Product Roadmaps & Customer Focus with Amazon Product Leader

This week, Product School hosted Ajay Swamy, Product Leader at Amazon, for a special #AskMeAnything session. Ajay talks about what keeps him passionate about Product Management, what’s different about working at Amazon, and how to build your product roadmap.

Meet Ajay

Ajay Swamy, Product Leader at Amazon

Ajay is a Product Leader at Amazon working on greenfield AWS solutions. Before that, he spent a year as VP of Product at Kafene. He specialized in just about everything related to their merchant and direct-to-consumer offerings. He also previously was a Senior Engagement Manager/Head of Product at McKinsey & Company. On top of that, he has also worked as a Management Consultant and Senior Product Advisor at PwC and founded his own company, Snacky.

What brought you into Product Management and what drives you every day?

My career started as an engineer and evolved into management consulting and landing into Product Management. Product Management gives you the opportunity to work across business, design and engineering and create value. You are the person that will carry the voice of the customer and deliver impact products that can affect PnL.
What drives me are the following things:

  1. Smart people I get to work with everyday
  2. The future impact a product can generate
  3. Satisfaction and happiness your product can provide to end users
two people sitting in office at desks that would place them back to back. they are both in swivel chairs and have turned to face each other. one points at the other

How do you create your roadmaps?

You can create a roadmap either with a top down or bottom up approach.

  1. Top down approach involves gathering feedback from leadership and see where that aligns to your product strategy
  2. Bottom up approach involves getting feedback from users, stakeholders etc. recognizing common themes and tying that to top-down strategy.

Usually, a combination of (1) and (2) will help you create a pretty well aligned roadmap.

Check out: Product Templates: Product Roadmaps

I am a current SAAS Product Manager looking at pursuing an MBA. What do you think I should specialize in?

It depends on where you think your gaps are. I’m biased towards Entrepreneurship because it’s the foundation for innovation. You will tackle topics like marketing and analytics in your MBA, but if you want to be data driven, look into deeper data analytics courses with data science components.

What has your experience at Amazon been? What makes it different from the rest?

Amazon is fundamentally a product building organization. Our primary differentiation is our customer obsessed culture. Its normal for me to be on the phone with customers 3/4 times a week to understand pain points, opportunities and even share ideas. Whatever we do, we work backwards from the customer which is something unique. Plus Amazon’s leadership principles help you think and tilt towards an innovative mindset.

I’m curious how you got your break in PM after being a consultant. Is it as viable as entering the field directly?

Consulting gives your soft skills, stakeholder management capabilities that is very critical in Product Management. Additionally with consulting you are faced with tight deadlines – similar to product releases. Lastly, structured thinking and ability to prioritize and execute applies across consulting and Product Management.

Where it differs is what you deliver and whom you engage with and influence. The product risk lies with you and you determine success of your product (along with your stakeholders). In Product Management you are actually building and delivering something 😉

person sitting at desk with feet on desk and hands over eyes

Being an internal facing or Enterprise PM, how do you gauge if your customer likes the feature you built?

You should always look to understand what pain point you’re solving for the customer. There is a powerful framework called Jobs to be done – this framework allows you prioritize and solve for your customers’ needs.
You can measure product success using both vanity and clarity metrics, and other scores such as NPS.

  • TIP #1: pay close attention to clarity metrics.
  • TIP #2: TALK to your customers and ASK them. They will tell you quickly what they like and don’t!

I am a content marketing manager with a startup. How can I break into a PM role without any kind of experience?

I would suggest you start to work with closely with your current product org – see if you can start helping with backlog management, or sitting in on customer calls. As you start to understand what it involves and you build a relationship, you can try and join as a product owner.

  • TIP: Try and help PMs by taking some of their work load off, so you can demonstrate your ability!

How can I break into Product Management without experience?

You can prepare to go into Product Management by taking courses and prepping via mock interviews. There are a ton of books like “Cracking the PM interview” you should get to get an idea of what questions are asked.
Within your current role see if you can work with PMs to get an idea of the role and start to engage more the PM Org. Showing initiative will take you far in terms of opening doors.

Read next: Transitioning into Product Management from ANY Background

How are product roadmap priority decisions made at Amazon?

Roadmap priorities are based on the prioritization framework you layout for your team. This can be a combination of customer benefits, strategic value, incremental revenue, tradeoffs with implementation cost, complexity and risk. We use the PRFAQ methodology to get buy-in for new ideas and even for major product updates. The process is alignment driven with you getting feedback and addressing questions from your peers all the way to your manager, directors and VPs.

person standing with map on a city street at dusk, looking out at a view and slightly smiling

How do I get exposed to the best PM practices and frameworks? Also, how can data science/analytics be leveraged as a special expertise to enter into this PM path?

There are great resources on the web including readily available frameworks from Product School etc. to get access to frameworks and other content.

Lastly, if you’re a data scientist – use that skillset to back up your assumptions on to prioritize features and where your next round of investment should go. Share examples on how you influenced a product roadmap by utilizing data.

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