Finding the Why as a Product Manager

Kaarel Kuddu, Head of Product at TransferWise, discusses the evolution of Product Management education, and how PMs can gain the technical experience to rise through the ranks of Product. We also talk about finding PM roles outside of Silicon Valley, and what the talent pool is like in Europe.

Kaarel Kuddu Head of Product Transferwise

Question [00:47] Did you have any connections to the tech world or the product world that inspired you to start this career path? Maybe a family member, or a professor at university, something like that?

Kaarel [01:03] So that kind of goes all the way back to before uni. Even before high school. I think I was around 10 or 11 or something like that when I started to really take an interest in computers in general. And I don’t remember if there was anybody specifically who inspired me to do it, but I think I was just quite interested in how they work, and so usually everybody called when their computer was broken or their printer didn’t work or their internet was down.

And so it just kind of went from there. And then when it was time to join a university, that just seemed to make it the most sense because that’s something I had already spent quite a bit of time on and understood quite well.

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Transferwise offices

Question [04:57] Could you elaborate on what The Why is for TransferWise and how you as a product manager contribute towards it?

Kaarel [05:08] I think that the main Why for TransferWise is to help people, in their daily lives, and making international money sending a lot less hassle than it has been. And also show that they can be done in a very transparent way with low fees. And then also educating the rest of the world that actually when most companies tell you it’s a free transfer, it’s not. There’s usually a 5% fee in there somewhere. We just have to look for it and know where to look though.

So I think the mission for us is very clear and I think that’s also why I like TransferWise. Bringing transparency into a place where there has been little before and which has enabled all sorts of dodgy practices. And then also make the hassle of earning money in one place, spending it in another, paying bills in one place and then getting paid in our whole entire currency…making that international life a lot easier for people.

I have heard some very, very, very nasty horror stories in those areas before, where TransferWise has, has literally helped those people. So I think that’s also something that I appreciate then as a product manager in TransferWise.

On how we do stuff is we have this autonomous team culture. I’m not sure how much you read about that, but it’s in our blogs and on our career site. And how it works is that all the teams, meaning all the product managers and tech leads mostly, and the engineers are responsible for coming up for their own team’s plans. There’s no top down like strategy and nobody telling the teams what to do.

So I think the the biggest value that the product manager can have in that sense is that they can really dig in deep and understand the customer problem in the area that they’re working on. Whether it’s our debit cards or our setup in Singapore, or our own balances accounts or whatever it is. Then define the problems and together with the engineers, and figure out ‘what is the actual best way to go about solving this problem?’ So that’s mostly where the product managers contribute.

Transferwise team

Question [18:10] What are the product communities like outside of Silicon Valley?

I’m in Tallinn, Estonia. And I have interviewed product managersfrom every continent I think, over the past five years, and a lot of the bigger countries. This is what I have seen is that there are actually very cool product managers globally. I’ve been very happy to see that. I think as well in product management in TransferWise we probably have at least 20, 25 different nationalities. What I’ve seen is that in Eastern Europe, it’s more difficult to find like people with a very solid product manager background.But we have a lot of very good business analysts, systems analysts, data analysts, and people with like a very good technical background, who have quite a bit of creative thinking as well.

So I think that’s why we have a strong understanding of how systems are built, and then we have been able to kind of onboard these people into product management quite nicely.

We now have a lot of very experience product managers as well, here in Eastern Europe, mostly in our offices in Hungary…these people are mostly from Estonia, Ukraine, Russia, and some of them are from Hungary as well. And then in London, there is of course more productive talent available because there’s just more tech companies there. So London is I think, where quote a lot of our product managers are situated. So that’s been a good market for us. We can hire product managers there quite quickly.

Transferwise be without borders

Question [22:47] What’s it like working in FinTech at the moment. It must be a pretty exciting time to be in that industry, right?

Kaarel [23:05] Yeah, I suppose it is. I mean at least from the PR side, people talk about it quite a lot. And I also think the timing was like quite right, because it was just after the 2007/2008 crisis where a lot of people were starting to really doubt their banks. People were kind of ready to explore some alternatives. I think that definitely helped a lot of the FinTechs start to establish themselves…because there were opportunities to literally start providing a 10 times or this magical 10 X better experience or 10 next better products.

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So two of those things definitely helped FinTech to get into this state as is it today. I think currently it feels like there’s five new neobanks have been launched in different parts of the world ever week. So it’s definitely happening. I mean, there are some areas which are not that well explored, like I think insurance should also be something that will get more attention over the next couple of years.

Transferwise offices

Question [25:27] How do you go about prioritizing your tasks?

Kaarel [25:40] That’s a good one. So one thing is that at the core of our company the focus is really on understanding the customer problems in your part of the product or domain. We try to do prioritization, as much as possible, based on what the customers are telling us or complaining about or what we understand from customers.

For example, I can tell you about how I prioritized back in the day when we started. We had this interesting task of prioritizing our international expansion, and which countries to expand to first and so on because obviously we couldn’t do everything simultaneously and first we thought, ‘Okay, let’s just take some macro economical stats and look at the big East economies and blah, blah, blah, and try to understand and do some analysis.

And then we launched a few countries based on that and then it was like, ‘Okay, actually, you know what, there’s nothing happening, why is nothing happening?’ And then we started to build in this feature into our product, which was trying to understand the customer wishes. So we built this feature where customers were able to wish for a country or currency they want to send money to and from.

And very quickly, we started to have tens of thousands of those wishes from customers who didn’t see their preferred currency on our platform. And then that enabled us to actually use the customer insights to reprioritize all of our international expansion. After that, for example, we really started to see that our launches caught some traction fast, and started to grow very quickly. And I think we try to use examples like this and in most of our, in most of our prioritizations, whether it’s prioritizing by some issues we see in NPS or major regions where we see customers being unhappy here and there. It’s always trying to put customer insight first.

Thank you, Kaarel, for talking with us today!

That’s it from this season of The Product Podcast. Keep an eye out for more insights, anecdotes and expert advice when we come back with Season 3!

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