Event Report: Product Management Challenges Unique to India

(This is a live-blog of the Indian Product Management Association (IPMA), Pune Chapter’s event on Product Management Challenges Unique to India by Vivek Tuljapurkar.)

What is Product Management

Different people define it differently. At the very least, a product manager is a person who is the “guardian angel” of the product. He gathers requirements from the market, and defines what the features of the product will be. But in some cases, a product manager might have responsibility of the product engineering. In other cases, a product manager might also have sales and support responsibilities. And sometimes a product manager might have full responsibility for a product – including worrying about the business profit & loss (P&L responsibility).

For this talk, we will be using the broader definition of product management.

These are the different types of product management that happen in India:

  • Product Mgmt for an Indian Software Company
  • Product Mgmt for an MNC
    • Only Product Mgmt for the Indian market is done from here
    • Product Mgmt for the global market is done from here
  • Product mgmt for an off-shore customer of an Indian product software services company. (e.g. a customer of Persistent asks Persistent to also do Product Mgmt. for their product.)

The greater the responsibility, the greater the challenges of doing the role out of India.

Product Manager and Geographic Location

The product manager’s location is important in two different ways. You can have easy access to the market (i.e. the customers), or not. And you can have easy access to the development team. If you have easy access to both, it’s ideal. If you have easy access only to the market, you can do outbound product management (creating the marketing requirements document from the market research document produced by the strategic marketing team). If you have easy access only to the development team, you can do inbound product management (creating the product requirements document from the marketing requirements document). If you do not have easy access to both, then you are in trouble.

In India-based product companies, a product manager could possibly do handle all responsibilities: requirements + engineering + sales and marketing + P&L responsibility. However, product managers in MNCs and Indian services companies, only requirements gathering and engineering can be owned out of India. Support to product sales and marketing can happen within the next 5 years, but full sales and marketing responsibility, and P&L responsibility is unlikely even 5 years from now.

Requirements for being a good Product Manager

  • Basic Understanding of finance, technology, development process, sales and marketing
  • Domain Knowledge – otherwise you will not be able to use your judgement to take strategic decisions and add value
  • Basic managerial capabilities – planning and execution
  • Organizational skills – ability to get things done
  • Social skills – building internal and external relationships. Because you need to get work done by a lot of people who don’t work for you
  • Communication skills and listening skills
  • Political astuteness. Many product managers, especially those who come from a technical background, ignore this aspect. Know who is friends with whom, which way the wind is blowing, who is trying to kill your product, and a whole bunch of other behind the scenes work that is happening, so that you can keep the future of your product, and yourself secure.
  • Negotiation skills.
  • Coping with uncertainty, pressure and changing priorities
  • Strategic thinking and foresight
  • Ability to influence, motivate and inspire

You don’t have to be an expert in all these areas, but whatever is missing will hurt you. Figure out which areas you’re weak in and work on improving those.

Engineers as Product Managers

Some of the difficulties that engineers face when they transition into product management roles (and this describes most Indian product managers):

  • Were used to “hard science”: algorithms, formulas, tools, methodologies, structure
  • Too methodical and structured, and have a tough time dealing with uncertainty and amorphous nature of things
  • Enamoured with technology, and want to do technology for the sake of technology
  • Too introverted, and don’t communicate (well) enough to succeed
  • Have a hard time letting go of technology focus and focusing on broader product management issues. (This is basically fear of the unknown)
  • We are too straightforward, and don’t have the political astuteness required

As a result, many engineers (i.e. many Indian product managers) fail at this role and end up doing only inbound product management.

So, focus on fixing these issues if you want to succeed.

Problems with a product management career in India

Typically, for product management being done in India, the role is in a very early stage, and is experimental. The responsibilities are ill-defined and evolving. The person given the job is likely to be from a development background, and is likely to have no exposure to other aspects of product management: like sales, marketing, market research, customer management etc. Further he has no access to customers or to market research.

The biggest problem: Lack of opportunity to learn and practice what you have learnt

In addition, the specific career path for a product manager is not really well defined in India.

Overall, the role is quite risky.

And if product management role does not work out, what happens to you? It is usually not clear whether you’ll be able to go back to your previous role and career path.

As a company, HR should have policies to clarify these issues, so that people feel safe about going into product management.

Getting people to do product management in a software company in India is difficult. IIM graduates don’t want to join as a product manager, but they’re happy to go to a HLL as a brand manager. Which is practically the same thing! So what is needed is that the product manager position in software companies needs to be branded appropriately, ensure that the candidate’s perception of the role is correct, and as before, the career paths are defined appropriately.

The problems are even worse for smaller companies. They cannot afford to pay higher salaries, provide the facilities and amenities. They don’t have a brand recognition, which is important to current and future employees. And smaller companies are also afraid that if they try to improve their branding and visibility, the larger companies will quickly come and poach employees, leading to attrition and major problems before they can hire new guys. Solution: don’t know! This is a tough problem, and it is unclear whether there is a good answer to this at this time.

Advice to new product managers in India

  • Understand and seek clarifications on your role, responsibilities, org structure, and processes. Don’t let unstated expectations hurt you!
  • Be prepared to deal with uncertainties and changing demands regarding your role
  • Seek a sympathetic executive sponsor. A CXO/VP who will help you with tactical challenges, or at least present your case to the decision makers
  • Stay one step ahead of the game. Never stop preparing yourself for a bigger role. Learn new things. Build new relationships with the long term in the mind.
  • Keep thinking about strategic matters. Immerse yourself, but don’t drown yourself in day-to-day stuff.
  • Find ways to exploit your best capabilities to your best advantage
  • Find a way to make a name for yourself. You don’t make a name for yourself by doing your day-to-day job well. Find something else, somewhere else which is dramatic and drastic. Keep watching for those, and if you see an opportunity and grab it. It should cause people to forget all your day-to-day issues, and focus on your big win

Specific skills and techniques

  • Keep a stakeholder mapping spreadsheet. Keep track of all the stakeholders in your project, and which of them is interested in what outcome, and what is the level of friendliness of these people towards you/your product, and when was the last time you had contact with them.
  • Never go public with strong stand, or a new strategic direction, unless you’re sure that it will be received well. Before the important meeting, or the presentation, go and meet some of the key people individually, make your point to them, and ensure that they’re in agreement with you
  • On a regular basis, check whether you’ve been doing anything specific to improve your weak areas. And if you’ve not, scold yourself.

13 thoughts on “Event Report: Product Management Challenges Unique to India

  1. I attended the event. I wish, some members of the audience didn’t voice their own opinions (and gyaan) and let Vivek complete his talk. Disappointed with lack of civil behaviour from a few commentators.

    BTW, Vivek’s talk was outstanding.

    1. @Anon, I disagree.

      I think an interactive session, where there are questions and answers and alternative viewpoints, is more useful than a simple lecture by the presenter.

      The fact that Vivek was not able to complete his talk is simply a consequence of the fact that he had a lot of very interesting material to cover and he was doing it in an interesting and accessible enough way that people were getting involved and asking questions, or voicing their opinions. I would rather have two talks by Vivek, both interactive, than a single talk where he is able to cover all his material uninterrupted.

  2. We will certainly try to make future IPMA (Pune) events more interactive. We also discussed the fact that one and half hour is not enough time and maybe we should consider meeting for a little bit longer duration (Maybe on Saturday mornings?)

    Should we try an unconference type of agenda for next meeting?

    1. @Suhas, Instead of a pure unconference event, I think having a combination might be a good idea.

      Here’s one possibility: Have a 1-hour pre-announced talk. Followed by a 30-minute networking break, during there’s an unconference white-board where people can sign up to give 10-minute unconference-style talks. At the end of the networking break, re-convene and have 3 of the unconference talks…

  3. Vivek’s talk was very good,however it was more focused on Product manager’s role in MNCs and fairly large companies,would be more interesting if someone can talk about PMI’s role and challenges in start-up environment ( Product start-up)

  4. Nikhil,

    From what I have seen, the product manager’s role evolves to something definite and specific only in larger organizations. Smaller orgs, whether startup or not, typically don’t have a very well defined product manager role and the CEO/founding team end up performing its various duties in an ad-hoc, piecemeal fashion.

    Another point is, In case of a startup, sometimes it is hard to separate the specific product mgmt challenges from general enterpreneurship challenges. And such discussions tend to gravitate towards entrepreneurship in general, as opposed to staying focused on product mgmt.

    I try to keep product mgmt separate from entrepreneurship and innovation – two very important, interesting (and related) topics, just to keep focus.



    1. Vivek,

      I agree with you to some extent.
      How can somebody who has worked as a founder take up the role of a product manager in bigger companies?

      Is it necessary that only MBAs can become product managers?


  5. In a forum such as this one, what I typically see is that most attendees have at least some product mgmt experience and while they do expect the speaker to have greater knowledge of and insights into the subject, they aren’t there for a classroom lecture but look for a more interactive, knowledge- and experience-sharing session.

    I do feel that this session (for whatever reasons) ended up being a bit too classroomish and Suhas’ interventions were timely and helped keep the audience engaged.

    I certainly agree with the ideas put out by both Suhas and Navin and we should consider formalizing such a format for the upcoming session.

  6. Anuj,

    Someone who has founded one or more companies is IMO well suited to be a product manager. Taking responsibility for anything and everything in his venture is something an entrepreneur is used to doing. A very important challenge that faces people who transition from other roles to product mgmt roles is that they are used to more limited roles and sphere of influence. So, assuming that a) someone is willing to give you an opportunity to be a product mgr, and b) you can deal with various organizational and cultural aspects of being part of a larger organization, you would do well.

    No, an MBA is a good qualification to have but hardly necessary. I don’t have an MBA and IBM – world’s largest technology company – did cast me in a global product portfolio mgr role. I know lots of people that are very successful in product mgr roles that don’t have an MBA.

    Engineers that refocus on business objectives and let go of their technology infactuation generally do very well in life. Just think of Jack Welch – for example.



  7. I meant infatuation – not “infactuation” … that is not a word in English language. Sorry for the Sarah Palin impersonation.

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