Sudha Mahajan, Senior Director of Product at Microsoft, has worked for some big tech companies like Yahoo and eBay, and has endless product wisdom to impart. This week, she tells us what it’s like being a woman in tech, and how to get so many diverse and talented people aligned on one common goal.
Question [00:49] When you were growing up, did you have any connections to the tech or the product world that inspired you?
Sudha [00:59] My parents have been working, but neither of them in a tech profession and neither were any of my relatives. However, in the school that I went to as an eighth grader, I saw the computer for the first time and by 10 we were learning the basics.
I think it was a new invention for all of us, and exciting to learn that the Western world is super excited about this technology and everyone wants to learn it. But truly my association with the tech world was in 1995 when I heard Y2K is coming and there was a huge rush to acquire the talent in that field.
So like many people in India, I got super excited, wanted to know the technology and contribute and have that bigger impact towards that. All the systems are going to change. I want it to be a part of the change. That excited me and got me acclimatized to the tech world, and I joined my BS in computer science and that’s how my association with it tech started. It wasn’t because of any influence of friends, or parents, or relatives. Truly through learning what’s happening in the world, and how can you be a part of that.
Question [02:21] So you’ve worked for some big household names like Yahoo, eBay, Microsoft. And my question is, is there anything about working for these companies which might surprise people?
Sudha: [02:41] If you look at two of these companies, particularly eBay, Yahoo, they both were started by immigrants. If you look at Microsoft, it was started by Bill Gates, but the CEO of this company is also an immigrant. All three of these companies are standing on diverse backgrounds, and they truly stand for diversity and inclusion, as one of their cultural values. And an important aspect is all three of the founders of these companies, these were their first companies. So it teaches you one thing. Do not let the world know that experience is a must have when you want to do something new.
So just dive into it if you have a passion for it. And if your gut tells you this is the right thing to do, the only thing I will say is to include many diverse perspectives. You want to scale up, but when you’re taking a chance to start it, take the chance on yourself, and what you believe in.
Question: [03:48] You’ve spent time in both Silicon Valley and Seattle, which are two quite big hubs for the tech and the product community. What do you think are the big differences in the product communities in these two places?
Sudha [04:04] I think there is a slight difference, definitely in the San Francisco Bay area, or Silicon Valley. Product management is far more established. It’s the home of Google, Facebook, Uber, Tesla, Cisco, Intel, you name any big company, you know, they have headquarters there.
So likewise, the product community is also extremely strong. There’s a huge startup ecosystem, and every day you’ll hear something new about product innovation. You’re learning something every day. New various different forums, product boot camps…Women in Product. So they are very supportive and collaborative. On the Seattle side, these things are coming up. I would say they’re still nascent. It’s not that established like in Silicon Valley, but it’s growing super fast. So that’s one difference you will find when you come from the Valley to settle in Seattle.
Question [07:07] What do you think about having side projects or hobbies? Can they help a product career?
Sudha [07:24] I like to volunteer for many nonprofit events, whether it’s related to culture, or elderly homes or something like that, or kids volunteering activity.
Have they helped me directly in product management? This is my answer to that. They have helped me to build a life skills and life skills are utterly important to think of a product. When you build a product, you’re not building it for yourself. You’re building to meet the need of a community… to meet the needs of mankind. If you understand that through your life skills, it gives you ample experience that can be leveraged at any job, VP, product management or anything else. So I would say having a hobby will first add that compassion in you, which is required as a product manager. Also, it will help you to build that community, that network and your life skills, which will come handy all throughout your career.
Question [12:05] You led the biggest platform migration in the history of the company at Yahoo. What was that experience like?
Sudha [12:15] You know, it was an amazing, and an unparalleled experience. If you know what Murphy’s law is, you know anything that can go wrong will go wrong…well anything that could go wrong actually went wrong! So when we started the migration, We didn’t, I would say that the scale and the magnitude of this was humongous and there was a direct impact to the customer. This is like moving a live campaign.
I remember one of my colleagues used to say, this is like moving the aeroplane while you’re in the air. So you’re shifting from one aeroplane to another while you’re flying. It’s quite dangerous. Many of the campaigns when we were migrating from one system to another did not perform well, and we had many upset customers who had stability with the old platform and they have been running their advertising campaigns with Yahoo, were completely upset some because of the failures that they saw in flight.
Some were upset because the results are not as they were expecting. It’s a tremendous learning experience, building a platform with the best algorithms is one thing. We take a lot of pride in that. But when the customer’s data moves onto those platforms and you actually see the performance in the real life, that’s the real test. I would say that we failed that test multiple times and we learned so much from it. That is an experience which I would say is unparalleled.
Question: [14:03] What was it like communicating with such a diverse set of stakeholders? Was it difficult to align them to one common goal?
Sudha [14:11] We all were super motivated. Aligning to a common goal wasn’t a challenge, but given the fact that everybody in the field was extremely talented and a master of their subject aligning to one way or to do the things and call it the right way was difficult. Even agreeing to one algorithm was difficult. So we ran into those issues where we the end state was not unclear to everyone. The end state was known to all of us. But which way to go. and the right way that can get us there, at times was a bit unclear.
But I think since we worked so collaboratively and there was so much of trust established between this team via communication, constant conversation, looking at each other’s perspective, we all aligned very well. I don’t look at it as anything which left a mark saying, Oh, I wish I would have done it differently. We would rather say let’s get into the room again and redo it and learn from each other and then march together.
Question [17:16] At Microsoft, how much are you involved in the hiring process and what things would you look for in prospective colleagues?
Sudha [17:25] I would say that each of us is fairly involved because of the growth of the company. Cloud computing is growing and they’re hiring like crazy. We are always looking for talent.
Of what qualities do I look for in my colleagues. One, can I trust this person? And second, can I respect this person? I learned this skill from one very senior HR manager, and I realized they are important if you do not have a domain expertise. I know if you have the eagerness and desire to come on the job and learn, you will learn that skill…that is not a problem. But if you lack those qualities where you haven’t been able to establish trust or you haven’t been able to earn the respect of your interviewer or your previous colleagues, then that’s a challenge.
I would like to avoid having those people on the team as opposed to people who have lesser expertise in your job but are willing to learn those skills. One of the important things I look for is the skills to do the job as opposed to the experience they have. If they have the right skills, they have the right knowledge to do the job, then that’s also extremely important to me as opposed to ‘have they done this before?’
Question [19:04] What are your tactics for uniting everyone behind the same vision, and what do you do when someone really important isn’t quite on board? Maybe not so much with the overall vision, but with one specific decision.
Sudha [19:25] TiVo was my first company in the US after my college degree. It was then called Macrovision. And as a first time product manager in that company, I did make mistakes. Your question, how do you align stakeholders, especially when someone is not onboard, I realized that you cannot just talk and just present your point without the data. That’s the first time I learned to let the data speak for itself as opposed to your words or your mouth. Data doesn’t lie.
There will be situations, (not just for the first time in your career, but many, many times in future), that there will be people who are not onboard because they have a different perspective. They’re also experienced people, they’ve learned from the experience. So how do you onboard them? If you have the right data, facts, figures, and a reason that you can justify and bring out the insights which are required to have them move along, you will not fail. People are not against you. People are only challenging you because there’s a different perspective and you can counter that perspective to the right information.
So that was one of my learnings. To answer your question. Yes, they will be people in the beginning who will not be onboard. But once you present the facts and figures, they all did come along and that was a great learning experience, which is still to this date following my product management perspective. Bring the data when you go into a conversation.
Thank you, Sudha, for talking with us today!
We’ll be back next week with Alexander Hipp from N26 with even more of the latest insights from the Product Management world.