Saturday, November 28, 2009

Who is a Google Product Manager - Part II?

A couple of years ago, about two months into my Google career, I had written (some might say prematurely) my assessment on the qualities needed to be a Google Product Manager. I got a bit of response on that post, some flames (including someone who asked me if I was fired yet!), and some genuine discussion on the points I laid out in that post. I always meant to write another post a little later to follow up on that initial assessment.

So about ~2.5 years later, I will try to take another stab at whether my opinion had changed. In the intervening time, I have launched 2 products for Google, and now am working in the super-amazing Mobile group led by Vic Gundotra.

The key points I laid out in my initial post about Product Management were:

- Google is not hierarchical especially where it comes to Product Management
Being a PM at Google is a classic case of no-authority, all-responsibility situation in a matrix org. A recipe for intense stress some might say. However, now I perceive it as an interesting artificially-constrained ecosystem where to thrive, you have to figure out the delicate balance of credibility, authority, influence and responsibility. Once you do that, you are gold, and you will get more done than if you owned the people who worked around you.

- Product Managers are not tied to a particular product or sector for the duration of their work in Google
I went from search to Google Books/News org to Mobile. I faced no hinderance, no one questioned why I want to shift sectors. The company on the whole supported the transitions and worked hard to give me the tools I needed to succeed. However, once I was in there, I was usually handed a intense product with little notice. And left to swim or sink. The result: I learnt more than I could ever in more sectors of the company.

- Most Google Product Managers are generalists (especially MBAs)
Not much to say there. It ties in with the previous point. If you are perceived as generalists, you are allowed to move around quite a bit within the org. And PMs have that liberty.

But what makes a good Google Product Manager?
This what I wrote in my last post:
1. Managing immense complexity ( a direct result of the mixed structure here at Google)
Totally, absolutely, totally agreed. A PM's job is intensely complicated. You own the product, you own nothing. You are responsible for everything but in a matrix org where many people are responsible for many things. Everyone around you is a world class expert, but you are supposed to be the expert on the overall product. And thats probably because, few have the time/inclination to grapple with the enormous complexity of the various facets of the product.

2. Influencing people, a trait that needs credibility, communication skills, and a people-skills
Yup. But I have noticed one thing. As time goes by, and you establish a track record of launching products (hopefully somewhat successful), this (as you would expect) gets easier. But till that happens, do not expect a nice, mellow ride. Googlers will question every decision, every move that you make, till only the best decisions backed by logic and data can get through. This sort of socratic way of doing (Question everything to derive logic) things makes for an intellectually challenging workplace, but one's brains are constantly in danger of overheating.

3. Making decisions. One needs to be able to decide, take responsibility for those decisions and live with it
This one I will stand by. Good Product Managers make decisions, quickly. And then take responsibility for them. They buffer their team from the stress of dealing with the consequences of the bad ones, and share the credit for the good ones.

4. Something that is different from the rest. Have to have something special in terms of achievements in their background.
Ho hum. Google Recruiting still looks for this secret sauce in folks, but I am increasingly suspicious of this. I think good, smart, emotionally intelligent people come in all stripes and shapes. We miss a lot of them because we keep looking for overt signs of achievements. Having said that, I would rather lose a few good Product Managers, then hire a many good ones along with a couple of bad ones. Conclusion: A higher bar is probably a good thing.

5. Extremely good understanding of the Internet services landscape and opinions on everything from state of online video market to new mobile business models to future of search
Enough said. This stays true regardless of how much time goes by.

6. A passionate self-starting personality helps. Self-starting especially because no one seems to tell you what to do out here, yet everyone seems to be doing the things they need to do
You need to make big decisions. You need to think above your pay-grade and not be scared to take your product into new directions. And this without much top-down direction. That usually comes only when you have failed :)
Also, passion really helps because it inspires people, and makes a leader out of you.

And one more that I think really merits adding to the list:
7. Emotional Intelligence:

I could write a post on just this topic, but truly, this is 60% of a good Product Manager (anywhere but more so in Google given its unique, crazy culture). I will not by any means imply that I am one, but I do know that the good ones tend to be bold yet diplomatic, calm yet inspired, and passionate but not emotional.
This last one is key. Good leaders are passionate about their work, but not overtly emotional. That just creates a bad vibe in the team.

So you see, some things have changed and some have not. Overall its more same than different though.

There have to be some glitches though, right?

Success is a bit of roll of dice
This is probably true of life in general. But in Google, since PMs are generalists and because you don't know any better when you start in a new company, you could start off on a product that has too much baggage or history around it, or just plain ineffective leadership. This can hurt your Google career big time till you manage to get out and find your way to an area that matches your working style/culture.

People Management takes a disproportionate amount of time
Matrix org, non-hierarchical setup, so many seriously brilliant, opinionated people == Loads of time spent in people management.

Overall, the company is probably the best company out there in terms of how well it takes care of its people. If you fail at a product in Google, only a million people probably used it. And it that lies Google's biggest strength and biggest gitch. Most of us will probably never have a better shot at making a bigger product than by working in a company like Google (Most not all), however, sometimes just can feel like too much of a bubble.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Intense Work/Personal Life

I went from having a sane work-life balance to one where I am scrambling to maintain some sanity in my personal and professional life. Suddenly realized that I defined personal life as time with my family (wife), and professional as time spent at work. This leaves me with no time for myself :)

The first casualty of any work-life balancing act (based on definition above) is the much needed me-time.
Anyways, am straddling a life between Toronto and San Francisco. My mobile product is getting closer to launch. I love what I am doing. Though as life is Google generally is, I feel like I could be better rewarded for my efforts :) But that's probably because I am working so hard; harder than I ever have till date, and will need a break soon lest I burn out!

Will write more about the mobile world soon. Right now, I have gotten a few years worth of mobile experience in about 5 months! Such is the rigor, excitement and intensity of Google's mobile organization. Fun! And Crazy!

Friday, August 14, 2009

The comments are better than the blog!

Ok, so I am pretty impressed with the kind of comments I have been getting on the blog. It is certainly inspiring me to write more and respond to the comments through my posts. Appreciate the commentators and their interest.

@Singh, yes, I am definitely enjoying my job a lot. It is super challenging, and a lot of fun, and plays to one of my biggest strengths - Managing Complexity. So I love what I am doing, and what more can one ask for, right?

It is hard for me to give a % or a number to the number who are as passionate. If it's an Individual, its easy to give an opinion (wrong or right). A group? You have to be a bit more circumspect I think. There is a good chance of falling on my your face.

Having said that, Google PMs (the ones that I have interacted with) are typically pretty smart, very organized and ambitious. A smaller percentage are very very good, very bright, understand the industry in and out, very aggressive, and have been some of the strongest people that I have worked with. Doesn't make them easy to work with :), but then their job is not easy by any means.

The industry works on reputation. Reputation is built by your body of work (and by luck). In Google, the hierarchy is reasonably flat still, and very senior folks are still called "Product Managers". My argument is that yes, if you become a VP, you rock and you must be very good. But there are tons of PMs in Google, who are rockstars and have a legacy of success behind them. I can bet that any of those could easily go to any other company and become Directors or even VPs. Don't get hung up on the title. Yes, title matters no doubt. But what do you say to a guy who is titled "Product Manager" and manages a multi-million dollar business with millions of views?

Now about the challenge...

About building the user-base versus building on user-base. What's the difference in terms of people adoption? In either case, you are adding numbers to the bottomline and thats what matters most. Granted, there is a huge edge for a Google PM. We start off based on numbers that impossible for many companies. That is a huge advantage. But do keep in mind, other companies had that advantage too, and squandered it. Maybe one day Google will too, its not that day yet.

You cant beat up someone up for having a strong advantage. You still need a huge sizzle to build on that advantage. However, I don't think you are wrong in saying there is an edge.

Is it as challenging as organically building a product from scratch with no Google behind you?

I think building a product from bottom up and organically drawing millions to it is amazing. You have to be a very strong, passionate person and really really lucky. That is a very hard task, and I will never underplay that.
I just think you are comparing apples to oranges.

Who is more brilliant? The guy who invented the Telephone or the guy who led the mapping of human Genome (backed by some of the foremost research labs of the world)? I know who is more famous :)

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Should I have taken those offers?

An interesting comment on my previous post prompted me to blog the response. First of all, Anon, thanks for your wishes on my wedding. Am a punjabi, so it was days and nights of Bhangra and eating :)

VC has always been a niche industry, but there was still something in it for the smaller firms, and now I do not think this is true anymore. I think the opportunity has shrunk dramatically. Its hard to sit here and make generalizations on the demise of a whole industry, and so I will stay out of that. I just think it is way way harder to become a partner these days. Who wants to join a VC firm to stay an associate?

Now comes the fun part of the question which deals with the wisest of all thought processes, Hindsight. In hindsight, would I have taken those not-so-sexy VC offers and then traded up to better VC firms now?

Here hindsight and my present sense of where I am come together to respond with a resounding NO. Here is why it would be a bad idea to take those not-so-sexy opportunities (I do not think there were sexy or unsexy by any means, they were just not right for me):

- Two years in a job you don't like is a very high price to pay for anything. Period.
- Two years of your life doing anything that you don't like is a high price to pay in general with some exceptions
- I did not fit there, then I would have probably been not good at it
- The industry is reputation based, whatever you do, create a brand for yourselves. Taking those jobs would have been counter-productive (if I didnt fit)
- Very few people get VC jobs. Even fewer trade UP from a Tier II firm to Tier I. There is a lot of horizontal shifting but very little vertical

And then some more reasons..but I think you get the drift.

Now the second part of the question: Is it better than being one of 300-400 PMs at Google?

Are you kidding me :)? You know how amazing it is to be a PM in Google? Yes, even with the crazy matrix organization. And no, I have not drunk the Kool Aid. But think about it for a moment. Google is probably one of the most influential companies in the world. Lets say there are 5 companies in the world which are comparable in terms of impact (Tech or otherwise). Lets say each of them has on average 300 PMs (unlikely but lets take this for now).

I am one of 5x300 = 1500 folks in this world (atleast in the field of technology) who have a shot at impacting millions of life. And this is not hyperbole (or arrogance). I can't even begin to tell you how much impact each PM (in Google, you are basically the visionary on your product area) can have through their products. Even a failed product in Google is used by thousands nay... millions.

I get this chance because I work for Google. So I have to give this opportunity the respect it deserves. I am very happy that I made the choices I made. That was for most part, luck and sound advice.

Finally, I am not saying we should all become PMs in Google, there are sexier jobs in top VC firms, PE or whatever floats your boat. But for me, the sexiest job is to do what my friend A does. He bootstraps his way around, he is passionate, he works hard in a room somewhere in Menlo Park, and is slowly but inexorably building a team around him. He is building his own startup.
Damn, thats cool. I wish I had the balls to do what he is doing.

Definitely one day.

Friday, August 07, 2009

So long (since I blogged)

So a LOT has happened in the last year or so. I have launched another product, have shifted sectors within Google. Am working on a crazy new product which is both intense and invigorating, and involves shuttling between Bay Area and Toronto.
And most importantly, I got married :) More about all this later.

All this may explain the lack of blogging to some extent. But the real reason was that I got so immersed in the operational world, that the core motivation to write this blog became at odds with why I started it in the first place.

Initially, it was my chronicle of the journey towards becoming a VC. Now, after a couple of years in the industry, that motivation has become incidental. I am not sure if I want to find the opportunity to be in VC anymore.
Now, before you get me wrong :)... I would like to be in investing and I would love to work with startups, but the intersection of great group, culture, awesome investment thesis, good people, and luck is so small, that I don't think this is an industry choice anymore. If an opportunity works out for you, great! But there are so many I know who just do VC for the heck of it, and are not happy about it.

The few who are doing it and are happy, are those who landed in that small intersection. So, instead of looking, I am just going to do what I like, and if the chips fall in the right place, and I like the opportunity, then I will do it.

This means that I am equally likely to be a VC, entrepreneur, operational guy in a large company, cafe owner or run a bookstore :)

Somewhere along the way, ambitions morph from a specific role to a state of mind. With marriage, good job, happy family, my ambitions are the leaves outside in Toronto. Its going to be fall.