Focus on your strengths and get help from team members to fill out your gaps, shared Vijay Devarajan, Director of Product at Capital One, for my interview series Austin Voice Of Product. Our interview has been edited for clarity.
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Austin VOP #88
What was your path to product management?
It was quite circuitous. I started very much on the technical side with a degree in computer engineering from UT Austin focusing on software development. My first job out of school was a job here in Austin with Advanced Micro Devices. Working on software to simulate the semiconductor fabrication process was complex and stimulating. But I learned something about myself there — I derive satisfaction from my job when I am collaborating with others which was not typical of software development before Agile became common. So relatively shortly after starting the job, I realized it probably was not a great fit and I went to work for Accenture which was one step towards the business side of things. I was working with large companies that were implementing ERP systems in a pseudo product role — talking to clients, understanding their requirements and use cases, and determining the customizations that were needed. Following that, I decided to go to business school to get a wider perspective on how other functions outside of IT, like finance, marketing and others, play into the success of the business.
After getting my MBA from New York University’s Stern School, I joined McKinsey consulting and worked on a wide range of projects, including strategy, M&A due diligence, process reengineering, pricing, etc. And again, I realized that projects, where I was working hand-in-hand with my clients and my teams, were far more enjoyable and fulfilling than those where I worked by myself.
So when it came time to decide what to do next, product management stuck out as the obvious choice. I had the technical background, I had done consulting on strategy and business and I understood what drove my success and satisfaction in working cross-functionally and with teams.
What advice do you give to aspiring product leaders?
Product comes in many flavors, shapes and sizes, depending on the culture of the organization or the type of product.
This advice is not just for product managers but is my philosophy on career development and people management: identify what your strengths are and then lean heavily into them.
The analogy I think of is: if you were LeBron James’s middle school coach, you would not say, “Hey, LeBron, we need to round out your skills so let’s practice tennis.” No, he is a world-class basketball player and his focus should remain there.
As a product manager, you might find that you excel in certain areas, while you may have a weakness or a lack of interest in others. If you can tailor your role or change the composition of your team to mitigate these weaknesses, you (and the broader organization) will be better off. Let the folks who are great at that skill step into the void. For example, if you are not strong on deep data analysis, get a data analyst added to the team or work with a shared analytics team — this will be better than trying to hack at it yourself. And it will free you to maximize your time in the areas where you have distinctive skills. There are certainly a lucky few that are excellent at everything, but that seems rare.
So when you are looking for your next opportunity, see if the role plays to your strengths. Be honest with yourself and maybe don’t pursue the role if it is not a fit for your strengths and keep looking. As you interview, you can determine what type of person and what skills would make someone successful in that role. You can also learn from the type of company and the kind of product they build. Is it a more data-oriented role, a more technical role, or a more strategy-focused role? You have to think about what you are spending time on day-to-day and see if your strengths can help you succeed. I suggest folks be selective about what they do next.
To share my example — I am a structured thinker who is steeped in business strategy. I can almost always hone in on the business outcomes we are trying to achieve. I am not afraid of getting into a very technical conversation with an engineer. But design and consumer products are new to me. I have mostly worked on enterprise tools and only recently started working on consumer facing products. It has opened my eyes in terms of what is possible. And I have realized that it is not a natural talent for me. The designers and consumer-oriented PMs that have been working on it a long time know the possibilities of what design can do and what the flow should be. And I lean on these folks and am happy to have their help.
What have you read/watched/listened to that has inspired you lately?
I think of every business article like a case study question for a management consulting interview or case study class in school. If I stop reading the article after a point I try to think about what would be next and what the solution ought to be. I like to play this game because of the product work I do in e-commerce. We have consumers that spend money across all categories and I try to understand consumer behavior and merchant behavior. It has been fascinating to see the impact of the pandemic on various categories and play out the possibilities.
As far as books, given the stressful time I have looked for more escapist fare — mystery, history, adventure. I listen to the podcast Product Management Is. And another one I enjoy listening to is Reid Hoffman’s Masters of Scale.
What is exciting and challenging about the product you are working on now?
I work on CreditWise by Capital One. CreditWise is a tool that helps customers understand, monitor, and improve their credit score. It is free to use for customers, whether they are Capital One customers or not. It is a very exciting product because I get to spend my days thinking about how we can help our large and diverse user base accomplish their financial and life goals — from starting to build their credit history after high school or college, to buying a car or house. Banking and financial services are so important and yet can be shrouded in mystery for many people, so it is gratifying to be able to demystify these topics. We were one of the first products to this market, but it is getting more crowded with competitors, so the challenge is to continue to deliver value to our customers in a differentiated way.
How might we build a stronger product community in Austin?
I was in New York before coming to Austin a couple of years ago and what I noticed in the community in New York was that it was mostly created around a particular slice of the product world — B2C PMs or media site PMs or mobile app PMs. Like I shared earlier, product comes in so many different shapes, sizes, and flavors, but the core of the role is essentially the same. I would prefer that the community be more inclusive of all kinds of PMs and get people to understand that the skills are mostly the same with some slight differences. So having more wide ranging conversations about core PM topics like how do you partner well with engineers and designers or how do you prioritize effectively would be a good way to engage the broader product community.
The other hope I have is that the larger tech companies in Austin get more involved with the universities here and help groom the future talent pool. It is also good to get practitioners and academics together to collaborate on how to advance the practice. For example in New York, there were star professors who would advise corporations on specific areas of their expertise. I do not think there is academic consensus on product management yet, but I would be curious to see if something like that exists. We are a big university town. How could professors here bring their point of view to the conversation around product management?
Last question, what is your favorite product?
Ever since we have been in quarantine, I have been spending more time playing my acoustic guitar. I am a singer by trade and I have been using this time to get better at the guitar using the Fender Play app. You get to learn from some of their famous in-house guitar players. It is well structured with good use of visuals and video. All you need is your guitar, your phone and headphones. You can pick your path — like blues, rock or pop and they teach both skills and theory. I have been very impressed with the app and I have made great improvements in my playing.
And the other one is — and probably a common answer given the time we are in — the Peloton app. Their workout app digital subscription is available whether you have their bike or not. And the design and features of the app are very intuitive. I am typically not a big fan of class-based exercise, but it has been keeping my attention and my motivation up to work out.
Thank you, Vijay!
Austin VOP is an interview series with product leaders to build a stronger product and tech community in Austin. Please like, share and tweet this article if you enjoyed it.
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