PM work you should look for- AMA with Abhishek Madan

Hello Folks! Welcome back to our weekly AMA series. This week we got an opportunity to interact with Abhishek Madan, Head of Product, Paytm Insider. 

Abhishek is an NIT, Trichy graduate. He has worked as an Associate Technical Consultant at Oracle post which he became the Senior Product Manager at TenTenTen Digital Products and Streamoid. He is now working as the Head of Product at Paytm Insider. At Paytm he handles a portfolio of consumer-facing features around payments and user onboarding.

Abhishek has been a PM for 10+ years and has the grey hair to show for it! He is a creative person who loves making consumer products that engage users. 

In this AMA, Abhishek shared insights about key Product Management skills for entry level PMs. He also shared about some important PM tools and essentials for finding the right culture fit.

So let's jump straight into it!

A lot of companies have openings but they have product management experience as “necessary” for entry level Product Manager roles. What can one do to set themselves apart?

I think product blogs are popular now, having actual side projects will set you apart. A product that people can look at and play around with. 

No-Code is really powerful nowadays. I would also recommend looking at smaller companies, because a 0-1 role in any company teaches you A LOT in 6 months.

How can I identify companies with good product culture before I actually work there?

Barring toxicity, good culture means different things to different people. Even “toxicity” is nebulous! Apart from asking around, there’s not much you can do. You can get a shit manager at a great company, or a great manager at a shit company. I would say look for a good manager (ask HR who you will report to, snoop on them), and look for an ambitious company. 

Ambition is often a saving grace. Lastly, look for structured thoughts on culture, and speak to leaders to understand how clearly they think and how intellectually honest they are. These are the only leading indicators I can think of. 

Should a person transitioning into Product do paid courses in Product to get jobs?

Product is transitioning into a credential-lead job function, which it wasn’t before. Personally I’m not a fan of paid courses in product management. I feel it’s a little like swimming, not much reading and a lot of trying. 

One way is to grab adjacent opportunities in product led companies. In my teams I have had folks who transitioned from marketing, operations, support, client servicing, engineering, into product. And they brought invaluable inputs. Also it helps to apply for generalist roles in fledgling companies. I was actually hired as a writer in the company when I first became a PM.

Unicorns are increasingly indulging in credentialism, and it’s going to be difficult to break into them directly. UNLESS you have a skill - e.g. regulatory insights, big data - that they are building a product team around.

How do I effectively prepare to get shortlisted for an interview for an entry-level PM role?

PM role consists of:

  1. Understanding tech and design work, and contributing to it
  2. Orchestrating work, rallying people around a common goal
  3. Delivering work, QA, GTM, reporting.
  4. Iterating on work

You need to demonstrate how you do these at your current job.

What would you suggest a PM become good at in the first few months of being a PM? What are the non-negotiables?

I would say:

  1. Understand the entire scope of functionality.
  2. Understand the breadth of users who use every corner of said functionality, using analytics.
  3. Understand project management of the team/pod
  4. Internalise the hypotheses of the product and build on them
  5. Research your category and stay abreast of the competition
  6. Understand customer feedback – support tickets, app store reviews, etc.

After this you would start contributing to design, understanding the tech stack and contributing to architecture, solutioning for requirements, writing PRDs, etc.

As a PM Intern or even as an APM, do you think it is necessary to chart out what we want to learn in our tenure at a superfast growing startup?

Being an APM is like being in wiki free fall. You know wiki free fall? When you keep clicking on links you find interesting in a wikipedia page, and learning new stuff without really planning it out. Just follow your nose. Enjoy this PM skill free fall, eventually you’ll get boxed into something, you can save the planning for then.

What is your view on if an instinct for building consumer products can be nurtured or if it just comes naturally?

I think the instinct comes from making stuff for consumers. Making things - jokes, songs, videos, food, art - means constantly putting yourself out there. 

Making yourself vulnerable, and having a direct connection with the consumer. Will they like it if I make the food spicier? Will they like it if I joke about Congress? Will they like it if I make wub wub wub sounds in my song?

Once you do that, you understand 2 people - the craftsman and the consumer. The craftsman is the designer, writer or programmer you work with. The consumer is, well, your customer. This is why we make my product managers run the box office at big events, it’s like presenting a dish you cooked to your (usually brutal) friends.

How do you go about planning sprints and ensuring its completion on time?

If you’re into running or cycling, there’s this concept of a “tempo” heart rate zone. It’s one where you are getting a good workout but you’re not stressed. My formula for a good year is 28 weeks of intellectual tempo, 20 weeks of intellectual stress, 8 weeks of chill. You need to identify if your current feature work is tempo, stress or chill. That affects the sprint. 

I don’t really care if work gets delivered in the right sprint to be honest. If the entire team is running on stress, we can’t go any faster. I believe in them and appreciate them. It’s important to have a clear line of comms with leadership and be transparent with them to make this possible. For them to believe in you and appreciate you.

Things screw up when part of the team is doing chill (say product) when they should have been in tempo or stress. That is the main thing to track.

In a fast growing startup, how do you maintain a balance between getting product out fast but also ensuring good clean coding practices?

Depends on scale. If you’re on a smaller scale, anything runs. If you’re getting closer to Mns of DAU, you’ll get screwed. It’s a non-negotiable then. We obviously do peer reviews, but also hire specific people as mentors.

It’s important for PMs to be aware of performance metrics – load times, lighthouse scores, etc. – and also be aware of the engg staff (e.g. QA) who can give them an impartial view of performance. Overall, good code is non-negotiable for me, like good copy or good design would be. We also do tech debt weeks/days, so every 4th week is just tech debt, or every friday is just for tech debt.

This is when it helps to have engineers turn into PMs (we have a few). Lastly, elegant code should be appreciated.

How do you balance estimation of vs real development time expectations with the management team?

We need to be better at understanding systems. It can happen once, but it shouldn’t happen twice.

PMs aren’t meant to just orchestrate work. They must understand the work they orchestrate. I believe that every PM must be some kind of Individual Contributor (IC) also. Code, design, write copy, ops, etc. If you can’t be an IC, you shouldn’t be a PM. This is a key cultural learning that must be enforced top down. Shreyas, Insider’s CEO, will jump at any opportunity to write code even today.

Is there a difference in skill set needed to be working in large cos vs smaller cos as product manager?

They are quite different. I will propose my theory of work and meta-work.

  1. Work: Making stuff. Code, copy, design, ops, support, marketing, selling, etc. Small companies need a lot of work. 90% of your work is work.
  2. Meta-work: Doing things that allow the making of stuff. Orchestrating work across 4 teams none of whom report to you, cold calling people at 11PM, dealing with the push and pull of ownership battles, implicitly teaching culture to 100s of PMs, having the intellectual capacity to wrap your head around swathes of complexity.

Sure not every level does this much meta-work, but it manifests at every level. Solving for work is something companies look for, but solving for meta-work is a huge skillset in large companies. Which is why big companies hire so many consultants, they are brilliant at meta-work.

How do you manage and track short and long term strategies when the market is changing so fast with new players and technologies coming in and ensure that Paytm doesn't divert much from their core objective?

I think everything we build must be preceded by a human hypothesis. 

The hypothesis of TPF’s Slack group is that young people are ambitious and hungry to learn, but prefer an asynchronous IM format. Tomorrow if PM falls out of favour, TPF will pivot to whatever new profession is around. Or if IM falls out of favour, TPF will move to whatever new platform people are adopting. 

I believe the direction of change is not unpredictable, only its pace is. We knew digital payments were coming, demonetisation hastened it. We knew WFH was coming, Insider has had 3 days a week no questions asked WFH since 2017. COVID hastened it. These were intuitive, human hypotheses. In a company, it is leadership’s job to believe in set hypotheses and have conviction. It helps to write down hypotheses as well. And test them constantly. We do this for large features. Change direction only if your hypothesis has changed, not because other apps are successful.

Which product tools do you use frequently and how are they helping you be more productive? 

I’m a fan of I hate making actual layouts because they influence the designer. This lets me make horrible vague layouts so that designers are forced to think independently. And I’m a fan of a notebook, especially since it’s hard to type and be on Zoom at the same time.

On the topic of notebooks, there’s a mechanical pencil called Kuru Toga which has a mesmerising mechanism. I love all beautiful, mechanical things. I find it really inspiring to make stuff cool even if most people will never notice it. I think aiming for inspiration over productivity is usually more effective.

What are your favourite blogs/folks on twitter to read about products? Any book you would recommend?

@ shreyas on twitter is damn insightful, but I’m really bad at reading up on product management. I try to read stuff I’m genuinely interested in and apply that to the job.

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