Reflecting on my journey of becoming a product manager

About the author: Gaurav Sahu is the principal product manager for the e-learning product at Internshala. This month, we got in touch with him to learn about his younger self and his journey of becoming a principal product manager. Here’s his story and advice for aspiring product managers out there.

Navigating the confusing time at college

I did my schooling from a Hindi medium school in Durg, Chhattisgarh. Although I was an average student, the supportive network of friends and teachers always made it a great place to be. However, later on, when I transitioned from school to college, I felt a sense of disorientation as the teaching medium changed to English. Moreover, most students communicated in English which made the experience difficult. Luckily, I was again able to find a supportive group of friends who helped me learn. I also took some English classes with a teacher who constantly encouraged me and taught me the power of positive reinforcement, something that would become a part of my projects at Internshala Trainings later on. Although I was able to learn enough to get through college, the problem of communicating persisted and it wasn’t until I started my first job at Internshala that I overcame this hindrance. Meanwhile, I was developing analytical skills through my engineering degree which would help me in my product management role later on. However, I still remained a bit lost about which career I should pursue. 

In my third year, I had started reading about start-ups as start-up culture was booming in India at that point. I got interested in start-ups and business management. I appeared for the CAT exam but couldn’t get through. I couldn’t clear the on-campus placements for TCS and Infosys either. Hence, pursuing my interest in start-ups was the only option I was left with. I had signed up for Internshala’s newsletter to stay in the loop about different opportunities. It was in one of these newsletters that I saw internship openings at Internshala and applied. After two screening rounds, I was selected for the role of operations and customer support intern. 

Joining Internshala

While I was really excited to work at a start-up, my parents were a bit worried that I was moving to Delhi with merely Rs. 12,000 to get by per month. I convinced them by saying that it could turn it into a full-time role later. Once I was in the city, I was able to manage. At the same time, however, I again felt a different culture shock. For instance, many team members at Internshala came from reputed colleges and were good at communicating. But most people at Internshala were so welcoming and rooting for your success that it never felt like I had left my hometown. When my first mentor, Shadab, realised that I was struggling with a few things, he took it upon himself to help me get through it. This kind of work environment bolstered my confidence and communication skills.

Uncovering my interest in product management

As an operations and customer support intern, I worked on authenticating employers and internships. The task was too time-consuming and I constantly suggested ideas to Shadab about improving it and automating it. However, since it was a start-up, we had limited resources, and there was no one to solve this problem. Hence, Shadab asked me to take up the project. This freedom and ownership encouraged me and allowed me to think big.

I hardly knew anything about product management back then, so I started conceptualising this project on MS-Paint. Then, I learned the basics of Adobe Illustrator from our graphic designer and worked more on this project through that.

A product is essentially a solution for a problem that we are trying to solve for users. Being in the operations role, I had talked to customers regularly which helped me realise the importance of patience and empathy. These are important soft skills for a product manager; it helped me develop the project and paved the way for the product management role later on.

I presented my findings to Sarvesh who was the business head and Vikram who was the CTO, and they liked it. That is when I realised that I am inclined towards product management and started exploring it through articles and online courses. I would invest any free time that I had into it. At one point, I was so deep into it that I would feel guilty about wasting any time. When one of our team members hosted a party and we were invited, I didn’t want to go but my friend convinced me to take a break and come. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise! At the party, I talked to Radhika who was the product manager during that time and asked her how I could learn product management as I was interested in the field. She guided me and also told me about an opening in product management at Internshala, and I transitioned into the role after going through the hiring process for the same.

Growing as a product manager and becoming a mentor

Towards the end of my first year in the product management role, I had settled into the role and felt confident about my abilities as a product manager. However, while working on the first iteration of the bookmark feature, I got feedback from Vikram and ended up reworking on the project twice as I was missing some use cases. After my second attempt, Vikram shared that I would need to work more on my analytical thinking, which is the key skill for a product manager. The major mistakes were not understanding the user well and not being data-driven. We wanted to improve the user experience but the feature led to a drop in the application completion rate. This happened because we did not talk to the user and did not understand their user journey very well.

In his feedback, Vikram had advised me to think about the big picture and anticipate what would happen if I launch a certain feature. Initially, I did not take this well and disagreed with the feedback entirely. I still decided to talk to my friends and other team members at Internshala about it which helped me understand the criticism from different viewpoints. This taught me to be receptive towards feedback and not thinking that you know everything there is to know which has pushed me to keep learning.

After 1.5 years of working in the product management role on the recruitment-side, I was looking for a new challenge. At this time, there was an opening in the Internshala Trainings product team. Again, I got to know about this opportunity because of my relationship with Vinayak who was leading product management on the trainings-side. So I went through the process again and joined the team with Vinayak as my mentor. I learnt a lot from Vinayak as he was deeply involved in the product management role. During this time, I got to work on the new learning management system. This was a massive project. We created everything from scratch which involved a lot of collaboration and talking to our users.

A few months later, Vinayak left and I started working with Sarvesh. During this time, I was able to create a strong foundation in logical thinking and problem-solving. After this, we started building a learning product team, and I stepped into the role of principal product manager for our e-learning product.

Currently, I lead a team of 4 people. This has been one of the most enriching experiences for me. Ever since I was in college, I had felt this lack of mentorship in my life. This role has allowed me to offer that to ones who want to grow and just need some guidance to make it happen.

Advice for aspiring product managers

1. Understand the fundamentals of product management and the day-to-day work before you align your efforts to get into this role.

In recent years, a lot of people are getting into this role because it sounds exciting and lies at the intersection of various disciplines. People fail to understand what product management actually is and jump on the bandwagon prematurely. Apart from learning about the basics of product management, you should take the time to understand the day-to-day life of a product manager. This can be through meeting product managers and asking questions, researching about it, and following professionals in the field. You can also read books such as Inspired and The Lean Startup.

2. After understanding the role, make sure this is right for you.

Once you understand the role, you can try out a project to solve a problem that bugs you in real life or do an internship. Your project doesn’t have to get into the execution part but instead can show your approach to solving a problem, which is the core part of a product manager’s job. For example, creating an app/website to find the availability of hospital beds during Covid.

3. Work on prioritisation.

Product managers get a number of problem statements, so prioritisation is important. To do this, focus on why you want to solve a problem more than how. You should also be data-driven and understand the user’s expectations. You can show this skill through the personal projects you work on.

4. Develop really good communication skills early on.

20-25% of the job is communicating with people. This involves communicating with stakeholders from different teams, documenting projects, and influencing team members without authority. So, not liking to communicate could get draining.

5. Find a great mentor. Take feedback from them constructively.

While college was a period of uncertainty due to lack of guidance, I was able to find different mentors at Internshala who have helped me grow. The feedback that I had received from Vikram had been a huge turning point for me and helped me grow tremendously even though it was a bitter pill to swallow initially. Once I started accepting what I was not good at, the magic started happening.

LinkedIn could be one place to look for guidance as people are open to helping. You can reach out to an experienced professional with a customised note.

6. Make real connections.

It was through the power of connections that everything fell in place. Although hard work might have yielded results over time, having a genuine connection with the right person opened up the opportunity much sooner for me.

Already meeting the requirements to become a product manager? Break into the field with these product management internships or fresher jobs.

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