Office Hours with Nikitha Suryadevara
This week, we’re continuing our Office Hours series with Nikitha Suryadevara! We’re talking about product management, women in tech, and the value of reading and writing in your career.
Nikitha Suryadevara is a Product Manager at Google, where she helps build the foundational infrastructure stack that Google services run on. Prior to Google, she was a Product Manager at VMware for their datacenter software product. She started her career as an engineer and product manager at various SaaS consumer startups. She received her bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from the Manipal Institute of Technology and moved to the US in 2016 for an MBA at UCLA Anderson.
Below is a transcript of our conversation, lightly edited and condensed for length and clarity.
Rachel Spurrier: You wrote that you knew at 23 you wanted to be a product manager at Google someday, which you are now. What was your path into product management?
Nikitha Suryadevara: When I graduated from college, [product management] wasn't a very known career path. Maybe in the US it was a little more mainstream in tech, but I hadn't heard of it. When I was studying in college, I knew I wanted to be in the tech space, but I never imagined a career in product management. I thought to be involved with tech, you had to be an engineer, which is what I did end up doing for the first two years of my career, which in hindsight did help a ton, just having that engineering background. But after two years of working as an engineer, I pretty soon realized that I wasn't naturally that great at it. It wasn't playing to my biggest strengths.
And after being involved in that space, I realized that that there is a job title called product manager. Especially since we were a startup that was based out of India, building MVP products for clients in the US, I was working with PMs on their teams because they were the ones defining the product. Once I discovered that this was a viable career path that was actually a good mix of my own skillsets, I started the transition. It wasn't an easy transition to make. Firstly, there weren't that many PM roles available in India at the time—and then also just not having the right kind of experience. I was still only two years into the working world at that point. So I really had to show it through my portfolio and projects I'd been doing and translate the work I was doing as an engineer into more product-facing requirements. Then I convinced a startup to actually give me a shot at doing the PM job. It was a long journey, but I'm glad it got me there.
RS: You have a strong technical background, and you've written a little bit about the top technical skills that an aspiring PM should have. Are there any other skills, technical or otherwise, that you think that aspiring product managers should have going into product management?
NS: I think the technical foundation at this point has almost become a status quo. That's just something that people should have, and it's not that you need to have studied it—learn it on the way there.
Other than that, the softer skills of product management are really undersold. I often see at senior levels of product managers, the ones who are really successful, are the ones who are able to work with a diverse set of people. By that, I mean diverse personality types, diverse everything. Being able to relate to people on different levels and also bringing them along with you on the journey—it's very much a team sport.
A lot of PMs treat it like an individual sport, which I think makes them less successful. And bringing people along with you for the ride—they often say a product manager is a leader leading without actual authority, just influence. That holds very true.
In general, people tend to appreciate when product managers are real about what they know and what they don't. Authenticity is important. There’s a lot of times where I won't necessarily know what the right thing to do next is, and that's just the uncertainty of users, the industry. And when you say that you don't know, I think that gains a lot of respect versus trying to claim that you can predict the future.
People appreciate when product managers are real about what they know and what they don’t. Authenticity is important.
RS: You brought up influence versus authority, which I think is sometimes a shock to a lot of people who want to become product managers. What are some other misconceptions around product management that you think surprise people once they become product managers or start working with one?
NS: I think enough people have now spoken about it that maybe these [surprises] are not as unknown, but definitely PMs’ work can be pretty unglamorous at times. It's not the sexy, defining the roadmap and creating user requirements all the time. A lot of times it can be drudgery almost, but that's part of the job that we just don't talk about it because it's not fun to talk about the least interesting parts in my job.
I'm not necessarily sure that I agree with “the PM as a CEO of the product” thing, either. In an ideal scenario, maybe if the [company] culture was built that way, but a lot of tech companies are not built that way, which means that you will own a segment of the product and you don't have any direct authority over it. So it really hinges on your ability to influence and whether the company is really product led or not. I think that can be kind of a shock when you realize that not everything is going to go your way, or you can’t just call all the shots because you do have an entire cross-functional team of engineers and designers and other folks that you need to convince before you can just do what you want.
PMs’ work can be pretty unglamorous at times…it can be drudgery.
RS: Speaking of some of those harsher realities of product management, what are some reasons that someone shouldn't become a product manager?
NS: That's a good question. Normally I'm not used to telling people not to try something if they think they should do it. I'm just like, “You know what? You should try it and see what happens.” Maybe PM is not a good fit for people that don't have a lot of patience interacting with other people. I wouldn't even say that's an introvert—I would say that people who don't like having to influence people, having to listen to other people's opinions, or having to always have their own way, or always having to have the right answers—I think they tend to have a harder time being PMs, because there's a lot of uncertainty in the job. For more engineering-type people who think in binary all the time, it could be hard because you're always somewhere on the spectrum—there’s never a zero or a one.
Maybe those people would have a harder time with PM, but in general, if you have the right skill set, to begin with or, if you will work on those things, I don't think there's any reason why someone shouldn't be [a product manager].
RS: You wrote an article on measuring personal growth as a product manager. Are there any key milestones in a product management career that should prompt that sort of reflection? Or maybe is there a sign that you aren't growing as a product manager?
NS: For me personally, it's always been whenever I start to get bored on the job, it's a sign that I'm not growing. That boredom could be plenty of things. It could be that I've just become really entrenched in the space, and I feel like there's nothing new to learn. Or it could be that the company or the industry is not growing as fast as you would like it to, so you're just kind of stagnant.
You have to be growing up in the org and you're getting more responsibility, or you're going broader where you get more and more ownership of different product areas. If either of those things aren't happening and you feel stuck and bored, you realize the growth is stalling.
I also find that most PMs seem to do their best work when they're a bit uncomfortable. Create that sense of discomfort, even if you are in the same organization, maybe by picking up something that you would normally not do, or trying to transfer within the organization, or introducing an artificial sense of discomfort so that you're pushed to do your best work.
Most PMs seem to do their best work when they’re a bit uncomfortable.
RS: Speaking of growth and learning, I saw that you read a lot—it seems like maybe multiple books a week.
NS: I used to read a lot more, actually. I think whenever I change jobs, it always goes down because I have so much going on at work. Honestly, I feel like at this point in the tech industry, people who read and write have an edge over people who don't, and I don't know if that's unfair or not, but I think it's this crazy advantage you have over most people if you do these things. It helps keep your skills fresh; it helps your brain capture new ideas. The writing part definitely helps with getting you exposure and making you more known.
RS: You have a blog, and I think you mentioned somewhere what got you to start writing. What was the motivation?
NS: I've always written, even before I was PM, before I was an engineer. I've always had a blog of some kind. It wasn't always professional, but I continue the practice. I like looking back and seeing what my thought process was and my mental head space at the time. Sometimes I learn from myself; I forget things that I learned two years ago. Then I'll go read my blog and think, ”Oh, that was actually really insightful.” I find I learn from my past, and in general, I like sharing. I feel like if it's useful to even one person, then I've done something helpful. More selfishly, it's always good to have a public-facing portfolio. A lot of people find me through the blog. I think it helps my credibility. It also, I think, provides a slight edge if I was one candidate for a job, and there were several others, the blog helps me stand out a bit more.
RS: Do you find that you write a lot in your work as a product manager?
NS: I do. It's funny because people talk a lot about the writing culture at Amazon, but weirdly enough, there's a lot of writing at Google, too. I didn't know that until I started. At VMware, my previous role was much more presentation-heavy and slide deck-heavy, but now [at Google] it's definitely a lot of documents and strategy writing. So more recently I've been writing more at work, and I find it's a strength for me, being able to write well and also write quickly. What comes with practice writing blogs is that what might take someone else five, six hours, you can do in two hours, so I think it just makes me more efficient.
RS: Speaking of advice and learning, you've written about how to not find a mentor and how with so many blogs available, you may not even really need one. Do you still see value in one-on-one mentorship, and what's led you to be a mentor on Merit?
NS: It can definitely be helpful if you’re really clear on what you're looking for from the mentorship. I think it's less valuable if you're meeting someone every other week and you don't really have a clear idea of what you're trying to achieve. Similarly, when I've been a mentor, I've always had really good interactions when the mentee was really clear about their intentions and what they wanted from me.
I still have a lot of mentor-like relationships that are people that I have in my contacts list that I know I can reach out to at any time, whenever I have to make an important decision about my career. So if I was changing jobs, I know I would reach out to them and say, “Hey, does this sound like a good shift for me? Or, “Hey, does this amount that I'm getting paid fair given what you know about the industry?” I wouldn't really call them mentors. I would almost say they were confidantes and peers.
I think of mentorship as a more active, regular engagement where you're being intentional and trying to make progress towards your goals. I've had a lot formal and informal mentorships through companies I've worked at. And personally what I enjoy most is giving back to young women. I know I had a lot of help when I was climbing up the career ladder, and now that's something I like to do for younger PMs.
In the tech industry, people who read and write have an edge over people who don't.
RS: You studied undergrad in India, and that’s where you began your career. What has your experience been as an immigrant coming into the West coast tech scene?
NS: Honestly, I feel like Indians get an unfair advantage just because we're Indian. It's kind of bizarre. I think we don't have a representation problem—which let me just say that it works to your advantage that people see that you're Indian. This is a bit tongue-in-cheek, but they automatically assume that you're technical and that you know what you're talking about, at least from an engineering perspective.
So from that sense, it's been easy. Probably the hardest part has been a lack of women in the tech industry. For me that stands out more. I don't really think about the immigrant part of it as much as I think about the woman part of it.
On the immigrant side, I would say the visa challenges and having to always keep that at the back of your mind while you're making career transitions—it really limits your options in terms of how much risk you can tolerate. So from that perspective, yes, I do think about that a fair bit. Whenever I'm talking to someone who I know is an immigrant as well, I encourage them to think about [visa challenges] because [they] can have really drastic impacts on your life if you make a wrong move.
So from the women aspect, product management, especially in the spaces that I'm in, which tend to be very infrastructure heavy, there aren’t enough women here. I don't really know if we're doing enough to bring more women here. That's something that's really close to my heart, which is why I also try to mentor a lot of young women.
RS: What efforts would you like to see to bring more women into technology and into those infrastructural spaces?
NS: For one thing, there's not a lot of the cool blog posts, and the viral stuff you see going around is usually about consumer-facing tech. Partly that's because it's easier to explain to someone who doesn't have that background, and it's also partly because people aren't writing about the infrastructure stuff. So I think bringing about more awareness that there is this whole other side that's also really interesting and being able to explain that in a way that's more accessible—I hope what I'm doing when I write is to show that it's not really as bad or as technical as it sounds.
You can still really be creative, and it's almost easier to climb the career ladder in this space because there's not enough PMs: just generally, there's not enough people in this area. So for someone who's trying to break through into PM, I would encourage them to, if they have any kind of technical background, try this space first, mainly because there's a shortage and a dearth of people that are skilled for it.
RS: If you’re comfortable talking about it, what are the main challenges you faced as a woman in tech?
NS: Microaggressions, those are part and parcel at this point. It's representation and not seeing people like you around—being acutely aware of the fact that you're the only woman in a room during meetings or going into a room full of leadership, looking at the C-suite or VPs, and realizing there are no women there. It’s not seeing people like you and not having mentors to reach out to and have them help you along the way. It's a good thing that now more men recognize the need to mentor everyone. And would it be more useful if there were women mentoring? I would think so. It's just easier to relate. I think it's easier to be more candid. It's easier to have conversations, especially as you get through your mid-career: how do you balance things like your family versus your career and other trade-offs that men just don't have to care about?
RS: I had that experience so many times of being the only woman in the room—so many meetings, so many teams over the course of my career. What advice would you give to someone who is the only one in the room, and who, if we’re being honest, will probably continue to be the only one in the room, at least for a while?
NS: Find one champion for you, someone who really cares about progressing your career. Have them become your advocate. So in the absence of a woman in a room, you're going to have to find the next best thing, which is probably a man who cares. Luckily for me, I've found managers, most recently my manager at Google (who was also my manager at VMware), who has really championed [me]. And he never did it in a way of “Oh, you're a woman. I need to mentor you”—more in the sense of “This is what I think I need to do to help you. And so I'm going to do it.” He leads by example. For example, I found myself being the only one in meetings trying to take notes all the time, and it had been bothering me. But over time I thought, “Why am I the only one doing this?” I told him in a one-on-one about it, and from then on, he nominated people at the beginning of the meeting to take notes. And it would never be me. He can do that because he's in a position of leadership, and I couldn't do it or I couldn't say no, because I felt like it would show me in a bad light.
Find one champion for you, someone who really cares about progressing your career. Have them become your advocate.
RS: Those were all of the questions that I had. Was there anything that I didn't ask about that you think would be useful for aspiring PMs, early career PMs, women in tech?
NS: I think the entire tech space now is so online that there aren’t a lot of barriers to entry. You can easily find emails of people that work in tech, or you can find them on Twitter, or you can read their blogs, or you can join some online networking groups. I would mostly want to encourage people to be really driven if they are interested in a career in the space because there's a lot of room, there's a lot of opportunity. I'm finding more and more people, especially with remote work, are open to taking on new people from anywhere. The recession aside, it's, generally speaking, a good time to enter the industry.
To hear more of Nikitha's thoughts, you can book a mentorship session with her on Merit.