About Gopal Shenoy
Gopal Shenoy is VP, Products at Alignable, social network for small business (SMB) owners world-wide. Gopal has been a software product management leader with more than 2o years of software product management experience. He has led direct report and cross-functional teams that defined and launched highly successful SaaS-based and enterprise software products that generated annual revenues ranging from $10M – $300M and with a customer base of thousands to hundreds of thousands of users. He maintains a very popular
Q. (2.0) Tell us briefly about yourself and the work that you have done over the years.
I have been doing product management for the last 20+ years and have experience working on both enterprise and SaaS products. Most of my experience was at a company called SolidWorks which revolutionized 3D mechanical product design – I was hired by the founding team to help define the product and it grew from a startup to the market leader. Since then, I have worked predominantly on SaaS software products for the mass market – both small businesses and consumers. I have worked at companies such as Gazelle.com, Care.com and now I am Vice President of Product Management at a startup called Alignable where we are creating a social network for the small business owners.
Q. (4.30) What did it take you as a new product manager in an organization to build influence?
If you think about it, product management is the only function in the company other than the CEO which has to interface with every department in the company – executive management team, engineering, qa, customer support, marketing, sales, business development, finance, legal and you name it. CEO of course has the authority to make things happen. Product Management does not. But you need all these folks to work together with you to make your product successful in the market. None of them report to you, so you have no authority over them – instead you need to influence them to work with you in building a successful product.
So how do you go about building influence. I will suggest two sure ways:
First, build what I call customer capital. As a product manager, you need to understand your market better than anyone else in the company. To do this, you need to get outside your office and start talking to customers who will buy your product. You need to establish yourself as the market expert, because everyone in your office will be product experts. Once you gather real market information based on your customer interviews, socialize it with the folks in the office, thereby building your reputation of being the most knowledgeable person in the office about customer needs.
Two, include others in your customer interviews. Announce these customer interviews and invite others to join you – whether it is your engineers, qa, marketing folks whoever wants to better understand customer needs. The only criteria I impose on such participation is that this would be more of a listening exercise than trying to sell or educate the customer on our products. In fact, a true customer interview has nothing to do with your product, it is all about your customer’s needs, challenges, how they are solving the problem etc. If you do this well, now you have a shared understanding of the customer needs in your organization under your leadership. You would have built a grass root support for building a product based on customer needs than internal ideas. This is how you go about leading by influence.
Q. (10.00) How long should a new product manager take to learn the new domain where he gets into?
It all depends on the domain. Sometimes the product managers get hired for domain. For example, if you are working on credit card encryption or a financials services market, the need to have domain expertise is paramount. Without that if someone hires you as a senior product manager, it not setting them for success. But assume that you are hiring a product manager who has the domain expertise, then in about 30 days, the product manager should atleast get upto speed in different aspects of the product so that he can hit the ground running. And in the second month should begin to start interfacing with the customers.
Q. (13.30) What are some of things a new PM must do in a new organization to make his integration smooth not just in his team but in the organization? 30 day plan, 60 day plan or 100 day plan?
I like the 30 day plan – by the end of 30 days, you should have learnt a lot and should be hitting the ground running. 60 days and 100 days are too long especially in startup. You may need more time if you are inheriting a large product, but my experience has always been building new products, so I will stick to the 30 day plan.
You have to come to a full understanding of everything the company knows or does not know about the following:
Company’s vision and Business Strategy
Target market: Who are we selling to?
Competition: Who are our competitors?
Get to know your product: Simulate the experience of a new customer. Install your software (if on-premise) or create a new account (if a SaaS product) and learn everything about your product that you can. Understand the development process from identifying needs to writing requirements documents to getting it build, tested and shipped. Attend every meeting you are invited to.
Tools used: Learn every tool that is being used in the company. Ask your manager to get you a personal account in these systems if this has not been done already. This would include – CRM systems, Bug database, customer requests, requirements repository, financial documents etc.
Sit down with key stakeholders in every department that touches your product from start to finish. Ask your manager to help you create a list of these key stakeholders. You have to understand the entire process from start to finish and get perspectives from everyone involved in the process. Believe me, you will learn something new from every one you see.
Understand people dynamics: This is the most important part, more important than even your product in the first 30 days. You have to start building relationships from day one. Every company has some form of internal people dynamics that you need to observe and learn as you get used to your new position especially in a new company. People may approach you and tell you stuff (good and bad), but never get involved in any gossip (not that this is just when you are new in your job, gossip is never a good thing) and never take any sides no matter who says what to you. Stay neutral, keep your thoughts to yourselves, just observe and make mental notes. The last thing you want to do in a new job is to step on the wrong shoes accidentally. Be the most professional as you can be, never let your guard down. But don’t be wooden, start building relationships.
I strongly recommend the book The First 90 Days: Critical Success Strategies for New Leaders at All Levels by Michael Watkins. Great book with great strategies that will help you ease into your new job.
Q. (21.30) There is a lot of talk about the role of emotional intelligence in dealing with people? Related to that is the concept of self-awareness, which has suddenly become the flavour of the season. Everyone is talking about inculcating self-awareness. What are your thoughts about it?
Self-awareness is basically being honest with yourself about what you know and what you don’t know and then working diligently to fill in the gaps. I respect those who admit what they don’t know and being proactive in soliciting help to fill those gaps. This is not a necessary trait just for a product manager, but for any professional.
Q. (23.50)Let’s talk about managing upwards. As product managers, you mostly deal with senior management depending upon how large the organization is, your upper management could be CEOs, VPs, SVPs. You had written a thought provoking blog post elaborating your style. Explain to us the dynamics of dealing with them effectively.
I always encourage folks to follow what I call the “pyramid of communication”. Executives often want to know two things – very succinct description of any issue, its impact and who is in charge. Deliver this first and ask them if they need any more elaboration. What you don’t want to do is have a verbose conversation with all the details of the issue – think about it every business case has executive summary right upfront for just this reason.
Are these guidelines consistent when you work in large MNCs or small startups or does it vary according to the size and culture of different organizations.
I have worked at MNCs for just 3 years out of my 23 year career and I disliked every bit of it – everything was so siloed and slow for me. I have spent most of my career working in small companies. Things do vary a lot by the size and culture of different organizations for sure. I am a startup guy for sure. But I think in terms of executive communication, there is not much difference in how you communicate up.
Q. There’s always this case of when to escalate a situation to your higher ups. How do you use your judgement?
I classify issues into three types
- Urgent, The house is on fire, your manager needs to know now and hence you will call him or knock on his door now
- Important but not urgent, need a response as soon as they have time, communicate this via email
- Less important, can be discussed during your weekly 1:1 if you have one.
Q. Soft skills by its very nature are very hard to inculcate. For example, if I am someone who lacks empathy naturally, i just can’t switch a button and start becoming empathetic. Similarly, If I am a bad listener, I can’t just become a good listener in a day. So what are the ways one can change the flaws one may have?
Seek advice from those who you think excel at this and see how they go about doing it. Then work on it. No one is perfect, they may not show it but everyone has their own gaps. But those who get ahead are those who can honestly assess where they stand and proactively work on their weaknesses or gaps.
Q. We are all product of our habits and many of us have bad habits like bad listening skills, interjecting others before they finish their thoughts and things like that, What are some of your suggestions to take inventory of your flaws and overcome those bad habits?
Ask your manager if he can do a 360 degree review for you soliciting input from those you work with. If he agrees (and I cannot think of a reason why he would not), then give him a list of names of people who can provide you the input – choose those with whom you have good relationships with and those you think you don’t. The objective is to get feedback – both good and bad. Go from there.
Q. How have you changed as a person in your product management career. Did you have to work on some of your flaws and eventually become better at it. If yes, what was your process.
Of course, it is still work in progress. I have basically followed the steps I have described above. Now I am a VP of Product for the first time in my career, so now I have lot of learning to do to get better at it. So learning never ends, working at your skills never ends. Given how much mobile is taking over the world, everything you did before building desktop products is not as relevant on mobile. So it is back to square 1 again.
Q. Segment 2: Case Study: Share with us the most difficult challenge you faced a product manager in your career. What are the key lessons learnt from the challenge.
It is coming to the realization that there is a huge difference between “like” and “buy”. Customers may like your product, but the most important criteria that will help you create a business, is if customers like it enough that they would open their wallets and buy your product. Just building a product is not enough, you need to build a product that can create a sustainable business.
I have learnt more out of my failures than the successes I have had. I have been part of building products that have been used by hundreds of thousands to millions of users, but then I have also worked on products that utterly failed. In spite of the successes, I have been laid off twice in my career. All these have been great learning experiences/
Q. What are some of the books that you recommend product managers read?
There are so many books, it is hard to recommend some over others. I would suggest going to alltop.productmanagement.com and getting to see all the blogs listed there and then subscribing to them to see which helps you the most.
Q. What are the vital skills a product management need to have to become a good product manager.
Ability to make decisions when you don’t have full information. The companies that win are usually those who execute like hell on a strategy that may be good enough but not perfect. As you execute, you learn and then adjust the strategy accordingly. There is nothing called a perfect strategy. So a product manager should be able to gather enough information to take the first step.
Ability to empathize with your customer – you can never know enough about your customer needs because those needs change over time.
Ability to leave and breathe your product – you should be in charge, show leadership skills and lose sleep over it. You should know more about your product than anyone else in the company.
Ability to influence others – I have spoken in depth over this in the previous question.