AI and ML with Ria Sankar: Senior PM at Microsoft

This week our #AskMeAnything session welcomed Ria Sankar, Senior Product Manager at Microsoft, to give us some information about how top tech companies are using AI & ML, as well as, some tips and tricks for entry-level Product Managers.

Ria Sankar, Senior Product Manager at Microsoft

Ria Sankar is a Group Product Manager leading Product Management & Data Science for AI for Good initiatives within Microsoft. Her mission is to build respectful experiences that embody timeliness human values and interact in an intuitive and human-centered way to build user confidence.

Ria brings forth a diversity of perspective cultivated over a long, cross-discipline, career spanning program management, product strategy, digital marketing, customer research, analytics, and strategic partnerships.

She enjoys giving back to the community by helping NGOs improve lives with data science and AI, teaching yoga and mindfulness workshops, and coaching the next generation of product and analytics leaders at Product School.

You can also catch her giving talks at Product School events. You can find a full breakdown of her talk here.

Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning

How do you see your groups charter as serving the mission of Microsoft?

We have 3 pillars across AI for Good: Earth, Humanitarian Action, and Accessibility. More here. We are focussed on democratizing AI and Data by placing it in the hands of people and organizations solving the world’s greatest problems.

I imagine building products for “Good initiatives” is very different from building “for-profit” products. How do you Product Manage when the goal is not directly tied to revenue or stakeholders?

This is a great question that I spend a lot of time thinking about. The truth is we don’t have great ways to measure true societal good but we can measure in-product engagement of non-profits. Not just as a company, but as a planet, we need to think about this more. Here’s the New Zealand Prime Minister on this topic.

Each non-profit sector has its own set of KPIs – for example, a reduction in joblessness in a city can be a KPI. As with any product, I start with the customer and try to understand their unique needs and their KPIs – to determine the best solution. The job of any Product Manager is to obsess about customers and generate all-win outcomes.

We often see tech experts pushing for an AI engine or an ML algorithm to solve a problem. AI and ML are tools that require considerable time invested in identifying the problem and seeking a solution. If it so happens that AI/ML can solve the problem, then they should be explored. Your take on this?

Couldn’t agree more! As a leader of Product Managers for AI/ML products, I encourage my team to “start with why” – to understand the customer need, the business problem, the quality of underlying data, and only then determine the AI/ML solution that would be the best fit.

Sometimes, AI might not be necessary – and the problem can be solved with automation or other techniques.

Which companies (apart from Microsoft) are among the leaders for AI for Good?

Google, Facebook, and Amazon are all doing great things in AI for Good. I’m a huge fan of Google’s efforts in this space especially DeepMind.

How do we as PMs best advocate for and evangelize aspects of AI to our business partners and to our product teams who may have some appetite to this realm but don’t know exactly where/how to begin?

Here’s a link to a video that you might find useful from one of my previous Product School talks.

AI Product Lifecycle by Ria Sankar

How would you recommend for someone with PM skills, some coding proficiency, but an unrelated tech background, to prepare for the
AI/ML job search?

Try to understand the basics of AL/ML so you can showcase your passion for learning this new area. Here’s my favorite book.

I also recommend leaning into past projects and thinking deeply about

  1. Your ability to lead complex PM projects
  2. How those skills are transferable in this new space

Once you convince yourself, it should be easy to convince others!

Entry-Level Product Management

I’m a Software Engineer who wants to transition to Product Management. Any tips for tailoring my CV and how to make the transition?

Lean into your strengths and find a team that values your technical teams. If your own team has a PM opening, that would be superb! I see your Software Engineering experience as a HUGE asset – always hold on to that and SELL it.

Any reading recommendations for understanding the role, deciding what to work, etc.?

Try this book, Cracking the PM Interview. There are more than I can share later as well, but this is a good start.

Image result for cracking the pm interview

What advice do you have for a new Product Manager, starting the role in a couple of weeks, with prior experience in Product Analytics?

Find opportunities to showcase your data-driven approach to solving problems, and find a unique problem space for your team to focus on/invest in.

What are the questions you normally ask the candidates who want to join your team?

I have fallen several times in my career and personal life, but always try to learn from my mistakes and rise higher and stronger. I ask to find out more about someone’s experiences with failure and their approach to recovering.

That can be a great judge of resilience and character – important when you are looking for people to stand with or stand behind. I also check for domain knowledge, if they complement team skills, and if they are better than me at something – it can be anything.

I’m a Business Consultant working in a product based company and I’m looking to transition to a Product Manager role. Any tips on how I could tailor my resume and get recruiters to view it?

I would need to know more about your past experience. At a high-level, I’d suggest that instead of changing your resume, look for roles that highlight the skills you already have. There will always be roles where you can add value with your structured approach to solving problems. Find roles that are 50 – 75% fit and be transparent about where you can add value/where you need to learn – and showcase your commitment to the future team.

Remember, this is what everyone looks for:

  1. A person they can trust
  2. A person they can like

Most people will let you learn new things if you humble and transparent.

When are you teaching your next class at product school?

Speaking at #ProductCon Seattle – 6/25!!!!!! Woot.

Based on your personal experience, what master’s degree would you think is the most relevant for a job in Product Management?

Depends on the field or company:

  • Amazon – MBA
  • Microsoft & Google – Computer Science
  • Facebook – MBA, Computer Science
  • Apple – Courses in design

What is the best certification to help in my job search? CBAP, PMP, PMI-A or do I focus on the Udacity Front-End Course to show I understand how to build software web apps?

Among the certifications you have mentioned, I would say PMP is the most valuable. One piece of advice that was given to me was to “minimize the number of changing variables”. As you’re already moving to a different country, go easy on yourself and find a company/role that is very similar to your previous job unless you have a compelling reason to do so. There should be many companies in FinTech and eCommerce that value your past experience – a PMP or a course from a reputed university can also help push you to the top.

I noticed through your profile that you started in Software Engineering and supplemented that as you went. Is an MBA, masters, certifications, etc. required or does an Engineering background give any credence to the skills required to be a PM?

Depends on the company. At Microsoft and Google, an engineering background would be super valuable. While at Facebook, the focus is more on analytics and metrics (less technology unless you are in a platform team).

And at Amazon, you need to have strong business/consulting background. Look at the CEOs and SLT to determine what is valued in a company. There is a place for everyone in this world.

Any final advice for aspiring Product Managers?

I always say “Start with Why” based on this amazing TED talk from Simon Sinek.

Product Management Tips & Tricks

How do you measure the success of your Product and Product Managers? Microsoft is a great engineering company, so how do you and your team manage that discussion on building or designing a great product?

Yes, Microsoft and Google are engineering driven companies – but even then there are teams that are more PM led than others. Stakeholder management and building strong allies become key to PM success here. With Amazon, Facebook – metrics are important. Uber is more PM led if that’s important to you.

Can you comment on the pros and cons of staying at one company for 10+ years versus changing employers every couple of years?

Great question! if you have the energy and family support, I recommend changing companies every 5-7 years, especially early on in your career so you can build a diverse perspective.

My alternative to that was to get experience with as many functional disciplines as possible – so I can be a more empathic and inclusive leader to all. Happy to chat with you more offline on this topic! Love this question.

What is your favorite feature prioritization framework?

I like the Kano model and Lean UX. Here’s my full talk on this topic:

How would you define and identify what is a product and what is not in the case of building for an internal department?

Start by identifying your customers and stakeholders. Their needs become your product – it can be as simple as an Excel file with insights but can have a great impact!

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