Getting a Promotion in Product with Amazon Senior PM

This week, Product School hosted Suchit Ligade, Sr Product Manager at Amazon, for a special #AskMeAnything session. In this high-energy session, Suchit gave advice on everything from how to get a promotion in a Product role, the skills you need to work in machine learning, and how to find a mentor.

Meet Suchit

Suchit Ligade, Sr Product Manager at Amazon

Suchit is working on Alexa Acoustic Event Detection at Amazon. He is the Product Owner of the sound detection algorithms that use Machine Learning to identify acoustic events. Before this, he was working on the AWS Silk TV browser as a Senior PM. During his over five years at Amazon, he has also worked on Kindle products and their integration within the Alexa system. Prior to joining Amazon, he was VP of Events and a Fellow at InSITE. He also spent some time as an Embedded Software Development Intern at IBM.

How should I build my resume to stand out as a good candidate for a Senior PM position?

over the shoulder shot of two people looking down at a resume

As a Senior PM, the expectation is that you are capable of handing and launching a much bigger product, which may include collaboration with multiple teams, and more stakeholders. Essentially the more experience and the bigger the product, the easier would it be to transition into a senior role.

 How do you get ready to be a senior individual contributor (IC) vs management?

Yes, not easy for sure! For a senior or principal IC, you need to show that you are capable of handing a larger product with a much bigger impact than before. And you need to show that you can do this consistently. I think the best way would be to connect with current principal ICs in this field and get mentorship from them.

What are the success metrics for Product Managers that will most likely lead to a promotion?

Great question! That really depends on company to company, and also team to team. It depends on what are your team’s success criteria. For a lot of technical products, the success criteria is general the user growth. A steady growth in the userbase shows the leadership that this person knows the product and the users well. For other, mostly non-tech products, the success metrics are direct revenue. Sometimes the success can also be measured by user sentiment or through star ratings. So it really depends on your team’s success criteria.

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What data science/ML courses would you recommend to become an AI PM?

glasses resting on a laptop keyboard, with code out of focus on the screen in the background

The courses that helped me personally were – Regression analysis, big data related courses, and just a general idea of statistical modeling. However, as a PM, your job is not necessarily to use these statistical tools but to figure out the best way to train your models. This requires sourcing the most accurate, structured, and un-biased data.

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What are the main skills/knowledge a Product Manager should have?

I think understanding customers and extracting their pain-points is one of the big skills any PM should have. Some other major ones are:

  • Ability to communicate thoughts and ideas very clearly
  • Ability to think big and build a proper roadmap
  • Ability to negotiate well
  • Being good at stakeholder management, and
  • Being good at collaborating with others.

Thanks for engaging with this PM community. How have you found the right mentor(s) at the right time in your career?

Its really difficult to find a mentor. In my case, I’ve tried to stay connected with three mentors – two related to career, and one for life in general. However, the best mentors for me have been my previous managers or leaders in the team that I’ve looked up to. Try to find someone that you think are on the right path. Then set up a meeting with them and see if they actually understand you. And if so, keep them close and reach out to them periodically to ask them for help/suggestions.

What would you do if you had a potentially great product idea but no data to support it?

person standing with a notebook and pen in hand, in a library, looking pensively to the side

An idea without any data is just an opinion. Its hard to convince management or stakeholders to invest in that idea without anything to back up. In such a case, I’d recommend to get more data and validate that idea. The validation can be done by building an MVP for that idea and testing out with potential customers. You can even host customer interviews or focus groups to get customers’ thoughts on the ideas, as well as surveys to get some empirical data.

However, more than anything, I would say instead of focusing on the idea, try to figure out the pain-point behind that idea and validate that. Once the customer problem is validated, then validate the idea/solution, and then take both those data sets to stakeholders to ask them to invest.

How did you discover that Product Management suits you?

That’s a good question! For me it was a combination of two things. At the time of my transition from engineering background to business, I felt saturated in my career and I knew it was time to move into a new direction. Further, looking into my past projects, I noticed that I was much more involved (or at least interested) in solving the bigger picture from the business perspective. I liked having that overall visibility on the product, and liked interacting with multiple teams to get the product launched successfully. Also, my decision was reinforced further once I noticed that I liked interacting with customers to try to figure out their pain-points.

As a Product Manager working with ML products, how much of your time is spent working on the tech (with engineers/data scientists) vs stakeholder alignment and user research?

I’d say its a pretty even split. Ultimately the job is to translate the value prop and business use cases to stakeholders and get them to sign off on the final project launch. However, to fully translate this, I have to spend time at the grass roots level with developers to understand the technology and the direction we are going forward with. Any decision we take has pros and cons. These pros/cons need to be translated to the stakeholders/users and explained properly.

How can one improve Automated Speech Recognition (ASR) for voice features?

an amazon alexa device on a white desk, with a person out of focus in the background reading

ASR is tracked through a lot of metrics such as false recognitions percentage or intent correctness percentage. It really depends on what is the weakness of that particular ASR model and then trying to improve that weakness through structured, re-enforced data training.

What is the innovation process at Amazon?

Typically we go back to any customer data with the intent of understanding any gaps in what customers are experiencing. We try to do a good job of extracting customer pain-points (along with proof of validation), and the solutions arise themselves. Those customer gaps lead to ideas for new feature development. The priority of these new features is also a combination of how many customers want this feature, and where does this fall with the teams current strategy. So for me, it almost always goes back to using customer data or insights to get new ideas.

As a ML/AI PM, since there is no tangible product, how do you prune the backlog and prioritize the roadmap?

Well, the ML/AI feature that a PM works on is ultimately a customer facing product, right? We treat it as the same as other products, and we estimate the impact that this feature/product would have on our customers. Based on the level and the breadth of impact, we score these products and prioritize them accordingly.  At the end of the day, the AI/ML products are just implementation methodology for a real world customer problem.

Any tips on how to volunteer at starts ups or smaller companies?

Really depends on what your style is. For me, I’ve searched for local startups in the area within my realm of interest, and I’ve reached out to them directly (either through email or Linkedin) to let them know that I’m interested in working on a small project for them specifically related to either marketing or finance or some other field. I’ve asked them for a 30-mins coffee chat where I would meet with them and go over how I can help their startup for free.

What advice for someone that is starting as PM with no previous experience?

It’s always difficult to ask a company to take a chance you without any previous PM experience. Its a classic chicken-and-egg problem. The best path that has worked for me was to create PM experience myself by either building a side product (as a hobby/side hustle), or by volunteering at startups and smaller companies to work on specific PM projects on the side.

Did you build tech software like an app or website as your hobby/side hustle?

I personally worked on an app as a side hobby. However, you don’t need to work on a technology-specific product. You can think of building a non-tech product as well. Depending on what industry you are in, you can define your own customers, figure out their pain-point, and create a solution.

I admire the way your career spans products with different user segments! Could you tell us what were your drivers behind making these internal transitions?

Throughout the different transitions, I’ve kept the same role of PM, but with a different set of customers and stakeholders. The idea here for me was to get better at understanding different style of customers as well as get better at communicating with different level of stakeholders.

In addition to the soft skills you have already highlighted, do you believe that seeking greater knowledge in data, cloud and artificial intelligence is a differentiator for Product Managers?

person outside in dim lighting with a book held open. from inside the book come strings of light that reflect in the reader's glasses

More knowledge is always better. I think it’s good to know the capabilities and functionality of newer AI tools or products out there. I don’t think you need to go into details of how to use them, but it’s good to be familiar with them and know their pros and cons.

I don’t have cross functional experience (I have always worked with a startup of less than 10 staff) and I desperately desire to switch jobs to a more structured setting. Any advice?

As part of your interview process with a new company, you will be evaluated on numerous skills such as customer obsession, stakeholder communication, ability to negotiate, roadmap development, etc. Cross-functional experience is just one part of that matrix. As long as you highlight the other skills, you should be a very solid candidate. Not every candidate has all the skills, but as long as you are stronger in other attributes, this shouldn’t keep you back.

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I don’t have any direct PM experience, but I do have a lot of transferable skills, experience and knowledge I’ve gained in the past 10+ years as a founder/CEO of small business. What’s my best path forward?

In your case, it seems like you do have skills that you can use as you transition into a PM role; however, those skills are not highlighted well enough on your resume. In such a case, I think there are a few ways and tricks to highlight your skills, both in the resume but also outside. Additionally, I do think that having some sort of PM experience on your resume would definitely help.

Any tips for a recent graduate transitioning from a Project Management role into an APM position?

The main difference between a Project Management and a Product role would be the emphasis on understanding your customers. If you can show that you are capable of truly knowing your customers and their pain-points, that would be a great start.

Any final advice?

Thank you all for having me here and for some great questions! I’d say that Product Management is a relatively new and exciting field, and so there is no one single structured approach to PM. There are multiple ways to get there and your path for it really depends on your own experiences. To understand your best path, surround yourself with a team of your well wishers and mentors and get advice on which direction to go next.

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