Why Soft Skills Matter - Vivek Jain, CTO Head of Product, Housing.com

Is it easy to find good talent in the product space?

It is well known that India has really good engineering talent, not just for our own needs but we also export. A lot of engineers go to various countries – US, UK, Germany - to work and add value in those markets. But when it comes to the product side I think it's hard to find good people and obviously India has been for the last decade a service oriented economy. And hence in product talent – there are not many people with good experience in this area.

I myself, when we try to hire product managers, it's really difficult to find good product people. But I think as one goes higher and starts looking for senior leadership positions or chief of product positions, it's even harder to find really good talent. And this is evident from industry, even if we look at e-commerce, which is going through a lot of growth. The three e-commerce players today Amazon, Flipkart, and Snapdeal - all three actively decided to import, so to say, product talent from the US. Amazon of course headed by Amit Agarwal, who came from US, and his product team is largely from Seattle.

If you look at Flipkart, for the head of product they got Punit Soni from Google, from Bay Area. If you look at Snapdeal, even Anand Chandrasekaran came down from US.

So I think a lot of these companies have decided to make huge investments in bringing in talent from the West so clearly there is a scarcity of product people. In fact I discuss this all the time within the product fraternity. We are trying in our own small way to address this at the grass root level. I myself go to some of the premium B-schools and we talk about what are the right skills to be a good product person and we coach them and take seminars et cetera. So I think over time this problem will get solved.

What are must-have traits in a good PM?

So when looking for a product manager, I think there are various things people look at. A lot of people look at domain expertise, functional expertise but I focus a lot on soft skills. When I say soft skills - things like, does the person, first of all, he has to be data driven, more then being data driven, having the ability to operate in ambiguity. We all know that the best way to make decisions is by diving deep into data and slicing it and dicing it and finding patterns in data and using that to drive decision-making. The common example I often give people is - when we were younger and during our education days there was a very precise problem statement and a very precise answer to it. We all do our math and arrive at that precise.
answer. As we grow up in our life the answers become more and more subjective and there is no right answer. As you move into a product role, even the question or problem statement or customer need is hard to articulate. In fact in the industry we say that if you are able to articulate the problem statement half the problem is solved. So I try to look at people who can operate and can make correct decisions repeatedly in this ambiguous environment.

I also look at – the other skill is - can they influence without having control. So a lot of product managers are often individual contributors - the engineering team, finance team, the operations team, legal team, don't necessarily report into the product manager. So can he get everyone aligned, can he get everyone marching in one direction towards the strategy and vision. Can he do this without having explicit control, without the hierarchy and direct reporting can he drive influence within the company. That's another skill we look at. Other than this I would say the last thing is, a lot of people think that product manager is a very glamorous role. Google often says it's a mini CEO type profile but I always say that a product manager is not only a mini CEO but also the janitor of the company, of the product. He has to truly own the product, he has to be comfortable doing everything to make the product successful.

Often when you are trying to align resources a lot of people don't want to do mundane and repetitive work and a product manager has to ensure that the ball never gets dropped. So wherever it is necessary for him to pick the ball he should be willing to do. I have seen product managers themselves in the initial stages of the company themselves delivering packages in an e-commerce company, themselves uploading pictures on the website and making information more rich for the customer. One has to be comfortable doing everything from operations to customer support to of course sitting with large CEOs and driving negotiations and discussing business models and making strategic decisions. A product manager should be comfortable with the entire spectrum of activities to make a product successful.

IPL courses relevant today??

Absolutely! I have not gone into a lot of detail about what kind of courses you guys offer but on a more abstract level I think this is a huge opportunity and I am very excited to see what you guys are doing. I think there are two segments I would say. There is a segment of students who do MBA to broaden their horizon, open their perspective, and to really get to figure out what are the opportunities out there. They haven't yet figured out if they want to get into consulting or banking or product or supply chain or operations. For them MBA makes more sense but for a lot of working professionals who have clarity of thought, who know they want to build product companies or want to be in large companies that are building really innovative product. With that clarity of thought it probably makes more sense to go into a focused education program that just tells them how to build great products and gives them the right skill sets in a shorter time frame to be successful and I think IPL is doing a great job of that.

3 take-aways:

- Serious dearth of product talent forcing even large companies to look to the West.
- A product manager should be able to deal with data and ambiguity and straddle the spectrum from janitor to mini-CEO.
- A course like IPL is very relevant today for working professionals with clarity of thought about what they want to do in this domain.

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