Be Curious and Build Relationships with Instacart Product Lead

This week, Product School hosted Sonali Chhabria, Product Lead at Instacart, for a special #AskMeAnything session. In this session, Sonali gives tips on how to break into product. Her best advice? Be curious and build relationships.

Meet Sonali

Sonali Chhabria, Product Lead at Instacart

Sonali is super passionate about empowering people and driving change. Currently, she is a Product Lead for Marketplace at Instacart. Before this, she was a Product Manager at Uber, focused on Eats and Courier Pricing. Prior to that, Sonali was a Quantitative Researcher at Dimensional Fund Advisors, leading the competitor analysis to identify key trends in investment strategies, help identify gaps, and determine product positioning. In addition, she was a Technology Consultant at Deloitte and a Financial Analyst Intern at Deutsche Bank.

What is one piece of advice you’d give someone going into their first product role?

The most important advice for a new PM is to:

  1. Be curious
    • Internal: learn about the tech stack of your team, learn what’s working vs not, talk to your partner teams and understand how you can collaborate with them
    • External: Talk to your customers – understand their needs and pain points, spend time on public forums such as Reddit/Tiktok to get both positive & negative feedback about your product from customers
    • Understand the competitive landscape: What are competitors in the same space doing?
  2. Build relationships
    • As a PM you’re mostly going to rely on your cross-functional stakeholders to execute on projects. Build trust with them, take time to listen to their ideas. Your engineers and data scientists spend a lot of time thinking about how to improve the products too and sometimes have surprisingly great ideas. Highlight their work in public forums.

Curious about soft skills? Read: Why Human Skills Are Increasing in Value

group of people sitting around a table talking, with laptops open

What’s the biggest challenge you face as a PM when you move as a PM from one company to another and into a different product domain?

Great question. The most important thing when moving from one company to another is making sure you first take the time to understand the nuances of the new company before you dive in to change things. You need to understand how it’s different from the previous company you worked in, both in terms of culture and things that are working well for your colleagues. A lot of new folks make the mistake of thinking what worked well in their previous company/role, will work here well as well. Apart from this, your generic PM skills are usually very transferrable.

Check out next: 7 Types of Product Every Product Manager Will Encounter

What kind of challenges did you face when switching from quantitative researcher to Product Manager?

Sometimes as a quant researcher, you may tend to overly focus on insights from the data. However, the data might not give you the entire picture, so it’s better to be data-informed than data-driven.

What was something you didn’t expect when you moved into a PM role from another industry?

For a new PM, sometimes it’s hard to quantifying your contribution to the team. Unlike an engineer or a data scientist, you’re not directly working on executing the tasks. However, it’s very important for you as a PM to define the product and orchestrate actions across the org to enable its success. Success will be defined by business impact and user adoption of your product.

person looking down at an analytics report thoughtfully

Do you have any book recommendations for Product Strategy and Vision setting?

  1. 7 Habits of Highly Effective People’
  2. Super Thinking
  3. Understanding Michael Porter

Besides these, I would highly recommend following Shreyas Doshi, Lenny Rachitsky and Ken Norton on Twitter.

You might also be interested in: The 20 Most-Read Books by Top Product Managers

person framed by a stack of books and reading

What do you think Instacart does really well on its product team and product philosophy?

Three things I love about the Product team at Instacart:

  1. Customer focus
  2. Everyone is super collaborative
  3. Great work culture

Do you have any advice for someone trying to break into Product Management with a non traditional background?

  • If you very few years of work-experience, then I’d highly recommend applying to APM programs or entry-level PM programs.
  • For folks who have spent some time in the industry (2+ years), I’d suggest augmenting your resume by adding side projects, link to blogs etc. All these give recruiters some idea on how you think about products and allow them to take a chance on you.

You can find more details in my presentation on ‘Breaking into Product’. If anyone has more questions, please feel free to reach out to me on Twitter.

person drinking coffee and smiling, looking at laptop screen

Any final tips?

My final advice for aspiring Product Managers is to:

  1. Seize any & all opportunities. If you’re looking to move to PM from a different role and work in a tech company, then spend time to shadow your PM, come up with ideas, ask them if there’s something that you can help with. If not, do things externally – blog, share your ideas on Twitter, work on side projects
  2. Be curious. As a PM you’re always going to be thinking of new ideas and ways to improve your product. Try getting into the flow of taking random everyday products and thinking through how you’d improve them if you were the PM of the product
  3. Reach out to Product folks on LinkedIn and Twitter to learn more about Product management. Most people are happy to chat.
  4. Don’t give up. Treat this a learning process, everything you do here will also help you become a leader in any role that you’re in.

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