Sometimes we don't always end up on the career path we started. By staying open to possibilities and trying new things, you can find a career that truly suits your skills and personality. This is especially true with Product Management
In this episode, Parv and Alex share their journey into being product managers from their initial careers to being product managers.
Parv studied engineering in India but shifted to project management and then product management. Alex also shares how he transitioned from a neuroscience graduate to design and finally to product management. They also touch on what's interesting about being a product manager, their experience and takes on working in a startup or a company, and what their favorite products are.
Tune in to listen to this and more!
[01:01] How Parv got into product management
[02:37] Parv's journey from a QA to a product management
[04:22] Alex's background journey into product management
[9:56] Alex's educational background
[14:37] Studying hackathons
[17:02] Working at a startup
[19:59] How would Alex get into PM if he was to start all over again?
[21:39] How would Parv get into PM if he was to start all over again?
[23:12] If Parv would consider going back to IUX
[24:53] Why Parv and Alex are still stuck with Product Management
[27:07] Favorite products for both Alex and Parv
Hackathons help you get to experience a lot quicker.-Alex
Working at a startup is kind of foundational for me because of how much you learn.- Alex
Sometimes building products in bigger companies is less about the product and more about the politics and maneuvering across different teams, which isn't as fun.- Alex
Launching products and seeing them used by millions of people is a satisfying feeling that makes it all worth it.- Alex
If you want to try each and everything possible in terms of companies, become a product manager.- Parv
Delayed gratification is a significant element of being a product manager.- Parv
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product, ux research, thinking, designer, hackathons, management, app, design, startup, pm, company, learning, expedia, build, product manager, people, big, ended, features, fitness
Today on Trying to Product Parv. and I are gonna go ahead and introduce ourselves and go through our background. So you guys get a better idea of who we are and where we've come from and how we started on this product management journey. Yeah, thanks, Alex. I think we've worked with each other. But we never actually went through our backgrounds and our journeys into product management, right, which is fun. I would love to get to know more. Yeah, same. So I guess the first question and kind of the one that everyone always likes to start out with is like, how did you get into product management, kind of what was the journey that you took, I don't think I had a very traditional journey, I honestly didn't even know, product management existed as a career path. For me. When I was in India, I did my undergrad and CS, four years, all trying to become an engineer, semi-successful with that got into a software engineering analyst position, was there for a couple of years actually working on that job, as I don't know QA, software engineering, a lot of that stuff, which wasn't Product Management at all. But I was working with the client at that time. And I think that's what gave me a chance to think about the user experience a bit more, which was different for me, compared to some of the work I was doing earlier on in my engineering career. With this, I got a bit more deep down into thinking about requirements. How does experience look like for a customer, even though was from a QA perspective, it was really good to have those conversations. And that's where I started to think about this is fascinating. I like thinking about all of this stuff, started getting into a little bit more around behavioral psych UX research. HCI was a very key term that time and I was jumping into it a lot, online, just reading up about it. And that's what really sort of kicked off a career change in a way for me, which was different than what I was planning. So what was the step from being a QA engineer to becoming a product manager. So I came here to the US to pursue a master's, my focus at that time was UX research. And ATI for those out there, ATI is human computer interaction. It's a broad term covers a lot of different things. But that was what sort of got me here to the US. I did my master's here at Berkeley. And as part of any program, we have an internship that happens at the end of the first year. And that's where sort of my first focus was looking into UX research positions. I tried a lot to not get a lot of callbacks there. I don't know why. But I remember at that time, I was speaking with a career counselor, and she suggested that I might want to look into product management. The reason being that I had a technical background, and I really enjoyed thinking about the user experience, and some of the design elements as well. And it might be a good mix for both of those areas for me. So I kind of pivoted midway in my internship search, started looking for product management as well. Again, it was really hard trying to get that internship locked down as well. But luckily, towards the end, I happen to fall upon one went through that interview process, which we can talk about some time later in the series as well, which was pretty fun.
But yeah, that was what sort of got me into the door. He was with StubHub at eBay, I joined as a product management intern. And as they say, the rest is history. That was kind of my intro to product management. Yeah, as the sounds that you weren't too familiar with Product Management at the beginning, but he kind of pivoted away from UX and into product. Product Management is so big. You're always learning product management, right? You're never sure of all the different aspects of it. Yeah, yeah, for sure. I don't know. How about you, man? What was your sort of foray into PM? Did you always know you wanted to be a product manager? Yeah. So
03:53n car. But eventually, around:
around with some designs and learning UI UX, and started doing some hackathons made a couple of these apps at the hackathons started getting in touch with the Expedia team. They were one of the sponsors, they were showing up at the hackathons, we actually made an integration with one of their API's for one of the apps that I made, and then started talking with them start talking with them a bit more about some program that they were spinning up in, in Arbor, so similar to you with the internship. So they were having like a team of in Arbor interns. And so they wanted to essentially get a bunch of folks in an arbor to essentially hire them for a year as like almost a work study kind of program. So ended up joining that team, I applied as a designer. So why does the designer showing them all my super cool apps that looked in retrospect, like a toddler had made, and then they ended up hiring me as a product person, which I didn't even know what that was at the time. But just because of the business experience, and how far that startup had gone. They hired me as a business person and product person for that team, and then ended up really learning how to make software from the ground up. So taking that initial idea that I had, were just like, This is what the future should be, this is what we should make. And they're like, no, no, you've got to talk to users, you've got to do interviews, you got to do surveys, you got to make prototypes. It's like oh, okay, okay, so I started reading all these books, Lean Startup, like sign of everyday things, all the classic entrepreneurship books, I guess, the more software and lean startup kind of books, to figure out how to actually do this,
and ended up spending like all year making, to this day, what I think is probably the best product of our best software product or ever made, which is essentially an app to help users find exactly where they want to go. So it tells you, the food, the hotels, the flights, the destination, the dates, everything is tailored to what you're interested in. And it keeps learning and iterating. So we ended up going from like, 17% accuracy with this algorithm to 82% Oh, wow, and incredibly talented group of people. And like, super awesome project, we just absolutely killed ourselves to make that thing a reality. And then that's kind of when I also realized that big companies often kill products for no reason. So started doing the product thing at Expedia, and then kind of left after that project did like I can't, and then did my own company thing again, and thought I was going to be a designer. So I started getting better at design, tried to go back into design, did a fellowship in India for a few months, as a designer, did a lot of design stuff applied as a designer at this air quality company, got accepted as a designer, and then they found it at a product background. And again, they turned me into a product manager within like a month. So ever since then, I've been a product manager, and haven't really looked at the design again. Yeah, it's kind of funny. I've always tried to be a designer, I keep coming back to reluctant product manager, Alex Cox. It's funny. Yeah. I think it's a bit unique from a lot of people. I've heard everyone's trying to dive into product, not too many people trying to get out.
Yeah, it's funny, like how both of us kind of have that itch for user experience design. Although I never got into design, I feel I'm horrible at taking a pencil and drawing a straight line. So I thought I would never be good as a designer, but always enjoyed thinking about the experience, thinking about what the UI UX should be, and how we could create an experience that's best for the user. And I think that's the same for you, right, like design and sort of building something putting something together that that would be fantastic for the user. Yeah, I think design is fundamental, especially I've always focused on consumer side products. So design is fundamental to how users interact with it, perceive the product, the brand, everything. So it's kind of the backbone of how I approach product. Yeah, I mean, it's great. Like I feel, this is such a wonderful journey that you shared of like, ups and downs, trying to move away from product but getting pulled back in, what was your educational background? Or did you do CSR design as undergrad? So I actually did a neuroscience, which I think is a bit off the beaten paths. I think the original reason is it sounds good. I liked neuroscience a lot. I'd watch like a ton of TED Talks. And I was like, Oh, this sounds pretty interesting. I've done a bunch of bio internships. It was also the fastest way for me to graduate. So I could have graduated in three years. Because of the Expedia thing. I couldn't leave the program halfway. So I ended up taking an extra semester. It was basically just doing the Expedia thing that second semester, so I could graduate faster, get into the workforce, join a startup and actually start learning or just work on my own startup which was The original plan which kind of went sideways, but I think the nice thing about neuroscience is that it's a lot of work, but it's every like three weeks. So you essentially only have to study for the exams. So I wasn't necessarily the greatest student, but I kind of, I guess gamed the system a little bit, and was able to really only have to work every three weeks and just like, stay up for a couple of days and watch all the lectures and then memorize everything and then take the test. So for the rest of the time, I was essentially free to work on my startup. So it worked out pretty well. Did you have any, like design courses as part of an undergrad? Did you take anything which was related to product, or was it all much more in the line of neuroscience as pretty focused, because I'm trying to get out as soon as possible. So, but I ended up my girlfriend, now wife is a designer, and she's, to this day, probably the best designer I've ever worked with. So I get a lot of harsh criticism and
legitimate feedback very quickly. So that helped a lot. I think more than anything else, because I would just keep designing stuff. And she would just keep critiquing it and telling me how bad it was and how to improve it. And then ultimately, over just kind of brute force, I was able to get to a point that people don't think I'm not a designer. Just kind of, I guess the metric, you know, we should dig into this love story of a product manager and a designer sometime in the future. Oh, yeah. Sounds like a fun, fun journey. Yeah, I think it's also interesting, because the way that I approached the product is from a design perspective, thanks to her input. And also now when I build my own products, kind of on the side, I have a designer. So she can design them, and then just have to find a developer that makes things a lot easier. And it's makes it easier to go to market that is so fascinating. Hearing their background from a neuroscience perspective, coming into design and then moving into product, I feel mine was so much more technical in nature. my four years at undergrad, so much more into core engineering, topics like data science analytics, I remember studying H dot 264 codecs, and how to multimedia computing and things like that as well. I really enjoyed it, though. And I thought for the longest time that my path would be engineering and AP, that's what's going to be my career in the long run as well. But now I look back. And I think I'm glad we had this system where we had a lot of projects, and each of our courses, we would use whatever we have learned, put it together into some type of deliverable product slash project and share that at the end of the semester. And I didn't realize it then. But now that I look back, and my friends from school make fun of me for this was, I used to love telling stories about all the stuff that we were building. And I think that was my first foray into thinking as a product marketer, or product management perspective on storytelling. And I think that was something that I really enjoyed another look back, I really feel was getting my feet wet into thinking like a consumer, a user, and trying to see what they would need, and how do we build that into the project. Even though they were purely technical, we did always push ourselves to apply a user perspective and a skin to it, like from a design side, although it's definitely sucked did not look like a usable product at all. But it was fun telling those stories, putting it up in front of everyone getting folks to test it. I guess that was kind of product management ish for me. But yeah, I was still heavily into CS at that time.
Yeah, the CS perspective gives you a lot more nuance and understanding what can and can't be done, especially on these more technical products. So I think it's super helpful. Also actually making products like the more you make, the more experience, you have the same mistakes you make, you can avoid in the future. So I think just being able to build them in your classes is probably immensely helpful. That's very true. I do really feel fortunate having that technical background. And you're right, it does help me think about aspects from a technical perspective, which maybe I might not have. I did enjoy it. And I really am grateful for having that background. And I tried to use that in my PM, skill set as well. Yeah. Did you ever do a hackathons or anything like that? In school, not an undergrad. But I think hackathons were my bread and butter during grad school. And I think that was one of the best things that I discovered during grad school in the US. I think, at that time, hackathons weren't a big thing in India. And even if they were, I think I was in a situation where I didn't discover them easily. But once I was here, being in Silicon Valley, or Berkeley, there were so many happening around me that I just ended up being part of teams that went to those hackathons. And I think that's also where I started trying to build stuff and do the research, gather the requirements, figure out what we need to build, which was kind of what we do as a pm is figuring out what needs to get done. And I think yeah, those hackathons have been one of the most fun experiences from a product perspective as well as the technical side because I always enjoyed the technical challenge as well. Always had of Fantastic designer on my team during those hackathons. But
no, you're right. That was, I think, one of the best things that I did as part of grad school to teach me about thinking as a product person. Yeah, I have the same experience, it was incredibly helpful in thinking about the product, like the end to end journey, and also kind of being forced to actually make something, I think a lot of times, we have all these ideas, these things we want to make, but there's no forcing function, but a hackathon, you have like 36 hours to get a team and get something out the door. So it helps a lot with kind of putting these ideas into practice. So yeah, it's been a totally agree, like really, really helpful, just with pm and also getting your reps in. I think that's something that a lot of times we don't really talk about. It's just how many products you make, and the more products that you launch, like, the more experience you have, I think is also the more products you have under your belt, and also like years of experience is probably not the right metric that a lot of people look at. It's really like, how many products have you launched? How many products have you made? So hackathons kind of help you like, you get that experience a lot quicker. Now, that's a great point. You're right, you get to do a lot of those requirements, gathering, prototyping, research, a lot of that quick iterations, multiple times different scope, different domains. And I think that really builds that eye for thinking about product and product design and product experience. So you're right, I completely agree with that. It's such a good metric that we should be thinking about right, like products under your belt, rather than just experience. Did you ever work at a startup, like seed stage? Series A Series B? I'm not working at one startup right now. But never before that?
Yeah, I think for me, at least, that was my first job, really, out of college, I originally really only worked for myself or as an intern. So like, I think I forgot why. But like, I essentially after college, and after Expedia just give I don't think I had like a couple of side businesses. But eventually, I worked at a small startup, it was like seed stage. And then they got a couple of bridge rounds, but never really quite launched. But because I was like the only product manager there and because I was like the only somebody like eight people. So you kind of get to do everything. Every product launch was like my specs, my research, all the marketing stuff was mine, like the website design, the ads that went out the SEO blog posts, I made a bunch of like marketing apps, like just working at a startup had been like, I would say, it's kind of foundational for me, because of how much you learned, again, going back to the idea of reps, as I got a big company might launch four products a year, four features a year, but as a small company, like a startup, you launched, I think I launched like seven or eight products a year. And like bigger things like hardware features or like the apps to support the hardware, the actual hardware and marketing apps. Yeah, so I think that ended up being really helpful just as a product manager, because you get to fail so quickly. So I mean, I'm not saying that these products necessarily succeeded, I would say more than half of them just fell on their face. But because they fell on their face, you learn why it failed, and what was a key reason for failure. And a lot of times, it's mostly just marketing wasn't supported correctly. So then going forward, it's like, how do you build marketing into the products. And everyone always talks about how a startup is like working at a wave, it's like maybe 10 year every year at a startup is like, five years at a big company, or there's some equivalent of people use. But then after working out the startup, and then working at a bigger company, you can see the difference in number of reps and how quickly you can learn at a startup. It doesn't matter necessarily. It's the startups, the seeds are not just that you're able to be in the thick of it, and to do as much as you can as quickly as you can. So I think for me, that was really helpful. That's a great point. And I think it's similar to features, right? Like sometimes at a startup, you get to build products from scratch and sort of get those reps in. But with the bigger company or mid sized company, you can try and do that with features. Try and get as many features under your belt, try and build those
features, see how the launch, some of them will fail. Some of them you have to kill. But that's the same thing as practice, right? So for me, I think that was a big thing was trying to get features in trying to build things for a product that existed, but still trying to figure out what needs to get built next, and put that out in the market and see how it goes. And you're right. Like it is so different, working as a product manager at a big company versus a startup. And I think that's a great topic that we should touch upon in the podcast in the future as well. I think everyone would love to sort of think about that as well. If you had to do it all over again, would you do it differently? How would you get into PM, if you were going to start all over? I wonder if I would still want to be a pm because now I've been a pm for a few years. So kind of know what it's like know what to expect. I think personally, I still love building products. It just sometimes building products in bigger companies is less about the product and more about the politics and maneuvering across all these different teams, which isn't quite as fun. Depends on where you're working. If I'm working at a startup I think it'd be great to be a pm I think you get to do so much across so many different job functions. And that sense I think my trajectory kind of work as we're as it sounds like making my own company, learning how not to run a company learning how not to manage people learning, essentially everything you shouldn't do, and then going in, then working in a more functional environment, I think was pretty helpful. But yeah, I'd probably go more on design, if I wanted to go to a larger company, instead of being a pm at a larger company, you have all the resources to really execute on these problems at a high level, you have the resources to go and actually talk to users and conduct intense user interviews. I think Expedia that was like the best part is I had a UX researcher on my team. So whenever we had to do like an actual user experience study, we're able to like pay all the participants were able to schedule them all to come in, they would all come in for an hour to two hours is like all very by the book. Whereas in startup, you don't really have that kind of luxury. It's normally just you go to a Starbucks, and you get some guys some free coffee, if you'd looked at your app, and it's a much different experience. So I think being a designer at a bigger company, I think it'd be more interesting, being able to have the resources to execute at a high level. Whereas being a pm, I think, is maybe more interesting at this startup. But I have never designer at a big company. So this might be one of those things where round three would be different. But what about you, if you had to do it all over again? How would you get into PM?
Thinking about it right now? I think one way would be like, would I want to scratch my engineering experience? Probably not. I think that really helped build my skills in the technical domain and brought me where I am right now, speaking to what you said, one thing that I might think about doing early on in my product clear would have been to actually work at a large company. I think the scale at which you work and deliver projects, slash products, slash features at a large company is insane. And I think there's so much pros and cons working at a startup versus working at a large company, I think, starting out a large company might have helped me, you know, learn the reins a bit more figured out the ins and outs of Product Management a bit more. And being able to deliver products and see how that impacts at scale is a nice thing to do. And I think there's a lot of learning from that as well. I went in through an internship, which I think is super helpful. You have the excuse of being an intern, and messing up sometimes. But it's a great learning moment. For me it was and I think it is in general as well, from that internship, maybe going into large company to see how product management is done and sort of learn from some of the people who've been doing it for a while at scale at large company might have been an interesting move. But you know, no regrets. I really like how I got into pm and enjoying the space right now. But yeah, I think maybe that might have been something I would have changed. Gary, think about trying to get back into UX? Oh, that's
a good question. Not really. And I think it goes back to the point that you were saying, you know, depending on the place where you're working at, depending on how you've structured the product management principle at your organization, you get to think about that and collaborate so closely with folks in those teams that you get the ability to work with them, and still indulge in some of those side thinking like UX research, design, and collaborate with such great people on that. So maybe not go back to UX research. But definitely think about product management as a role where I get to work closely with all functions. I think that's been my favorite part. And I think I would love to keep doing that. Oh, yeah. Yeah, totally agree. Being able to have such a wide breadth across so many different teams is kind of one of the best parts about pm, especially if you're a really curious person, I think. Yeah, definitely, if you want to try each and everything possible, in terms of a company become a PM, but why we suck with our product over the years. Whatever stuck with it, you know that saying, right, jack of all trades, master of none. I know different things. I'm semi okay at them. But I'm not really great. At anything in particular, not the best engineer out there. Not the best designer, not the best UX research. But as a PM, I get to sort of be okay with being semi Okay, and all of them. And I think that's a skill, right? That's something that not everyone has. And it's something that you build on is the ability to think through different domains to different lenses. And I think that's one of the primary reasons why I've still stuck with it. Basically, I'm not good at anything else. In a nutshell, of a you. I think it just inertia at this point. I've done it for so long. And I mean, there's parts of it that are great. I'd love to like have an idea and then be able to execute on it. I'll be able to look at some data and then see like how you can improve that metric or whatever the goal is and to accomplish those goals through a product. So that part I really like. I think being able to continue to make things it's just really rewarding. I think anytime we launch a product feature or anything, it's just such a satisfying feeling. And being able to play with that product for the years to come. Is just immensely sad. That's fine. There are parts of it. You know, it's kind of a love hate relationship where there's parts you love, and there's parts you kind of wish you didn't have to do. I think for me, it's just like having to deal with the politics, and then the sandbagging all the stuff where people are just trying not to do their work. That part's a little bit, I wish I wouldn't have to do that. But just being able to launch a product, and then seeing that product be used by millions of people is just such a satisfying feeling that it kind of makes it all worth it. I think, at the end of the day.
Yeah, I think that's so true, right? It's not a role where you have constant rewards. I think delayed gratification is a big element of being a product manager. But at the end, when you work with the team, and and you know, the team comes together to build something and deliver. It's just such a great feeling, right, everyone's come together. It's like you're doing many hackathons with each product. And I think that's what's kept me going is that feeling of, Okay, what's next, let's get in the thick of it. Let's work with everyone trying to get something up and running, and deliver. And then you know, put that out in the wild and see how it goes, and then start all over again with everyone. So I think that feeling of many hackathons, if I were to put it in my college terms is something that's so strong and keeps me going with work management. And I think I really enjoy that aspect. Yeah, the way delayed gratification is definitely a key part of it, especially with these longer term projects. So it could be like six months, and then just kind of being able to tell everybody why we're doing this and keep everyone motivated through those long, six months, sometimes even longer, is definitely a key part of that product lifecycle. But yeah, it's so satisfying at the end. Yeah. And then I guess, to close it out, what's your favorite product as a product manager, I think it's a very weird one out there. But I have this app on my phone, which is called Fit board. Now. You know, before
everyone goes crazy, it's just a regular app for workouts. I've been using it for, I think, five to six years now. And for me, I think it's been a fantastic product in the way that it's brought fitness to someone who really wasn't into fitness. From an experience perspective, from a feature perspective, I think they really nailed down that newbie, fitness guy aspect. And I think they really brought so much of the knowledge aspect of fitness, the ability to learn how to do some of those things, like they brought that into a product. And I think it's really great in terms of getting someone into the fitness realm. And I think that, for me has been like a fantastic product. When I think about it as a product manager, I just imagine like a persona of someone not having to do anything with fitness, but then falls upon this app. And it's so easy for them to sort of start that journey and become a fitness person. Yep. Yeah, it sounds kind of like headspace was for meditation for me. I'd never looked at meditation seriously. But then they had like this really effective onboarding, like 10 meditation sessions that you do. But basically, every time he's like, I know, you're thinking right now that you shouldn't do this, that this is a waste of time, but trust me, it gets better. So being able to, like onboard, like a new fitness person in your meditation person is a really big challenge. And I think it's always really interesting when someone could have just nails it and is able to speak to that persona really well. So yeah, and it's, I mean, mental health and meditation, like that's such an important thing right now. And building a product that gets you hooked onto that and on boarded onto that journey. That's fantastic. It's such a tough thing to nail, it's so hard to like, be able to talk to exactly what that person is thinking and all the doubts in their mind. And can I stick with this? Why am I even doing this? Is it worth it? So, yeah, it's a really tough user challenge to overcome. Would you consider that your favorite product? Or do you have something else in mind that trumps headspace?
28:35using for probably like since:
burn some amount of exercise done. So when you look at that, in the broader scope, when you run when you bike, when you do random push ups in the hallway, while you're waiting for the bathroom, like any of these things, I think it's just such an interesting idea that we can track passive exercise and reward that. So right there app is specifically like walking. But because walking is something we do without even thinking about it being able to quantify that. And look at that is such an interesting thing, as we think a lot about this passive exercise space. Because like for me, like during the pandemic, like I left the house that much. So I have a pull up bars, every time I enter my bedroom, I have to do five pull ups. But there's no way for me to track that. So if I skip it a couple of times, or if I only do like 20 pull ups in a day, the only thing is tracking is me counting it, this idea of passive exercises, and they are really interesting. And I think this app, you just completely nailed it, and done a really good job of doing it to the extent that it needed to be done and not overdoing it. Yeah, the one thing that you said in the middle, which we should unpack offline was, you said waiting in the hallway for the bathroom and doing push ups while you're waiting. I don't know if you've actually done that. But that sounds pretty weird. Like I have like these little things like whenever I get like down from the steps, then I do like five push ups. Whenever I leave my bedroom, I do like five pull ups, these different markers about like the house. So like whenever I'm walking around, then if I crossed one of those markers, I have to do some type of exercise. I have to say you did get me on to pedometer plus plus as well. It has been an app that I've added to my collection in the pandemic as well. And in fact, it's the only visit on my homescreen, which is my step gone. And I think you're right, it's fantastic. It's such an easy metric and easy measure. Of course, it might not be the most fitness oriented thing in terms of health and everything. But it's so basic, and it's so helpful and so essential, that it's been fun just tracking my steps and trying to push myself to complete that goal for the day. Yeah, yeah. So it's nothing too fancy. But that's my favorite product from last like five or six years. Yeah, I think it would be fun to unpack more products that catch our eye in future episodes will be nice to sort of jump in to see what's out there. I know we both enjoyed us browsing Product Hunt and this app space in general. It'd be fun to sort of look through those and see what's fun out there right now. Oh, yeah. Yeah, I think especially because so many people have been like making more apps and making more products while they've been home with all this extra free time. So I feel like the number of products that are being launched every day seems like it's gone up a ton as well. It seems like everyone's trying to product these days. That um, but yeah, great chat, and we'll catch you the next one.