April 30, 2022
Hi gals and guys🙋🏽♂️
Today, we have Balaji Gopinath, Lead Product Manager at Grab to guide us with our careers. Balaji has been a builder for the past 12 years- 3 as a product manager and 9 as a developer.
Read on to find out what is the work of a product manager, what’s there to love in the work of a product manager, the difference between building products as a developer and a PM, how to break into product management and more.
What does a Product Manager do?
What do you work on as the Lead Product Manager at Grab?
Grab is a “super-app” in South East Asia - we provide ride hailing, food delivery and financial services, just to name a few. Within Grab, I work in the payments product team.
The products that I have helped to build over the past 3 years have had an impact on millions of users across the region.
Can you tell me specifically what tasks are you doing when you are working? What does a typical day/week of work look like?
As a product manager, I am responsible for the end-to-end delivery of software products. I would divide the process of building any software product into 3 main phases, each of which is crucial -
- Ideation : This phase is about Identifying problem areas/opportunities. I need to think of how we can deliver value to consumers in a way that is profitable for the business, while also being technically feasible. This is where most of the analysis and number crunching happens.
- Alignment : Once I’ve identified the problem that we need to tackle, I need to convince various stakeholders about the impact of solving the problem. This is about demonstrating that something is worth doing, so communication is the key.
- Execution : After there is alignment within the organization that a problem is worth solving, it is then time to roll up our sleeves and execute. In a large organization, executing projects is not easy, so this requires good project management skills.
In each of these phases, I work with different teams to make sure that we are moving forward. I am typically working on 2-3 high impact projects at a time, each of which could be in one of the above three phases.
Why does he love his work?
Why do you love this type of work?
Throughout this time, what has kept me going is the desire to build useful software that solves real world problems. Bringing something to life, from an idea/concept to something tangible that actually works, is a painstaking but rewarding process that I enjoy. Finally, apart from the joy of watching people use the stuff that I’ve helped build, I love the intellectual challenge of problem solving. In summary, I love my work because of the impact that it has and the challenges that it throws at me, in terms of the complexity of problems.
Can you tell us about a complex problem you faced and how you arrived at a solution? I want to visualise how complex can it get being in your shoes.
Let’s take a problem that I worked on with payments at Grab - Grab users can choose to use our wallet solution, which they can top up with their credit/debit card and then spend with. The sum of all top ups over all users runs into billions of dollars a year. With such large sums of money moving around, there is bound to be fraud. In order to prevent fraud, we need to authenticate users via OTP verification during top ups. But enforcing authentication can introduce unnecessary friction for good users who are not committing fraud. Therefore, the problem is to balance fraud risk and good user experience. So, we had to find a way to identify the level of risk for any given transaction and only trigger authentication for the transactions that “look risky”. Identifying the level of risk is complex because we need to look at hundreds of attributes of a given transaction (user age on platform, card used, device used, location etc.) The solution was to develop a real time decision model which optimises both for reducing user friction and reducing fraud in an environment where patterns of fraud and user behaviour keep evolving. In other words, a model that learns and evolves without being static. At its root, this is a machine learning problem, but we also had to solve several technical challenges as well. For example - how do you build this in a scalable way so that it works for hundreds of banks across South East Asia? How do we do this in a way that works across all of the different top up flows that we have in the Grab app (example : you want to top up because you don’t have enough funds while booking a ride)?
What’s the difference between building products as a developer and a product manager?
Before Grab, what were some products that you built as a developer?
Here are some interesting things that I’ve built -
- I worked for a company which helped hospitals in the US to run more efficiently by providing insights into the hospital’s finances, how the bandwidth of its doctors are being expended etc. In order to provide these insights, we had to mine through enormous amounts of data. I helped optimize the datastore to help queries run faster, which had a direct impact on the business.
- I worked at a Bangalore based startup whose mission was to help blue collar workers in India get jobs. Since this group of users had limited access to internet services, I helped build an IVR (interactive voice response) system which helped them build their profile and apply for jobs without needing to have an internet connection.
- I helped build the search and recommendation engine for a leading fashion e-commerce company based in Europe. This company has subsidiaries across the world and the engine that I helped build underlies the search/recommendation functionality for the subsidiary companies in South East Asia, Brazil and Mexico. Technically, this was the most complex system I’ve worked on.
If you are building products both as a developer and a product manager, what is the difference between the two? Is product manager a levelled up developer with added managerial skills?
Product managers specialize on the “what”, while developers specialize on the “how”. While building products, it is really important to separate the “what” from the “how”. The “what” part goes into understanding the problem at a fundamental level. For example, if your users are complaining that your sign up flow is too long, you need to understand the root cause first before going ahead and “making it short”. Once you have completely understood “what” the problem is, you can then move on to “how” you are going to solve it - this way, when you expend resources building the solution, you have a high degree of confidence that your solution is going to work. Not separating these two aspects leads to a lot of wasted efforts. Continuing with the top up authentication example above: As a PM, I would work on quantifying the impact of not having risk based authentication in terms of losses and user friction. Then, I would work to convince business stakeholders that it is a problem worth solving (based on impact) and then work on detailing the solution with designers and developers. As a developer, my focus would be on the implementation - How do I build the system in a scalable way, how do I make sure the performance is good and that the implementation is secure? How do I monitor whether the system is working correctly? They are equally challenging problems to solve on both sides.
I got it. Amaazing example👌🎯
How did Balaji go from Developer → Product Manager?
Can you tell us more about your transition into PM? Was it easy? Did you get an opportunity because of your prior experience as a developer?
Very early on as a developer, I began to feel that the best pieces of software are those that solve real world problems.
But while code can be beautiful and be an end in itself, it is the utility of the end product that really appealed to me. So, after gaining considerable expertise as a developer, I finally decided that I want to work closer to user and business facing issues rather than technical and implementation facing issues. By the time I had made this decision 9 years in, I had already gained a lot of credibility by delivering products that were being used in the real world. I also had a large network of connections, many of whom were product folks. So the transition for me was pretty simple.
How to break into Product Management?
Can one become a product manager without knowing how to code?
Being a developer certainly helps if you want to break into product management. I say this because developers usually are good with numbers, are analytical and think in terms of systems. But I wouldn’t say that it is a prerequisite. I’ve seen great PMs who don’t know how to code. What is important is having a problem solving mindset and being action oriented rather than theoretical.
How should someone go about to break into product management?
For a person wanting to break into product management, the challenge is to demonstrate experience with having delivered software products in some capacity in the past. This may be in the capacity of a business owner, a developer, a QA engineer or project manager. 1. If you are already part of a software development team, you can start thinking outside of your function by asking questions around what problem the software is solving and the impact that it is having on the business. For example, in my experience as a developer for a search engine in an e-commerce company, I asked questions to understand what impact our search results were having on the company revenue and tried to figure out ways in which we could make improvements (which was not part of my function, which was to write code that met specifications). 2. Another path which is pretty common is for folks to get an MBA and some relevant experience, for example, as a consultant/business analyst/business owner before switching to product management. I also know of some companies that directly hire product managers out of business school. 3. For fresh graduates in non-CS fields, it can be quite tough but not impossible. You can learn some coding and build "toy" software products that solve real world problems to show you customer focused thinking and tech skills. Or you could try getting into a company that builds software in some capacity and then make the switch.
Top resources to start with product management
Awesome! I guess we should wrap up with a couple more questions.
Can you point our readers to some beginner-level resources around product management?
When I started out, I found the following books useful -
- The hard thing about hard things -
- The Lean Startup -
- Inspired -
The Hard Thing About Hard Things
Here are a few things from my notes: Here are a few things from my notes: Bryan Rahija It's important to get 3 key processes in place: -1 on 1s: possibly the single best way to make your organization a Good Place to Work, encourage employees to deliver important bad news, and clear obstacles to their work, these should occur very regularly-Promotions: clarity on this front discourages political maneuvering -Feedback: it's just really important for raising the bar 2 really good questions to ask: -What would I do if my company went bankrupt?
The Lean Startup
The Lean Startup book. Read 3,901 reviews from the world's largest community for readers. Most startups fail. But many of those failures are preventable....
I think it is really important for PMs to be well read in a variety of fields, be it psychology, economics, technology etc. The most useful stuff I've read has nothing to do with product management on the surface but has had a huge impact on my work. Some examples include :
- Steve Jobs -
- Thinking, Fast and Slow -
- Poor economics -
- Who owns the future -
Apple computers have been expensive since the Apple I, released in April 1976 which was $666.66 while competing systems such as the KIM-1 were $245. TApple computers have been expensive since the Apple I, released in April 1976 which was $666.66 while competing systems such as the KIM-1 were $245.
Thinking, Fast and Slow
Your mind has two different systems. One works quickly and intuitively, and is often wrong. The other is analytic, and can get the right answer, but iYour mind has two different systems. One works quickly and intuitively, and is often wrong.
"poverty is not just a lack of money; it is not having the capability to realize one's full potential as a human being." "But then it is easy, too easy, to sermonize about the dangers of paternalism and the need to take responsibility for our own lives, from the comfort of our couch in our safe and sanitary home.
Who Owns the Future?
"Here's a current example of the challenge we face. At the height of its power, the photography company Kodak employed more than 140,000 people and was worth $28 billion. They even invented the first digital camera. But today Kodak is bankrupt, and the new face of digital photography has become Instagram.
Advice for 20-yr olds
If you could go back in time, what’s one piece of advice you would give to the 20-yr old version of yourself?
Small, incremental change over a large period of time can lead to huge impact overall. So use this to your advantage.
Thank you so much for your time today Balaji 🙏 It has been a pleasure to have you here.😄
Thank you for having me here!