Advice & Insights into Product Management at Google

This week Product School hosted Pratik Thaker, a Product Manager at Google, for an #AskMeAnything session. Pratik talked about his journey into Product, advice on transitioning and key skills necessary for a PM, ways to prioritize, and more!

Meet Pratik

Pratik is a former Aerospace Engineer and Entrepreneur who has found a passion for building products that delight users and drive business impact at scale. Currently, he is a Product Manager at Google, working with the Knowledge Engine team.

Prior to that, Pratik was a Senior Product Manager at Careem, building the MENA region’s first super app. In addition, he was also the Co-Founder of Isometric Engineering Consultancy. Pratik earned a B.S in Aerospace Engineering from Georgia Institute of Technology and a Master of Engineering from Cornell University.

What was your all-time favorite Product to build and why did you like making the product?

So it was my first ever product at Careem (ride hailing company). It was to allow our drivers to rate their passengers. Uber had this feature, but we didn’t, and in our region, it was a matter of pride for our drivers to be able to give feedback on our customers. I enjoyed building that because we took a simple idea, but instead of making it a me too with Uber, we expanded it – we began letting drivers tell us what they didn’t like about the passenger, and eventually allowed them to reject passengers with low ratings. It was a hit, and the drivers loved it!

How would you advise breaking into PM at Google with a non-technical background? And more specifically, what kind of roles should one be looking at Google, if you’re a Lvl4 and being considered for Sales type roles?

Well, to be honest, Google requires its PMs to be solidly technical. That doesn’t mean you can’t get it without a degree in engineering, but you would have to brush up on the fundamentals. But there are a lot of amazing roles at Google, ranging from Program Management to sales, marketing et. Log on to the careers site to find more!

Looking to break into Product? Transition to Product Management From ANY Background

Do you have any advice/tips for how to return to PM in tech for someone who has experience in product, but took time to pursue other interests?

I’d say start interviewing again. Product is a field where you don’t really lose your touch as much as you’d think. And actually following your interests can be super valuable on the resume, so I’d say start applying!

What are the best steps to take for a software developer to turn into a PM and how is product management different from project management?

Well, you could move internally from software to product by taking a series of steps (scrum master, kind of taking on more responsibilities, etc). And as far as product vs project – product managers define what needs to be done, and project managers figure out how to deliver it on time. It’s like the difference between an architect and a project manager in construction. Hope that helps.

You might be interested in: The Difference: Project Manager vs Product Manager

How do you keep yourself updated with the latest design/product tools?

For me, work keeps me on my toes! I learn 90% based on what’s happening at work. But otherwise, it’s just a general following of tech news (like TechCrunch). For me, the trends in the market/technology are more interesting than tools per se.

How do you prioritize features in your backlog?

With. Great. DIFFICULTY. Well OK, so ideally you want to find the items that make the most impact with the least work, but that is not always the case. Most times you will have a ton of other factors, like company goals, OKRs, management requests, other teams being blocked, etc. Generally, I tend to work on longer-term OKRs, with each sprint creating one small feature, and then kind of squeeze in small improvements and experiments. But honestly, it’s an art more than a science. In fact, I’d say it’s pure voodoo.

Here are 3 Prioritization Techniques All Product Managers Should Know

Can you tell me about the APM program at Google?

You’d be best served by looking at the official info on the Google site – they have it all.

What sets Google’s approach to Product Management apart from other experiences in your career?

I’d say Google’s culture is generally much more bottoms up compared to most other companies, which are top down. This means at Google, you’re almost acting like an entrepreneur – figuring out your projects and teams, and pitching to executives. And that is very exciting!

What is your top career goal?

Honestly, just being able to grow and drive value at some kind of significant scale – that does it for me. (Unless of course Elon Musk gets Starship right, in which case I’d love to be the first PM on Mars :rocket: )

Did you have a chance to perform A/B testing which has resulted to remove something from your product before?

 Yes most companies will kind of go forth and just build stuff – I personally haven’t pulled a product because of bad A/B testing data. Now, there have been times where I have stopped rollout, and gone back and iterated on a product before moving further, and that is something I think all companies should do at least.  A/B tests reveal things you cannot predict – in this case it would’ve cost the company millions, and it was smart to test.

Check out: Product Management Skills: A/B Testing

I want to transition into the PM, how would you recommend someone who is averagely aware of PM practices to start this process?

I’d say read up a lot on PM in general, especially books – that will help you really get into the role and transition. Then you can approach it either internally as a transition, or start looking for entry level jobs outside.

How did you switch from engineering to product management?

Well, I have been through many industries, and I basically started at PM at the bottom as an APM. And doing that at a startup meant I was able to get a foot in the door and grow very quickly. It’s a route I do recommend – get in at the ground floor, find a smaller company with large potential, and then work your tail end off…

How do you set OKRs / KPIs for startups? 

At a startup, usually there is a lot of top down, as the company is moving fast and trying to be aligned. I’d say work with your management to find OKRs that help them hit their targets, keeping in mind what the overall end goal is (usually at startups it’s between growth an profitability, so your OKRs will change).

You might be interested in: The Difference: OKRs vs KPIs

Do you think one can become a product manager right after college? Or should one start with some other position and transition into product management?

There is no perfect path. I know some rockstar PMs who started in this straight out of college, and other rockstars who did crazy things like banking and consulting. It all depends – my main advice is to build a broad skillset as you start off, regardless of whether it is in Product or outside of it.

What advice would you give to somebody early in their career with experience in AI/ML + Project Management who wants to work as a Product Manager? What kind of titles/roles to look at? Or maybe what skills to work on? Or what kind of side project? 

So again, nothing teaches you how to do Product, apart from doing product. If there are no opportunities in your company, you might need to look outside. But make sure to try and find companies in the AI / ML space – it will help get your foot in the door, and it’s in pretty high demand right now.

Working on a B2C product, you have a large user base, with diverse needs & wants, some cater to your loyal users, while some wants belong to a larger user base or are easy to scale. How do you search your way through those needs, and sort them to get prioritized goals?

The million-dollar question! It all depends on your OKRs. If you are going for growth, you cater to a large user base. If you want to build more traction, then you go deeper with specific users. It depends on your company’s strategy.

 Could you (briefly) share your story of how you applied, got interviewed, and eventually hired by Google?

basically applied, got referred, had a phone interview, and then onsite, and it just, happened! I totally wasn’t expecting it at ALL. I guess I was just trying to do a good job and prep, and I read books like Cracking the PM interview that helped.

How do you organize your day to be efficient?

So I like to block my calendar for focus times. I usually keep this in the morning, when my mind is clear. That’s when I work on deep thinking / documentation stuff. The afternoon brings meetings and emails. and then the evening is finishing off emails + slack, and then setting my todo list for the next day.

As a member of Google’s Knowledge Engine, what tools do you use in your day to day work?

Surprisingly, email and spreadsheets! These are universal and inescapable as a PM. Everything else can change.

What developing market trend or need in your view, may lead to a new feature or product, that has the potential for global adoption?

 I think AI is accelerating more rapidly than people realize. In my own field of NLP, look at Open AI’s GPT-3 model. It does some mind-blowing stuff! And of course, AR I think is the next major computing platform – we just need some company to invent the right hardware for it.

How should product management change/should it change if we are working on an internal user-only product vs consumer products?

I’d say with consumer products, you’re trying to find the lowest common denominator – i.e. what is the feature set that will work for most users. With internal clients, you’re looking to find the most perfect fit – ie. what features will solve my specific users’ need to the highest level (since you likely have a very small number of internal clients). The problem with the first is a generalization, the problem with the second is customization.

Do you do user interviews yourself? If so, how often? What is the best strategy to recruit users for this?

Well I’ve had amazing teams of UXers for this, but honestly, sometimes just talking to your user or cold calling works well. For me, my best user interviews at Careem was when I’d actually take a taxi and talk to the driver.

Can you provide any advice to a Product Marketing Manager? (someone transitioning from digital marketing to the product side of things)

I’d say get closer to the engineers and the technology. That’s a key skill that you need to learn coming from PMM to PM.

What is the part of your job that you like most? And what is the one that you have more difficult on getting done?

Likes: Finding new opportunities, seeing happy users, getting things shipped, and watching metrics move (so exciting!). Dislikes: Coordination, miscommunication, and general chaos.

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