Welcome to Merit Office Hours! This week, we're chatting with Lalitha Ramesh, Principal Product Manager at Microsoft. Lalitha shares about her journey identifying and building relationships with mentors; making the most of those relationships through honesty and preparedness; and navigating work-life balance as a parent.
Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Rachel Spurrier: How does your work as a mentor relate to your desire to give back to the product management community? What role do mentors and does mentorship play in the product management community?
Lalitha Ramesh: A few years ago, I took a product course. As I worked to complete it, I realized the benefits of mentorship — of having someone as a resource or a backboard for questions and ideas specific to my field and to the industry. Through coffee sessions, meetings before or after the course time, and by adopting a general inquisitiveness, I was able to form a mentor-like relationship with my program instructor (instead of explicitly asking, “can you be my mentor?”) All of the back-work and consistent contact ultimately helped establish a trusting relationship of mutual respect, and allowed us to grow towards something more natural. Through this relationship, I’ve received valuable insights on career growth, product thinking, and building trust and credibility.
Similarly, as I’ve progressed in my career, I’ve sought help from my network — either by sending a message on LinkedIn or scheduling a brief phone call (something I continue to do as often as I can). I consider my journey as a mentee and my availability as a mentor a critical part of my career growth. As I progress, it’s important that I “pay forward” the generosity of my mentors by offering myself as a resource to new Product Managers. I want to help nurture strong PMs who can one day also act as powerful sounding boards for the next generation. My idea of mentorship is a two-way connection between the mentor and mentee. Both the mentor and mentee must have a vested interest in their connection and clarity in what each other wants.
As a mentee, I brainstorm ideas, ask for specific guidance on career decisions and skills, and request honest feedback from my mentors. Over the years - and mostly within the structure of the companies I’ve worked for - I have developed several mentor-like relationships. These are folks I know I can reach out to whenever necessary. For example, if I am going through a career slump, I would reach out to one of these connections and brainstorm, "What are my best options at this juncture? Here is what I am thinking. What do you think?" These relationships develop over time with active, regular engagements, and can sometimes lead to job sponsorships or recommendations within the tech community.
RS: What have you learned or what insights have you gained from being a mentor?
LR: I have come to realize that being a mentor means more than just providing guidance on practical skills such as resume writing or interviewing. It also entails helping PMs navigate their career when they feel overwhelmed, providing them with clarity of thought on their ideas, working with them on establishing goals, and encouraging them to become the best version of themselves. When I consider mentoring someone new, I ask myself, “what can I contribute that would be helpful for this person’s career?” I find the mentor-mentee relationship very useful when the mentee has a clear intent, brings specific, targeted questions, and is willing to actively engage on a regular basis. I also think being a mentor is the best prep I can get for becoming a manager as it allows me to hone my PM skills, practice offering guidance, and develop a servant-leader mindset.
RS: At Merit, we’ve written about the differences between product and program management. You’ve worked both as a product manager and a program manager. How would you define the differences between the two roles? What’s a good way for someone deciding between the two to decide which is a better fit for them?
LR: Both product management and program management directly influence the outcomes of a product. You can almost imagine the roles as a Venn diagram. As a Product Manager, you are in tune with the needs of customers and the industry; and you build the product hypothesis, strategy, and roadmap while also managing product features and backlog. Program managers oversee multiple project timelines, focus on planning and execution, and manage budget, resources, risks, dependencies. All of this then leads into tracking deliverables to achieve a successful release.
If you are interested in developing product strategies, discovering customer insights, leading product features, and driving the product direction, then product management is a better fit. If you enjoy driving execution, unraveling complex dependencies, and ensuring that each program delivers on its objectives within planned timelines, then program management is a good fit. There are many transferable skills between the two roles, making it easy to switch from one to the other. The decision between product or program management depends on your interests and strengths. Personally, I started on the program management path but found myself drawn towards the product management side of the spectrum: focusing on understanding customer needs, building product hypotheses, and developing product strategies.
RS: You started a non-profit group, Maatrutva, to support underprivileged communities. What did Maatrutva do, and what led you to starting it? How did founding the org impact your career growth and journey?
LR: Maatrutva’s objective was not merely to gather and donate money to those in need, but also to ensure that basic amenities such as toothbrushes, clothes, and textbooks directly reaches children in various orphanages. While studying undergrad in India, I remember eating out at restaurants and regularly noticing that children in these environments lacked even the most basic amenities. So, for a friend's birthday, I surprised him by bringing a cake to an orphanage and donating clothes and textbooks to the kids in his honor. This gradually evolved into connecting with a group of like-minded friends to identify the needs of children in various orphanages in and around the city of Chennai.
Maatrutva has had a significant impact on my career journey by providing me with valuable perspective on societal challenges and inspiring me to come up with creative solutions to these challenges. I’ve especially grown in my ability to tackle obstacles in a calm and structured manner — taking big questions and reducing them into smaller, more manageable building blocks. Maatrutva helped me to build a strong network of connections with the broader community and gave me an opportunity to relate my work to a cause. One of the key lessons I learned from Maatrutva was not only to be passionate about my work but also to generate energy, and inspire others to perform their best work as part of the team.
RS: How has your stint in journalism helped you in your career growth?
LR: I have always had a keen interest in writing and meeting diverse individuals across different industries. After finishing my undergraduate studies, I worked at a national newspaper in India, with a readership of over two million people. This was a one-of-a-kind experience because it built on my ability to communicate clearly in ambiguous situations, helped me better gather and present information effectively, and refined my relationship-building skills. Each news item was akin to a final product for a customer: it had to be well-researched and well-written. The environment was fast-paced, requiring me to be nimble and creative simultaneously.
RS: What has your experience been like as a woman in tech?
LR: I have frequently found myself as the only woman in a room during meetings or while presenting to senior leadership, which used to make me nervous. I overcame this fear by adequately preparing for presentations, practicing my talking points, and giving myself positive affirmations to do my best at work. Additionally, I found other women in my company to speak to and learn from regarding the specific nature of being a mother building a tech career. (These were my early mentors!) Seeking out this guidance boosted my confidence and encouraged me to clearly and candidly express my thoughts in a professional environment. I recently started mentoring a few women PMs who are just starting out in the tech industry, and they have shared that having women mentors makes it easier to have honest discussions about tricky work situations, manage trade-offs between work and family commitments, and establish good rapport amongst colleagues. That being said, I have also been fortunate to have had exceptional mentors regardless of gender, all of whom have challenged, motivated, and supported me at various junctures throughout my career.
RS: You're now a mother of three. How has that experience evolved as you've become a parent?
LR: I gained a new perspective after having a hard pregnancy with twins and witnessing them go through 60 days in the NICU. I told myself, “If I could handle that, then I can handle any challenges that come up at work. Bring it on!” Being a parent - I also have a six-year-old daughter – has given me more confidence to express my opinions, showcase my strengths, and highlight the value that I bring to the table. After my twins, one of my family members said, “Please focus more on family now and give up some work responsibilities.” I chose instead to forge my own path, and I enrolled in a growth and monetization course series during my maternity leave. I was able to listen to the course materials when I was putting the twins to sleep or feeding them. This is only to say that women (and parents!) can and should choose what feels best to them when navigating their career after pregnancy and parenthood.
RS: What is your idea of work-life balance?
LR: I think achieving balance between work and personal life hinges on solid time management. For me, work-life balance is not simply about performing routine work to maintain the status quo. Personally, if I find myself becoming bored in a particular role, it implies that my career growth has stagnated. I am more inspired to perform well when I get to expand my skill set, continue growing up in the org, take on more responsibilities, or own a broader product scope with different product areas. Therefore, I try to be honest with my mentors and my leaders about how my work is laddering into overall team and company goals.
On the flip side, work-life balance is also about building a strong family support system, clearly setting expectations, and communicating my schedule with my family, manager, and colleagues. I’ve realized that I must accept that perfection is not always possible, and that trade-offs are necessary. For example, I will inform my family about an impending deadline and make sure to ask for help when I need it. Something I’ve heard many colleagues and senior leaders say is, “Of all the products you launch, your kids will be the most challenging, yet rewarding. They will require a lot of attention and dedication.” I like this because it’s an easy way to put my work in perspective: what am I giving versus what am I getting, and what’s the most important outcome? I just have to be mindful about it.
If you have more questions for Lalitha, you can schedule a mentorship session with her! Check out her profile to book a session.