Product Management is vast, fluid, and ever-changing. There’s no one way to do it, and no one way to get into it. It’s a diverse community but if you’re looking for a Product Manager just like you, there might not be one, and that can be a little lonely.
When Vivek Bedi set out to write his book, You: The Product, he wanted to write something that focused on the things that unite us as product people. Through sharing his wins, failures, lessons, and embarrassing stories, Vivek aims to give readers the real and raw truth of life in product.
In this month’s book review, we got to chat with Vivek to talk about that raw and real truth. We got into the pros and cons of startups and Fortune 500 companies, his entrepreneurial pursuits, and the human skills we can all use in Product Management and beyond.
Building the Third Culture
Vivek Bedi has spent 18 years in Product, starting off at bigger companies like Goldman Sachs before eventually going on to build his own startups. His lengthy career has seen him dabble in both sides of product.
“I was leading all of digital products for Northwestern Mutual, and they’re based out of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. And I’m based in New York and New Jersey. So (before the pandemic) I was getting on a plane every Monday morning, traveling to Milwaukee spending about four days there and coming back every Thursday. So it was an interesting dynamic because I was leading product for Learn Vest, which was a young startup based out of New York, which was acquired by Northwestern Mutual. Oh my God, two different ways of thinking of product, right?
Half of the culture was startup, jeans, beer on tap. The other half was a big formal company. What I cam to realize is that startup culture is cool, but it has its pros and cons. The big company culture has its pros and cons, so I always try to take the best of both.
I realized the right answer is this third culture that you create its innovation, but it also kind of worries about reputational risk. And how do you bleed that all together?”
By walking this tightrope between the two different worlds, Vivek started adopting this ‘third culture’ thinking into his approach to Product Management. Product people should want to move fast and be innovative, without ending up being featured on CNN caught in scandal!
And that brings us to the book. You: The Product is about a lot of things, but it’s primarily about treating yourself as a product, because you’re always going to be a work in progress. You can move fast and be innovative as a PM, but you also need to be aware that each step you take adds to your reputation and personal brand.
“Product is a small community in the end of the day. So when you’re doing something, make sure you’re doing it right.”
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Finding the Path to Product
One of the joys about the product world, is that there is no one definition of Product Management, and no established way to do it.
“It’s such an interesting field because it still hasn’t really come to its fruition. It’s funny because there’s so many people that want to get into product. So many people are doing forms of product and they don’t even know it. They might be called something else. Right. And, besides Product School, there aren’t even really any formal product management education institutions yet.
In product, I don’t really know if your playbook is the same as mine…Everyone has different forms of products and it’s not kind of an established well-defined craft yet. And I think that actually brings people together, being inquisitive and thinking through like, how do you do it? It sparks this community feel that doesn’t exist in other disciplines.
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There’s a lot more open ended questions that come in the community. And I think that just brings out emotion. I talk about this in my book too, but I’m such a big believer on emotion and EKU. And I think Product Managers more than anybody need to be great at their EEQ side. Because you’re dealing with emotions, your own emotions. Like, I don’t even know what Product Management is! If you ask a hundred people, a hundred people give you different answers. So I think a little bit of that brings people together, ironically.”
The Birth of a Book
It wasn’t a single light bulb moment that led Vivek to write his book, but rather a series of light bulb moments.
“Through the adventures of my career, and I think I learned this when I became more of like a Senior Product Manager, I came to realize that all the things I learned about Product Management just don’t apply anymore.
Like I learned about writing a roadmap and prioritization and backlog and sprints. Those are really good but as I started becoming more senior…I came to realize that all the rules that I knew about product actually break.
And the things that I really need to be successful, I was never taught these skills. So I think there was multiple light bulbs, to be honest with you. There were some startup light bulbs, there were some big company light bulbs. When I had my own startup, there were light bulbs
I came to realize, oh my God, I need to negotiate. My founder wants something and marketing want something, and I think it should be something completely different. How do I negotiate and make sure that I’m not pissing one person off, and I still have to build those relationships. Oh my God, I got to sell my story to like 8,000 financial advisors. How do I build my product into a story?
I’ve always been so used to working with the tech team, but storytelling so important. There were times that data lied to me. We are taught as Product Managers to be data-driven and [that’s] instilled in our mind. But what about when data lies to you and tells you that people are using it this way, but they’re actually not?
I realized I have to watch people and shadow them. So a lot of these skills that I talk about in the book…many light bulbs hit me, but it hit me that everything I learned wasn’t enough to actually make me go from a good Product Manager to an awesome Product Manager. I needed to learn these skills that everyone wants to learn and knows they need to learn, but there’s nowhere to go to learn them.”
The Soft Skills That Matter
Uniquely, Vivek’s 11-year old son Jayden provides the illustrations for the book, since he would best be able to understand his dad’s humour.
It’s not the first time someone in Product has pointed out how astute children can be, and the way in which they see the things that we can’t.
“I was going to do a talk at Google in San Francisco about a year ago. And I rushed through my Uber app on my phone to the Newark airport. And when I got there, I realized, Oh no, I forgot my wallet. How am I going to get through TSA without a wallet and an ID? I called my wife and she’s like, good luck with that. Come back home. And I’m like, honey, I’m gonna use my charm. And I went to use my charm on TSA and then like they plugged in some bunch of stuff in a mobile app. Eventually I got through 30 minutes later, I ran to the gate. I missed my United flight, and rebooked it with my mobile app while I was waiting.
I used Apple Pay to buy Starbucks, cause I can’t live without coffee. Got to San Francisco, checked into the Hyatt on mobile. I survived a three day trip with just my mobile apps and not my wallet. Incredible.
As I was telling my 11 year old son the story, he’s like “Dad, imagine you forgot your phone. You would have been screwed!”
And that is when it hit me, that my son is in this different generation, I don’t even know what generation he is. Cause he’s 11. They haven’t even named it yet probably, but they’re swiping before they’re typing. And I think that it was really important for him to read the book. I wanted him to be really close to this. And I wanted him to see that his dad was a part of product and he thought about it a certain way. And you might think about it a different way.”
This desire to provide important life lessons to his son also guided how he wrote the book. The skills You: The Product teaches readers are not just incredibly useful for Product Managers, but for any professional. Or indeed, any person.
Exercises and Time to Reflect
One of the more unique parts of the book, is that it reads more as a two way conversation (which isn’t easy when it comes to printed words!)
Vivek included a series of exercises, encouraging the reader to pause and reflect, which were actually inspired by the workbooks his daughter uses now that she’s learning from home.
The exercises, which ask you to do things like write down what Product Management means to you and how you would react to certain situations, add another dimension to the book.
“I wanted [it] to feel like this is a workshop, not a book.
I try to really bring real raw authenticity to the book. When you and I are in a meeting together, it’s really boring if I just talk for an hour. I think it’s more exciting when we bring out our whiteboard or have sticky notes and kind of go back and forth and have a little bit of that communication. It’s really hard to do that in a book, but most books I’ve read are a very one way communication.”
Vivek also brought the book to life with his, often self-deprecating sense of humour. Reading the book feels like a casual coffee talk with your new mentor, full of stories and jokes and anecdotes.
“Maybe I’m unorthodox, but you can tell by my style, I am a very different product leader. Like I’m the one in the board meetings that says everyone’s going to stand. We have standing board meetings when I present, because I just think standing is cool, because I’m into fitness. When we have board meetings, when I am presenting on my board or executive meetings, we say, we’re going to wear jeans today. And I like to add in the humor, I don’t like boring presentations. So I always found myself to be just very different than a lot of my peers that have been in product in 15 plus years.
So I like real raw and candid. And I like funny because that’s who I am.”
The Work-Life Blend in 2020
It wouldn’t be a conversation in 2020 without the topic of remote work coming up. When asked about how he’s managing the work life balance, Vivek offers a different persective.
I don’t even like the word work-life balance anymore. It’s work-life blend. You have to compartmentalize your day. You have to think of your day as chapters in a novel, right? Like right now from 11:30 to 12:30, I’m on a call with Ellen. But then 12:30 to 1:00, I’m having lunch with my wife and then I’m not getting on the computer. And then one to two, I’m taking my son to soccer. Right. So you have to really think through, and then you have to really help prioritize and shut on and off things.
The other tips that I’ve learned is like, who wants to sit in an office for eight hours? Even if it’s their home office, it’s actually worse because at a real office you could walk around. So I invested in great technology. A good camera, a good speaker because I do a lot of talks, but I also made everything mobily available. So if I need to take a call on the road, cause I’m dropping my or my daughter off somewhere I can.
So I think you have to be adaptable. I wouldn’t fight it and try to say, how do I kind of create work-life balance? I would just accept that it’s going to be work-life blend and try to, how to build a normality for yourself out of that.
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We asked Vivek, ‘what’s the main thing you want people to think or feel once they’ve finished reading your book?‘
“I want them to be like, wow, that was really insightful because all of the things that I never knew were important are so important.
And I want them to feel reinvigorated, to say, I am going to focus on the soft skills. Most product managers are very data driven. They’re very like methodical binary bits, zeros and ones. I want them to focus on their creative side, their people side, their negotiating style. I want them to practice storytelling. I want them to write their own story. I want them to really think through some of this and bring it to the workforce.
I think a lot of product managers that are probably reading this book are either new to product or they’re in product and hit that kind of ceiling. How do I break through to the next level or the next type of product? I think these are the things that helped me get there.
And I stumbled. And I think these are the things that I hope they’re feeling. I’m also hoping they’re feeling like that was a funny read. I also hope that they’re feeling like some life reflections.
As much as this is a product book, ironically, I have a lot of people that have reached out to me outside of product that have read it. I actually think a lot of these skills can apply to anybody. And more importantly, they can apply to your personal life. So I think hopefully this just makes them say to themselves, I want to level up my skills as a PM or a non PM, but also want to level up my skills as a friend or a person.”
Meet Vivek Bedi
As a former Vice President of Digital Product at Northwestern Mutual, Vivek Bedi drove digital transformation through the design, development, and delivery of world-class digital products and features that enhance the client and advisor experience.