Product School

What it Takes to be a PM Leader by Former Microsoft Product Manager

Dan Zirkelbach

Dan Zirkelbach

January 09, 2023 - 11 min read

Updated: January 24, 2024 - 11 min read

This week, Product School’s #AskMeAnything session welcomed former Microsoft Product Manager, Richa Rai!

Richa has some serious experience consulting inside the tech giant, Microsoft. She embodies Product Management with her unsatisfiable desire to solve problems, find opportunities and lead others to success. Curious about how Product Managers have broken into and mastered their roles? Then join our Product Management Slack Community and ask them!

richa rai microsoft product manager leader

Richa Rai is a leader in Product Management with more than 12 years of expertise in building strategy and roadmaps, defining business value, and delivering multimillion dollar, global customer-centric, Products and Programs. She is analytical at heart with an exceptional ability to bring order to chaos. Her Bachelors in Engineering and Masters in Business provides a strong foundation for her to understand and analyze customer pain points, business drivers and solution delivery.  

Being a Microsoft Product Manager

What are the key expectations for a Microsoft Product Manager?

The key expectation of a Product Manager at Microsoft is to be the leader (without direct authority of course). Bring stakeholders together, keep leadership informed, highlight and resolve issues and risk. Basically, own the success and failure of the product/program.

Can you provide some key strategies that you use at Microsoft to analyze customer pain points?

Different teams use different methods as there are vast customer segments that the teams interact with – internal, external, direct, indirect, partner, channel etc.

In the old Microsoft world, regional leaders were representative of customer pain points. Now, regional leads are involved, however, there is a subset or group of customers that are identified and made part of the early stages of pain point definition, leading to scope/MVP definition and included in milestones for feedback in the product development cycle. Earlier Product teams didn’t necessarily have direct access to the customer.

How important is development experience to be a Microsoft Product Manager? If you have none, is it still fine?

A lot of times you don’t need any development experience. It depends on the team, product and program. What is most important is your curiosity about technology and your ability to learn and understand technology on the fly. You don’t need dev experience, but Microsoft is a technology company, you most certainly need a passion for technology.

Can you share the list of tools and software you work with daily as a Microsoft Product Manager?

This is one of the most asked questions from the aspiring Product Managers community. I am working on putting together a tools list. I will be sharing that at my speaker session and webinar that I am scheduled to do with Product School in Dec and Jan respectively. Please be on the lookout for those sessions to get access to my Product Management toolkit.

Is there a global Microsoft Product Manager team or is everyone co-located in California?

We work with remote teams very often. When I was a Microsoft Product Manager consultant, the teams sat globally. With a company the size of Microsoft, teams are spread out. They are co-located to the best of their capability and capacity. But distance is never a barrier, the issue is mitigated by video conferencing and folks also travel when and where they’re needed.

richa rai microsoft product manager leader

Becoming a Product Manager

How much of technical capability/engineering background must one have to be a Product Manager?

Passion for technology is what you need to have – do you follow the latest trends in technology, history, evolution in your field, the competition, emerging technologies etc. The engineering background required varies from team to team.

Can you kindly take us through your journey of becoming a Product Manager?

This is the exact same question I was asked in a panel last month and answer that came to my mind instantly was – I was born a Product Manager. Product Managers are folks who are not defined by their title but by their approach to their work. I always looked for opportunities in whatever role I was, I looked for gaps, solved problems, brought people together for a common goal – status quo was never acceptable to me – I always looked for ways to improve and I organically moved to Product Management.

When did you learn about Product Management and when did you decide to become a Product Manager?

Irrespective of my title, I will always be a Product Manager. I will always be looking for opportunities and getting teams together for a common goal.

If you are responsible for interviewing a group of people for a Product Manager position, how can a candidate stand out from all others?

Candidates that share a story of passion, that share how they went out of the way to fix something that was a pain point for the customer, how they creatively solved the problem, how they solved the problems that came along the way, what they were thinking throughout, how they walk-through a real-life problem, will stand out. Customers, in this case, doesn’t necessarily mean the end user – whoever is the user for you or your team is the customer. For example, Product or Business for Engineering.

How does someone from a program management/analytics side switch over to Product Management? What are the skills to be highlighted that will make me relevant?

I would highlight the skills that show how you bring relevancy to data. Also, how to catch trends in data. What were the unnoticed business problems you solved through insights that you brought to the table? Have you streamlined the dashboards to better serve your customer?

Tell a story around that. If you haven’t done any of these then I would advise you to pick up a business problem in regards to analytics and solve it for them. Take that story to your interview. That journey will speak volumes about you.

How do you get your foot in the door in translating the value of a Digital Marketing Strategist as Product Manager?

It’s mostly about being at the right company at the right time. In the meantime, build your story for the right opportunity. Gather skill and experience that is inline. Volunteer for a non-profit as Product Manager to gain job knowledge.

Have you ever met PMs that work at reputable tech companies that do not have any college degrees, including undergrad and masters?

I am sure such folks exist, but unfortunately, I haven’t met them yet. I would myself love to meet with such folks to hear their story. I have met folks who’ve studied Art and Theater and became Product Managemers.

richa rai microsoft product manager leader

What is the most difficult thing about being a PM for you and how do you work through it? Also, what are some pitfalls that you see new PMs or candidates often fall into?

The most difficult thing for a Product Manager is to be in the driving seat but not being the actual driver. You are the leader without direct authority, keeping teams that are under different management aligned for a common goal. Your product has a dependency on its team and likewise, on various other teams that do not fall under your chain of command, or under your management.

Interviewed candidates should discuss how they recognized a problem that everybody else on the team was living with, how they built a business case, sold it to management, got it prioritized, secured resources and managed the delivery and outcome. Interviewed candidates miss telling such a story and they get entangled in their resume when storytelling is the crux of Product Management.

Product Management Advice

How do you handle limitations, in terms of tech knowledge, when working with engineers to get a product or project on the road? As a Product Manager, you can’t know as much as the engineers, right?

As a PM, even if you knew as much as Engineers, you should stay out of it. A PM’s job is to provide the Engineering team with exposure to the business problem statement, pain points that business wants to solve and partner with them in order to find the best way to solve the problem. Let Engineers do the work for which they are hired. Let them lead the way. As a PM, you stay curious, trust their expertise and work with them to build and validate different hypotheses to solve a problem.

How do you approach defining business value, especially as it relates to difficult-to-quantify novelty products?

I would put currency in strategic alignment with the business values. I will find out what is important for the company strategically – is it providing a better customer experience, is it making more money or reducing operational cost? I will take one of these strategic drivers and build business value through what my product does best to contribute. Then, I would build a hypothesis by testing a sample size for quantifying the contribution (by how much).

When you have a project management structure/strategy in mind for a company, how or what techniques do you implement to get everyone on board with it?

Product Managers need to be storytellers, to make people believe in you, the direction and journey you are taking them on. You use strategy, analytics and communication skills to paint the picture. You use all your skills to bring people together, to tell a compelling story so that people feel valued and a part of an initiative that is bigger than them, their team. This is important for both the company and for the customers.

richa rai microsoft product manager leader

What advice would you give your younger self? Or, what do you wish you had known earlier?

Great question. What I learned – quickly, thankfully – was that you need to draw a line in the sand. As a PM, you have to be the person to create the rough draft of the vision/road mapping/feature list and give teams something tangible/real to noodle and comment on. Take an idea from the conference room to the discussion to paper and to a live product. But it all starts with your vision. You are the creator. As PM you need to LEAD.

What practices or behaviors do team members have that help them quickly transform the project deliverables when the requirements change? Conversely, what proves to be obstacles to revising the project quickly?

Agile teams are shifting gears so quickly that it takes a toll. As long as there are guiding principles clearly outlined, a foundation can be built and these principles can shift to stay aligned and make it easier to absorb setbacks. Clearly articulate the guding business principles and the guiding technological principles upfront while building a Business case. It helps in keeping teams grounded and on track.

Who is the main stakeholder for the Product Manager? Is it the customer? The engineering team or a PMO?

Stakeholders are all of the above. Every team has an important role to play. It’s like a house of cards. But from a day to day perspective for a PM – it’s Business and Engineering but when it comes to reporting milestones or for changing management, then you need to involve a broader set of stakeholders.

What practices should a Product Manager follow to prove business value for new initiatives and to ensure that initiatives are prioritized in order of their value?

Get a view of strategic priorities for your leadership and your company. Then map your initiatives against the strategic priorities of the company. Also, look for low hanging fruits, which will give you the best value with the least effort and prioritize based on that. Engineering should also get a view of this list when it’s a work in progress, which is frequently overlooked, as a number of times they have feedback on bundling up initiatives for technical efficiency.

What do you feel are the key elements of a PM’s go-to-market strategy?

Readiness and Landing are key components to any Product Manager. A key element for me is to start early – start building your go-to-market strategy as soon as you have defined the scope/MVP and then Engineering work can kick off. One of my managers said, “it doesn’t matter how good of a product you build if you don’t land it appropriately, all effort is wasted”. And I truly believe in the statement as I have seen huge initiatives fail because the Go-To-Market strategy wasn’t firmed up upfront. It has a direct impact on adoption.

Any final advice for aspiring Product Managers?

My final advice to aspiring Product Managers is to keep challenging the status quo, break the barrier – be a player in making the world around you a better place – be it at work, be it in your community or your kids at school. Look for opportunities and bridge the gap – weave that in your story when you go for interviews. Volunteer as Product Manager in a non-profit, test your learning, learn and adapt. Most importantly, have fun while doing all this!

Updated: January 24, 2024

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