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!