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In the fourth edition of Career Series 2020, we have Riya Gayasen, an alumnus from the 2012 batch who graduated with a dual degree from the Department of Chemical Engineering, who talks about her experience as a Product Manager at Oracle, Redwood Shores HQ and her journey which saw her doing a software engineering role at Oracle India and then pursuing an MBA at Stanford and finally coming back to Oracle but as a Product Manager.

Q1. What prompted you to go for a job after your final year (as opposed to higher education or other options)?

At the time, I wanted to work. In fact, when I graduated, I wasn’t even thinking I would ever study again. I knew that the best way to learn more was to be in the tech industry, facing real-world challenges. Plus, I needed time to figure out what I wanted to do next in my career. Doing this while earning looked like a good option. 

Q2. What made you opt for Product Management as a field and Oracle? 

The short answer is that Product Management gives one visibility to the customer and an ability to determine the long term strategy of a product. 

I started my career as a software engineer at Oracle India, Mumbai office. Specifically, I worked as a phone developer, working on android, iOS and Windows phones. At Oracle India, I started some mobile app products from scratch, which gave me a perspective on what some of our customers wanted. Then, when I moved on from Oracle to a startup, I officially moved over from Software to Product. At the startup, I owned two mobile products completely. Right from deciding what was to be built, to designing how it would look to actually getting it built, I owned it. Now looking back, I was more than a PM back then. For that startup, I was effectively a UX and an engineering manager. 

As a product manager, I developed strategies to use user data to build more efficient mobile appsHaving experienced this, I knew I wanted to develop myself as a Product Manager. 

At business school, when I got a chance to interview with Oracle (this time at Redwood Shores HQ), it felt familiar, from the culture to the smell of the carpet. I figured that growing as a product manager in a familiar environment would make a lot of other things easier

Q3. What is the selection/interview process for a PM role at Oracle ; and how should one prepare for it? 

The process started with my applying for the position and then getting a call from the recruiter. Then, I had a phone call with the hiring manager (who later became my manager at work). In the call, he asked me questions about how I would think strategically about a product and more importantly, allowed me to ask him deep questions about the CRM product he was managing. After this, there were two rounds of onsite interviews. 

The one thing that I really liked about the process and the onsite interviews was that I got to talk to the people I would be working with. There were rounds on ideation, and on cultural fit. Their focus on my past experiences stood out to me. For every single line on my resume, they asked me what I did and what I’d have done if I had more time. That’s what made me want to join this team even more. 

To prepare for Oracle, I’d suggest that you thoroughly understand everything you write about on your resume and think about how you’d have continued it if you spent more time on it. 

Q4. Given that the product management has a very broad and ambiguous job description, what exactly constitutes the job of a product manager at your company? Also, what hard/soft skills are needed, to be good at it?

A product manager is essentially the owner of a product or a feature. My team is a business-to-business team, which means that we have companies as our customers. Which means that if a customer needs something, you’re the one to listen to them, and then try to figure out how best to serve that need. Now this process itself is long and actually fun. That’s where your technological and business understanding comes in. And these two themselves encapsulate understanding how to do customer interviews, how to think about technical debt, etc. 

Once you have an idea on what is to be built, you go to the UX team to get the idea designed. Once a design is ready, you go to the development team to get it built. Once that is done, you work with the Quality Assurance team to make sure that the product doesn’t have bugs. 

The two most important skills for this are empathy and ability to communicate. Apart from this, a product sense. What I mean by product sense is an ability to understand what problem is my product solving. A great example that a business school professor gave me was of a ladder. He said that people don’t pay for a contraption made of rope and wood. They pay for access to their roof.

Q5. Tell us more about the company and the work environment, co-workers, perks of the job etc. 

For finding out more about the perks themselves, I recommend looking at the website. But the best part about working here are the people. People who aren’t afraid of challenging you. You might come in from the best engineering college in the country but your ideas would be challenged and improved upon. And you get the freedom to implement your own ideas. That’s what I loved about working at Oracle India as a software developer and that’s one of the reasons why I wanted to come back as a PM. Plus the food is great. If you happen to work in the HQ, Building 400 serves awesome Indian food. 

Q6. PM being a good mix of Technology & Business, a) what projects/courses/internships did you pursue in the institute to make a profile in that domain? b) How did these projects/courses/internships help in getting the role?

At IIT, I didn’t even know Product Management even existed. But there, I took an Industrial Design Course actually focused on product design, because at the time, I wanted to learn something different from the usual stuff from my department. There we discussed those letter boxes that you see now everywhere on campus and that professor himself designed them, keeping in mind its uses. In the final examination, I had to design a glue dispenser for quickly sending a letter. 

After graduating, I worked as a Product Manager for a startup. Then at business school, I spent time taking projects and courses that helped me grow as a Product Manager. 

I’ll give you specific examples of three courses that I took at business school. First was Product Launch, which taught me how to think about a product just before launching it, and what questions to ask. The second was actually called Strategies of Effective Product Management. This is where I understood how to look at a product from a customer perspective and this is where I got the above “ladder” example. The third was Design for Extreme Affordability (nicknamed “Extreme”). This course teaches you to use Design Thinking and makes you apply it to solve a real world problem. For more information, you can look up Stanford University Graduate School of Business, or Stanford GSB. 

During the gap between my first and second years at business school, I worked as a Product Management intern at a company in Boston. There, I created a new ideation approach. 

All of these experiences helped me understand any product from a problem solving perspective and made it easy for me to understand what questions to ask, if I am ever tasked with improving them. 

Q7. How does a student being in his/her second or third year pursue activities related to PM, are there any internship opportunities in the PM sector that can help students to get a hands-on experience of PM?

Understand what matters to you, and what you would like to do. Look at everything you’re using, the iPhone in your pocket, to the Tum Tum buses (are they still there though?). Think how you’d improve them. And discuss it with each other. You need to be able to communicate your ideas. Most importantly, think from the point of view of the problem you want to solve. 

Design courses at IDC also help to a great extent in this and if things are similar to how they were during my time, the IDC grading is pretty lenient too. 

You’re at IIT Bombay. It’s a hub of startups. Work with them, help them with ideas on how to improve their products. 

Q8. How do you think the current scenario (COVID-19) is going to impact the PM sector, and also the companies? 

It’s still too early to comment on that. Although I would say that the situation is changing and so is human behaviour. If you can think of some new problems that people might have that you can solve, that’d give you a massive head start in terms of thinking about your own product (for example, Zoom fatigue is a few but a huge problem)

Q9. Closing remarks, advice to 

  • people aspiring for a PM job in placements 

Be yourself. Just like in consulting, before jumping into any idea, try to define the problem first. 

  • People sitting for placements in general (any sector)

    Know that you’re interviewing the company as much as they’re interviewing you. They’re interested in you for a reason. After all, you got into one of the best IITs AND you got out. You’re gonna be fine, don’t worry. 

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Chief Editors: Amogh Gawaskar and Suman Mondal

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