#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.
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.
What 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.
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.