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First month as Product Manager

I joined Microsoft four weeks back. It is my first full-time role as a Product Manager (PM), and I learned many things in the last month. I want to highlight two key learning in this blog post.

Customer advocate

The Product Manager should be a customer advocate. A very simple statement. It’s tricky to carry that mindset throughout the job. During PM interviews, we are given a product to critique or improve by adding new features. It ends at sketching out a highly opinionated plan. The PM job is slightly very different from the interview process.

A PM will be owning a product or feature area. It can be in the Platform (that is not visible to users) or in the User Experience (UX) module (which the user views on their screen).

A super simplified representation of a software product
A super-simplified representation of a software product

First thing to do is to understand the product. Login to the product and start using it as an end-user. Then, look at the engineering design behind it, not to the extent of reading the codebase but on a relatively high level. Checkpoint one passed.

The second thing to do is to read customer feedback. What the customers are saying about the product, what they like, what they don’t like, what they wish to see in the product. These are crucial inputs to the next step, research.

A PM should research potential product improvements. It can be done through customer interviews, competitor study, reading industry reports like Gartner. And that is how a PM lands on a plan very similar to the one sketched out during the interview phase. The key difference is, this plan is fact-based, metric-driven and relatively less opinionated.

There are three steps in deciding a product solution.

  1. Why do we need this solution?
  2. What is the solution?
  3. How are we going to build the solution?
Three steps thinking to a product solution
Three steps thinking to a product solution

PMs spend a lot of time in 1 & 2 and to a small extent in 3. The learning I had in my first month is understanding why 1 & 2 are important. We start with Why. Customer interviews and secondary research will help answer this. It’s very important to validate the assumptions with customers. It’s the principal character of the PM who strives to be the customer advocate.

Based on the inputs from the first question, we move on to the second part of the product solution—What is the solution. It involves deciding what customers would like to view when they use your product and in what order. PMs make a list of items they are planning to build and show it to the customers. Customers will say which items they like and want immediately and which items are not urgent needs. These prioritised items will be given as inputs to the development team in a product requirement document.

A product requirement document consists of User Personas (customers), their needs and the expected behaviour of the product/feature—User Jobs. PMs will be required to engage with the engineering team to help them clarify any doubts in the requirements and involve in the solution discussion (the How part).

User jobs with PM and customer priority
User jobs with PM and customer priority

A wise PM told me that most of the not-so-great PMs spend a lot of their time in the third question (How) and don’t get the fundamentals right (Why and What). He further added without a strong backing of Why and What, How is worthless. Often, PMs and developers build a solution that nobody wants. This miscommunication gap is bridged by iterative improvements in the Why and What questions with customer inputs.

A good PM adds a lot of value by being a customer advocate.

Measuring effort

I joined work after a two-year gap due to higher education. There were a lot of tasks and I was initially overwhelmed. I asked the wise PM during one on one, how do you manage your tasks? He showed me a two-by-two matrix like the one below.

An action priority matrix for tasks
An action priority matrix for tasks

I asked him how he measured the effort. He told the amount of time spent on that activity. I replied, “yeah it makes sense. Time is money, right”.

He replied, “That is a misconception. Time is actually greater than money”

Time can only be spent and spent linearly. Money can be earned or spent exponentially.

We always have finite time in a day. These things make time a more valuable entity than money. This perspective will influence how we prioritise the tasks at hand. PMs are always caught in situations to prioritise tasks. It was the second learning I had in my first month as full-time PM.

I will keep y’all posted on the upcoming learning in my PM role 🙂


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Thumbnail Photo by Johny vino on Unsplash

Accessibility and inclusion in UX for Product Managers

I stumbled on the topic of accessibility and inclusion while learning user experience (UX) design from MOOCs. At first, I thought it’s a reasonably familiar topic but I couldn’t have been more wrong. After reading through several resources, I now firmly believe, there is no better way to practice user empathy than understanding accessibility and inclusion. This blog post outlines the need for accessibility and inclusion in building products and how it’s a win for everyone involved.

Disability – redefined

When I heard disability, I used to think about people with physical disability such as those who have lost their limbs, vision, hearing. The World Health Organisation (WHO) says over a billion people, 15% of the world population, have some form of disability. They mention disabilities due to ageing, chronic health conditions, mental illness among others. Many people live a normal life without knowing they have a disability like color blindness. WHO argues disability is not just a health problem, it’s a phenomenon reflecting the interaction between features of a person’s body and features of the society in which he or she lives.

According to WHO’s argument, disability happens at the point of interaction between a person and the society. Consider a deaf person walking into a job interview and facing an intercom door.

The user faces enormous friction in this situation. It is a loss for both the candidate and the recruiter in the world surrounded by non-inclusive, inaccessible products. The philosophy of inclusive design addresses this problem.

Inclusive design

Inclusive design is about considering the full range of human diversity such as age, class, color, gender, literacy, race and all forms of disability. Any exclusion results in hampering the interaction of the individual with their friends, family, their neighbourhood and society. Ramps and access cards in buildings, Braille inscriptions in elevators are examples of inclusive approaches to design and offer social participation for everyone.

There is a misconception that inclusive design means designing one thing for everyone. It means creating multiple things where everyone has an option. For example, an inclusively designed train station may offer stairs for youth, escalators for elderly and elevators for those who are wheelchair-bound. The use case of mobility inside a train station is solved via multiple designs with a primary motive—do not exclude anyone.

Challenge of exclusion

Exclusion is the biggest challenge in entertaining diversity. There are temporary and situational exclusions in everyday life. Few of my MBA batch-mates broke their legs and were wheelchair-bound for months. They faced temporary exclusions from several activities on the campus. Navigating to the check-in counter of a busy airport with luggage creates a situational exclusion. Mobile phones come handy in such circumstances. The touchscreen of a mobile phone that contains every necessary option within a reach of the thumb is designed with inclusive design philosophy.

Permanent, Temporary and Situational exclusion
Permanent, Temporary and Situational exclusion. Credits: Microsoft Design

Technology interactions depend on the way we touch, see, hear and speak and remember. I have personally faced difficulties in teaching my father how to use a mobile payment application. He was forced to learn the nuances of One Time Password and Two-Factor Authentication. Many essential modern applications are not friendly to elders. It begs a question whether technology is adapting to us, or we should adapt to technology.

Empathy

Empathy is a key ingredient in designing accessible and inclusive applications. Personal biases can influence the way we speak and behave. It can easily influence the products we build unless we choose to empathize with the users.

Product Managers (PM) usually think about user personas when they face a problem statement. Need-driven user personas help PMs practice user empathy while designing products. A noise-cancelling headset or a blindfold during prototyping will come a long way in making the product more accessible. Empathizing with users will help us see more barriers than we can imagine.

Solve for one, extend to many

User empathy and inclusive design philosophy will help us design solutions that can work for multiple situations of exclusion. Consider the high contrast screen that was invented for people who had vision impairments. Today it helps people who are using their laptops under sunlight—a situational exclusion gap.

Audible, the popular audiobooks company is powered by the concept of storytelling that was initially catered to people (primarily children) who cannot read with their eyes. Video captioning that was intended to help people who cannot hear is currently used in busy airports, video call transcription services. When solving a problem for blind or deaf people, we are not only solving for them. We need to start thinking about enabling participation for people with disabilities in everyday life in society. We can extend those products and make it accessible for many more people in the future.

Takeaway

While designing a product, recognize the exclusionary aspects. Empathize and learn from the diversity of users. Solve for one and extend it to many. These are the most important takeaways from my UX lesson yesterday.

Most of the references are taken from Microsoft’s design blog. It has quite a lot of films, guides on the topic of inclusive design. I highly recommend checking them out.


I hope you learned something new. I write on business and technology topics. Consider subscribing to receive upcoming posts directly to your mailbox. I promise to publish useful content 🙂

The essence of Zoho and Freshworks

Two weeks back, Zoho Corporation sued Freshworks for copying its trade secrets. I wrote a report on comparing the two businesses during my MBA as part of a course requirement. In the wake of recent developments, I believe it will be an interesting read: attaching below, a version of the essay. Disclaimer: I worked at Freshworks for fourteen months before pursuing MBA

The Indian software industry used to be known for its offshore service operations of companies in the West. During the last few years, the trend has been changing. Two companies are building software products to the world from the capital of the southern state of Tamil Nadu. Freshworks and Zoho, are very similar companies, in their business strategy and problem-solving approach. They differ in aspirations and vision. Freshworks is a relatively new age internet start-up focussed on aggressive growth. It engages in guerrilla marketing, often going head to head with one of the industry leaders like SalesForce, which is more than ten times its size. Zoho portrays itself as a neighbourhood company from southern Tamilnadu with big ideas and empathy for small businesses. This essay studies the companies from a strategic perspective, compares their choices and attempts to identify their essence.

Image credits: Inc42

In the last few decades, India has become a global powerhouse of the IT services industry. Tata Consultancy Services, Infosys, Cognizant and Accenture recruit in large numbers from the engineering colleges around the country. They take advantage of the prevalent labour arbitrage, offer software services for Fortune X companies in the West. The Indian economy has prospered due to the growth of the software services industry. Tata Consultancy Services has an amassing 8.37 trillion INR in market capitalization as of June 2019, which is a little higher than 8.36 trillion INR market capitalization of Reliance Industries.

The explosion of data coupled with the availability of high-power computing enabled businesses to move to the Cloud. Migration to Cloud is a painstaking process for engineers in a company; therefore, they were outsourced to eastern countries like India. Indian software service companies, during its long affiliation with western clients, developed expertise in Cloud computing. It forms the base for software as a service (SaaS) products.

Traditional software products came with licence or purchase options often priced at exorbitant rates. Office essential software was purchased at negotiated terms, but during the brink of the millennium, things changed. The dotcom bubble period saw many businesses opening in silicon-valley without a strong vision or knowledge. Later, when the bubble was burst, only a few, invested firms survived. Companies started after the dotcom bust emphasized on investing in their productivity tools. As the cost of acquiring a new customer started rising, companies began listening to their customers. A new category of products called Customer Relationship Management (CRM) was born.

CRM consists of all the steps in the sales cycle from lead generation, approaching a client, documenting the interactions, follow-up and eventually closing the account. Sales associates who work with multiple clients were facing problems of keeping track of their customer interactions, and often these details were handled in excel sheets. Salesforce, the world’s leading SaaS player today, started developing and selling CRM software that is hosted on the Cloud. Businesses need not have dedicated servers, network monitors in their office space. The property can be used to grow their business. This revolutionary idea in Cloud computing gave birth to the SaaS marketplace.

While IT services in India were still growing in the early 1990s, a young Princeton PhD Sridhar Vembu started his career at Qualcomm in the United States. He says that he could not find a single product in the US that was manufactured in India, while products from China, Taiwan were common. He started AdventNet Inc headquartered in Chennai, Tamilnadu in 1996. AdeventNet started selling software for telecom operators in the Bay Area. AdventNet Inc was later renamed after its successful CRM product, Zoho, as Zoho Corporation.

Girish Mathrubootham, a product manager at Zoho Corporation, faced a problem with his television getting broken in transit in 2009. He approached the shipping company’s customer service and months went by without any viable solution. He realized that their customer service software was ancient and broken. Later on the hackernews website, he saw frustrated comments from customers of the software about its high price. He quit his job at Zoho and started developing Freshdesk, a support desk software. Freshdesk, launched in 2010, was rebranded into Freshworks in 2017 after adding an array of SaaS products to its portfolio. Freshworks has raised $400 million and has surpassed $200 million in annual recurring revenue.

After the advent of Cloud computing, starting a business became very easy. Registering an office space and running the company from the comfort of the laptop became very common. However, only a handful of companies become big. Everyday tools that businesses need vary based on their scale of operations and the complexity of the sector. Traditional SaaS companies develop the software by understanding the problem of big enterprises — the software becomes heavy, comes with many features, and eventually, the price is very high. A small business might not need many of these features.

For example, let us assume a help desk software is required for a company operating on the scale of Amazon. The software should be able to withstand the complexities of a global e-commerce giant. It will need support to be available in hundreds of languages, process queries from tens of channels. Whereas, a small boutique shop in the corner street, running their business through a Facebook page might not need the sophisticated features of the support software used by Amazon. They would also not be able to afford it. This is where Zoho and Freshworks operate — focusing on small and medium scale businesses who seek affordable software to run their business hassle-free.

IT service management (ITSM) is another problem faced by companies of small and medium-size. As the companies grow, they accumulate assets in the form of laptops, monitors and other accessories. They should be protected and audited frequently for any mishap or misuse. ITSM software helps them manage assets in the company.

Affordability issues can be viewed in two ways. Firstly, the high price paid to the software that is financially not viable to most businesses. Secondly, the licensing deal. Many companies work on very thin bottom-line, and they cannot afford to pay for licensing fees for a lifetime. Monthly, yearly flexible subscription plans will benefit these companies. Zoho and Freshworks offer them a free trial for the first month. The free trial helps the customers to audit the software for their needs and if they deem fit, proceed to purchase.

Prof. Saral Mukherjee says, “strategy is all about closing doors”. At any moment, a business will face multiple opportunities to choose. The strategy of the company depends on the occasions they say no to-hence closed doors. Let us analyze the strategy of the two firms.

Both Freshworks and Zoho are privately owned companies. Zoho was bootstrapped from Sridhar Vembu’s own money, and he has refused to take any investor funding. He says that investor funding will force the company to focus on high growth, and the company might lose focus on its values and objectives. He further says, “Beyond money, there is also a mission and purpose in life.” Yet, three of the five billionaires (in dollar terms) from Tamil Nadu are namely Sridhar Vembu, Sekar Vembu and Radha Vembu. Zoho is a family owned business that has not prioritised aggressive growth.

Freshworks is a VC friendly company. Accel Partners, Tiger Global, CapitalG and Sequoia are some of the investors in Freshworks. The company has delivered 61% average annual growth over the years. The focus of Freshworks is to grow and grow faster.

Zoho has said no to the conventional marketing techniques. It has positioned itself as a company that brings out products from rural Tamilnadu and Andhra Pradesh. An Advertisement seen recently shows Sridhar Vembu walking in the paddy fields of Tenkasi. He talks about how a world-class software product is made in the fields of southern-rural Tamilnadu. Another Zoho ad, aired during the GST rollout, discusses the Zoho software that integrates the GST feature into the auditing module. Sridhar Vembu localizes his positioning.

Freshworks is an aspirational company. Even though they started their relationship with small business customers, they wanted to grow big. Salesforce, one of the market leaders of the SaaS industry, conducts a conference every year called Dreamforce in San Francisco, California. Freshworks advertises its products on the shuttle buses running between the conference venue and train stations. Last year, it went a step further to trend #FailsForce in a blimp around the conference venue. Freshworks’ positioning is its user interface and affordability. It targets customers who are annoyed with high priced, less user-friendly products.

#Failsforce campaign. Credits: Bizjournals

Zoho primarily drives its recruitment through campus and hires at entry-level. Around 20% of the employees come via Zoho University route. Engineering students in Chennai look up at Zoho as the place to start their career. The attrition rate of Zoho is high as SaaS companies are coming up in the urban part of Chennai with competitive salaries.

Freshworks founder Girish Mathrubootham studied at SASTRA University. More than half of the workforce in Freshworks hails from there. Freshworks is strategically a poster brand for aspiring software engineers in Chennai. Amazon, Cisco and Paypal are the only sizable multinational companies in the city. Freshworks, which has been enjoying the soft spot from the press, is the place to be for Chennai software engineers. Freshworks also poaches talent from Zoho corporation and top technology companies. Girish Mathrubootham and his co-founder Shan Krishnasamy were Zoho employees. Spotting ex-Googlers, Amazonians is very common in Freshworks office.

Everyone in Zoho joins with the position ‘Member Technical Staff’. All the managers start with ‘Member Leadership Staff’ designation. The promoted ones get to be Team Leaders. All Team Leaders report to one of Sridhar, Sekar, Manikandan or Radha Vembu. Zoho has a flat hierarchy. CEO Sridhar Vembu sits with other engineers in an open workspace.

Sridhar Vembu at his desk in Zoho Office. Credits: Tech in Asia

Freshworks follow traditional multilevel reporting system which ranges from an entry-level software engineer, business development executive, customer support executive to CxOs who report to CEO Girish Mathrubootham.

Variety is a key area where both companies differ. Freshworks, initially named the same as its first product Freshdesk, at the time of writing the essay, had ten products in its portfolio. Over half of them were launched within the last two years. Freshworks focuses on building capability on its core product Freshdesk and expanding it to the other products in the portfolio. For example, help desk software such as Freshdesk has incidents reported as tickets. A support agent will be assigned a ticket with a Service Level Agreement. Once it is resolved, feedback is taken from the customer to improve their experience. Freshservice, ITSM tool treats all the service incidents as tickets with IT experts as agents. Freshsales, CRM software operates all the prospects as a ticket, sales representatives as agents. Likewise, Freshrelease tracks engineering tasks as tickets and respective engineers as agents. It may appear from the outset, Freshworks has multiple successful products. But, all of them have one common identity as a workflow tool. It has been tested and mastered and is quite successful too.

Freshworks Universe

If we see Zoho’s product portfolio, it tells a different story. AdventNet started with WebNMS, a tool for telecom operators. Once it became successful, Zoho Office Suite was simply upsold with the existing consumers. In 2007, ManageEngine, IT operations and Service Management software was launched. Since the majority of Zoho’s customers are small businesses, it has multiple products supporting mail operations, financial accounting, customer relationship management, help desk, IT support, security, operations management. It also has a separate suite of products to support the Internet of Things (IoT) for small and medium businesses. The critical success of Zoho platform lies with the product Zoho Flow which seamlessly integrates the data across the above mentioned Zoho products. With over forty five products, Zoho aspires to create one unified experience for its customers. Combining all the products, it has created Zoho One, one subscription plan to use products to empower sales, operations, support, HR, marketing and operations. Zoho is focused on portraying itself as a one-stop solution provider for small businesses, whereas Freshworks aspires to be a multi-successful-product brand.

Zoho Universe

The closed doors discussed above will lead us to understand the functioning system and strategies of Zoho and Freshworks.

Traditional SaaS companies focus on Fortune 500 clients. The deal size of the sales is enormous. Consider Zendesk, which operates at a high level and upper mid-level customer segment. They will typically hire a sales executive in their California office with around 100,000 USD salary. With an average deal size of 5000 USD, the sales executive is expected to close at least 20 deals every year to meet the cost to the company. The large deals will take lot of time to follow-up and close the account. Whereas, Zoho or Freshworks, operating from Chennai office can hire a fresh out of college grad for around 35000 INR per month. They target small businesses with relatively small deal sizes ( as low as 50 USD) but work on a high-volume basis.

The start-up ecosystem has made it easy to start a business. Therefore, there is plenty of demand. Traditional SaaS companies, based out of the United States, cannot operate in this space due to the high cost incurred with employee compensation to the company. A considerable segment of small and mid-size businesses is available for grab, taking advantage of labour arbitrage — the key benefit of IT service companies, Zoho and Freshworks are building world-class software products from India.

Even though their business strategy is the same, Freshworks and Zoho have two different souls. Freshworks is burning cash of its investors in aggressively expanding the operations. 60% annual growth rate is a voluntary standard for the company. Girish is looking to list Freshworks in NASDAQ stock exchange and will be the first Indian product company if he manages to do that.

Sridhar Vembu is not interested in raising money. His business is self-sustainable. With an entirely bootstrapped company, he believes that he has the freedom to choose the way the company operates. Zoho believes in the public good. “ We are a state-of-the-art tech company with a very old-fashioned approach to company building. “, says Sridhar Vembu.

Zoho has said no to aggressive growth, focuses on its strengths and moves slowly. It has got an array of products, but there is no strategic focus on moving up the pyramid. Zoho is a risk-averse company; they serve small businesses and operate at volume.

Freshworks is a fast growing company aspiring to be a market leader. When Freshdesk was started, they acquired customers quickly with prompt service and delivering delightful moments. If they diversify their portfolio and replicate the same success, they will become one of the market leader. They are also trying to expand into high-end customers. This is a fundamental shift to its core strength of labour arbitrage-business model. From the analysis and the current market scenario, it is understood that Freshworks is undergoing a transition in their strategy.


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How to have a successful product management internship

I interned with Microsoft last summer in the Program Manager (PM) role. Like many MBA students, it was my first opportunity to switch tracks to product management. After a successful internship, I am joining Microsoft as a full-time PM this June. I want to share a few pointers to maximise your chances of having a successful PM internship.

0. Communicate

First, understand the expectations of the project. Keep track of the progress. You can do this by scheduling recurring one on one meetings with your mentor and manager. Secondly, keep no surprises. Always communicate. Let your mentor or manager know what you are working on. Your early weeks will involve a lot of communication, that is normal. Mismatch of expectations can happen if you do not communicate often. A good PM will be an excellent communicator.

1. Respect others time

Your mentor and manager will be busy. Do not overwhelm them with your queries. Please respect the time they spend with you. Do some research on your own before reaching out to them. Always channel your work through your mentor to the manager. Mentors will help you avoid making rookie mistakes. Keep a notepad. Always take notes during the meeting and collate your queries in the notebook. A good PM will make the interaction productive for everyone.

2. Seek feedback

Feedback is vital to growth. Feedback comes in various forms-appreciation, criticism, suggestion. Seek all types of feedback and put efforts into using them in work. A good PM should be coachable.

3. Talk with data

Always seek metrics that will support your research, assumptions/hypothesis. Analyse the telemetry dashboards of your product, read customer reviews, customer call transcripts, industry reports, go through the presentations of your product in the team repository. A good PM should be data (evidence) driven.

4. Talk to your engineers

Until the fifth week of my internship, I did not talk to the engineers in my team. I took every question to my manager or mentor. Manager asked, “why don’t you ask this to your engineers”. It struck me then, “why am I taking all my questions to him; instead, I can ask the engineers”. I set up a few meetings with the developers, and they helped a lot in getting the technical perspective. Try to utilise all the resources at hand, including the engineers in the team.

5. Make connections

Talk to fellow PMs in your organisation to understand the work-culture in the company. It’s essential to find a good fit for you and the company. The company is evaluating you via the internship. Set up lunch or snack time one on ones with senior PMs. Understand how their careers pan out, seek advice or suggestions for your PM career. You may even get a mentor beyond the internship.

6. Be Proactive

Finally, you want your internship to be successful. Show the intent on your action. If you don’t have an assigned mentor, ask. If you don’t have access to a tool or a channel, ask. A good PM will be proactive in getting things done.

All the very best on your PM internship.

Let me know if you have any queries.


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