Product Q&A with Punit Soni

PMHQ Community AMA Sessions - Punit Soni

For those who are unaware, AMA stands for ‘Ask Me Anything’ where you’ll have the chance to ask our featured guest any question you’d like. Our product guest of honor is:

Punit Soni

About: Punit was until recently at Flipkart (India’s largest ecommerce company) as their Chief Product Officer. In this role, he led the product definition and innovation charter for Flipkart consumer products, marketplace and transaction platform. He was responsible for driving Product Strategy, Design and Product Marketing functions to build world class user interface and product solutions.

As a senior product leader at Google and Motorola in Mountain View, California, Soni was involved in the development of some of the world’s most revolutionary products including Google News, Google Books, Google Plus, Google Mobile and a suite of Motorola devices including Moto X, Moto G and Moto E.

Punit holds an undergraduate degree (B.Tech) in Electronics and Communications Engineering from the National Institute of Technology, a master’s degree in Electrical Engineering from the University of Wyoming and an MBA from The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.

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Select questions and answers from the AMA:

How did you get into Product Management? What was your background before you got in the field?

I got into Product Management through serendipity. I wanted to get into VC and realized that makes no sense if I have not operated or built something. At that point it was either Startups or Google. And Google sounded pretty good.

What’s your biggest product regret? (feature never shipped, feature shipped that lost focus, etc.)

We had a lot of incredible features that were ready to be shipped in Moto phones. But I think we did not back ourselves enough. There was a sense that an OEM cannot build something that is better than was Google would. Interestingly almost all of our work was ported into Android or Android built its own version of it over time. I wish we had done more on Moto SW end (though our phones were great!). My regret is not pushing hard enough.

Great to have you here! Where do you think the product managers in India lack compared to their US counterparts?

I think the key thing that is missing in India is enough role models and mentors where it comes to classical product management or running large, modern internet age companies. Its happening, but the volume is low. That is probably what is missing..

What are a few of the things great PMs do every day?

Great PMs walk round and get the pulse of their team everyday. They know how folks are feeling, who is up, who is down, what’s going on..more than anyone else does. They CARE deeply for their teams.

What are some things beginner PMs may fall into that can lead to failure, and how do you prevent it? Also, what do you do in order to become a better PM?

  1. You are responsible for ensuring the product is built and launched. Do whatever it takes to make that happen..from legal, to ops, to helping engineers, to cleaning floors
  1. You are a PM. This implies leadership but the kind where you lead from front, middle or back depending on the need of the team. Not all PMs have to be on stage representing their team all the time.
  1. And finally, PM and Eng/Design are peers. Treat them as such, ensure they have a stake in product development from the start and you will see success.

I am excited to hear about you moving back to India and how is the experience at Flipkart (specifically in terms of challenges it is facing)? In general, how can you innovate when you are resource constrained?

I don’t think the big challenge in India is one of resource constraint. It is more to do with cutting through the noise, and focusing on the main thing.

What advice do you have for somebody who plans to return to India in a product management role in next 1-2 years?

Start a company.

What is the best way to seek mentorship from you?

Ask questions in this AMA 🙂

What did you learn when developing a product in a market where brand new internet users are growing faster than anywhere in the world vs. your other experiences developing for a more experienced audience?

It is quite amazing really. Key is to realize that just your user base is brand new on Internet, does not make them any less demanding… Your product has to be good..great actually. However, there is a lot more emphasis on onboarding in general. I found that new Internet users actually do a better job of skipping existing patterns

From your experience and wisdom, where do you think are the best Product Management opportunities today? In USA or India?

Depends on what you want from your gig. If you are looking for education and mentorship in classical PM, then it’s US. If you are looking for a crazy experience which is a roller coaster, it may be India. You will perhaps not learn how to be an amazing PM, but more importantly you will learn how to scale products and build big.

What are some quirks about being a PM in India that you did not encounter while in the US?

I think the culture is quite different and so there are different nuances to worry about. PMs in India also tend to be more like project managers. This may be directly attributed to lack of mentorship.

Also my junior PMs assume they lead the team and will hand requirements to the eng so they can code it out. While it should be more like a collaboration. On the other hand, PMs in India see rate of growth in their usage/product metrics that few places in the world can give them.

Any framework to think about product prioritization ?

I don’t use any generic frameworks. Every product has its own nuances. the first thing to do when you start a new product, is to outline what the key metrics for success are.  Then you should use that at all points to prioritize. The other point I can make is that: The best framework is consumer benefit.

Whenever there is a big conversation on what should be do versus not, the right question to ask is WHAT will benefit the consumer most. Not the company, not the team, not partners, but the consumer. It is usually pretty clarifying.

Can you give an example of collaboration between PMs and dev/design teams?

When you start working on a product, ensure that the dev/design teams are a part of initial user research. Ensure you ask eng. for their opinion on the design work. Get folks to talk to each other in standups and understand each other’s  constraints.

What are some of the good companies to work for as a Product Manager in India?

I think Zomato is pretty cool.

At Google, i assume they stick to the H.E.A.R.T framework for picking metrics, now that you’ve worked at other places apart from Google, do you  think any other approach is better based on the product life cycle, or H.E.A.R.T is perfect as is ?

I find HEART very effective as an initial template for picking metrics. Then I usually tweak it based on what the larger goals of my product are.

Who are some of the good product folks in India to seek mentorship from?

Hard to say. I don’t think there is enough volume in India..they might be folks but they are fewer in number. I recommend looking at Zomato. I love its product.

How do you manage the role of product manager to cope client requirement vs building feature for the product?

That is the classical quandary. The first thing you do in a product is ask yourselves who is the final consumer. Who are you building for. Once you know that, then every feature you build is in service of that consumer. All else is secondary.

Would you recommend B2B or a B2C company to gain experience in the early years as a Product Manager?

Either is fine. I recommend growing companies where work is fun, culture is great and you have a good leadership that you can learn from. B2B, B2C etc doesn’t matter as much unless you have a big passion for a particular sector.

How to handle feature requests from VCs/Board if you do not agree with its alignment with the product vision?

Sit with them and explain to them why it doesn’t align. It’s key to build for the user as much as possible. Its also important to maintain good relationships with VC and board members. That balancing act is what PM do best.

PM does a lot of things and easy to get lost in a massive to-do list. What five areas do you spend most of your time in day/week? What is one area which you absolutely focus/review every day?

Five areas…hard to say since every product is different. But at my level, I ensure the following:

  1. Have a working session where I spent time with the team solving problems together rather then typical executive reviews.
  2. Have a decision making session where I sit with the team and make calls. Forging decisions is one critical part of a PM’s job
  3.  I review user metrics every day to ensure the product is fine.
  4. I have a design weekly where we spend time working with design on the core product.
  5. I budget almost 20% of my time to hiring and recruiting. A great PM builds great teams!

There is more but that’s the 5 that comes to mind: Brainstorming, Decisions, Design, User metrics and Hiring.

What three things should every new founder constantly be thinking?

Three things that I care for: a) Is the market big enough b) Is there product market fit c) Do I have the right partners who I can leverage to grow.

What companies offer the best PM opportunities in Bangalore or Hyderabad (These are two cities I am targeting when I return to India from the US)?

My advice would be to start your own thing.

What do you think about remote PMs?

Remote PMs do not work. You need to be with your team IMO to work best.

Can u name one personality trait which is necessary or good to have for a PM?

Emotional intelligence. The ability to be mature and be able to handle a lot of personalities with equanimity. I find this hardest of all key traits for PMs.

I’m interested in building products in India and experiencing the “roller coaster” you mentioned above. Any advice for transitioning to India? I was born in India but have been here since I was 2, so mostly American.

My advice would be to go start something from scratch. It is hard but will allow you to put things together the way you  like it. If that doesn’t work, then get active on various startup forums and find folks you enjoy talking to and get together with them.

If there are Indians who want to get back to India to do their own thing, what should be kept in mind?

  1. India is not US so try to enjoy India, don’t replicate another country there.
  2. Get used to a different culture
  3. Be open to learning from folks there as to how things work. India has a particular style, if you are open and embrace it, you will find much more success and happiness.
  4. Be very aware of who you end up working with. This is true in general but is going to make or break your India experience.

What does a standard week look like for you? I’m sure it’s all over the map, but do you find consistency in splitting your time between core functions?

I am currently on a break and so the std week is very different now. BUT I can tell you how things look when I am in a role. Typically, I have a team day where I have my weeklies and spend time with my reports. I have two days in a week where I do 3 hours each working sessions on key issues in the product stack. I have one session in a week where I make decisions on all key issues for that week, then I have hiring slots where I spend time interviewing and assessing. Beyond that it’s a mishmash for exec stuff, investors, and other topical issues.

What are things you need to do first, when you just joined as a new product manager in a start up?

I will recommend you go and reach “Building a Communication Map” on my Medium/Linkedin profile. I think it’s a key way to put together a framework of operations for PMs.

Do you feel you personally have to handle each of your responsibilities or do you delegate where possible? Particularly with a massive company like FlipKart, I’d have to expect hiring (for example) is something you’d have been less hands-on with?

I was MOST hands on with Hiring. In a senior exec role (or even others), hiring is the most important thing you can do. And you should drive this personally. If you can build a great team, then half your work is done.

In general, I will delegate when I trust the person I have hired. Else I am on top of it myself.

Completely agree on the importance, but would you (personally) generally deal with hiring for the rung immediately below you or were you involved at many levels? To your point, I’d think hiring for each rung would be delegated downward. I feel like there’s a fundamental split in the space between companies that take the “ivory tower” tack and those that take the “the CEO meets everyone” approach.

KEY is to put together a process for hiring that ensures quality. This can include success factors, interview process, hiring committee. Once that is done, you can delegate. I personally approve every single hire in my team after reading their packet. But that’s my style.

How does a PM handle politics? It is very easy for a team of smart people to be rebellious to ideas that may not be their brain child. What can a PM, with lesser number of years of experience, do in such a situation?

Smart folks typically do not push back on smart ideas. Go for long walks with your team, explain your passion to them, open up to them and ask for help. You will see they will line up.

How do you resist the temptation to get your hands dirty with coding a piece out and making that prototype just that tiny bit better?

I dont resist that temptation at all. Go code, and hack.

I see that in silicon valley, MBA bashing is a prime sport (even for PM roles) at both startups and established companies, while in India, most companies like hiring MBAs for PM roles is more common. What is your take on this? (both in terms of what do you prefer and also on why this difference is there)

The trick is to realize that MBA gave some foundation for business but is not everything you need to succeed in a tech company. So be humble, and grounded and realize there is a lot to learn. Such people end up succeeding anyways.

I personally don’t have any issues with MBAs or non-MBAs, the only thing I care about if you have what it takes.

How difficult is transitioning from ERP product to consumer product role? What are the essentials/requirements for making a fit for such a switch?

It’s not easy to be honest. Most mature consumer companies will want to hire someone with a consumer background. My recommendation is to focus  on startups if you want to make that kind of switch. They are more open to taking a bet. The best way to make this switch to work on some consumer product on the side and build up your chops.

When do you plan to start hiring for the new venture that you have starting?

WHEN I have started it. And that will take a lot of product/market fit work. Which usually has an indefinite timeline and is hard.

As you mentioned before, work culture in India is different from the West. How did you approach consensus building with your teams in India vis-a-vis your earlier stints?

My concern in India is the reverse. People tend to agree very quickly if you are in a position of power. That implies not enough debate or discussion. I usually end up pushing people to disagree so I can get more feedback.

What are some of your best recommended reads on great product making?

I don’t know. I don’t read tech/business/or PM books. There is way too much of that in my life anyways. My advice is to open your mind to all sorts of new ideas and concepts. Dont overthink it.

It’s better to play with cool products than read about them.

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