Convergent Thinking, someone who is as comfortable with artistic subjectivity as he or she is with logical objectivity, could be more effective than a PM with an only technology background.

#PNHANGOUT is an ongoing series where we talk to Product Managers from various companies to understand what drives them, the products they work on and the role they play in defining the products success.

If you have any feedback or questions that you would like answered in this series feel free to tweet to me: @akashj