Category Archives: career

The Startup of You

The Startup of You by LinkedIn cofounder Reid Hoffman and author Ben Casnocha is a book that was released back in 2012. It was quite popular right around the time I started my MBA (was on several MBA reading lists) but I had not gotten around to reading it until now. I read it mostly for the content on networking and I will get to that in a bit.

As the title suggests, the central premise of the book is that in today’s fast changing business environment, one should think of oneself as a startup and act accordingly. I found the chapter on developing a competitive advantage quite interesting. As a PM, when I work with my team to find the right positioning statement,  we use a template such as “Because of [x,y, and z] our product does [a,b,and c] better than our competitors. The authors suggest applying that template to ourselves to see how we are positioned. If you are not able to, then it may be time to develop a competitive advantage. What is a competitive advantage? It’s a mix of your assets, aspirations and market realities.

At the end of every chapter is a nice summary of the chapter along with short and long term things that the reader can do to benefit from the chapter. For instance, on the competitive advantage chapter, the reader is asked to come up with a competitive advantage statement (I’m still working to acquire the skills to be be able to write the one I want. They also offer suggestions on discovering your assets such as talking to your co-workers or friends or looking at Linkedin profiles of similar people for inspiration.

“Chapter 4: It takes a network”, was the one that I was looking forward to the most as Reid Hoffman’s started Linkedin as a bet on the importance of networks. The chapter first explained the different types of networks and their benefits. This material was similar to the strong and weak ties that I first encountered during the Strategy and Innovation elective  during my MBA. For the uninitiated, strong ties are close relationships i.e people who you can turn to for advice and who will always back you. Weak ties on the other hand are acquaintances who will expose you to information that you would not discover by yourself. Both are essential for a thriving career as together they make you better and help you land new opportunities.

While I have built a few strong ties at work, I am lagging on the weak ties. I suspect this is true of most introverts. In the past, I had tended to dismiss this by telling myself that networking was inauthentic and slimy. Hoffman suggests that to get over this, you think of networking as a two way street i.e you are looking to help the other person just as you hope that they will help you. By first focussing on how you can help the other person, your mindset should change from “What’s in it for me?” to “What’s in it for us?”. There is also a lot of good advice on maintaining a network which I found quite interesting especially the concept of ‘gifts’. Btw, one hack for introverts that I got from the S&I course was to build strong relations with at least one ‘broker’ i.e a person who is a good networker. This person can then introduce you to their vast network of weak ties.

Overall, I enjoyed the book. It’s a quick read and nothing dense, it’s mostly common sense if you really think about it. Like “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People”, this is not a book to read and move on, it’s highly recommended to note down some of the points listed at the back of each chapter and take the recommened action.

Note: I plan to continue with a few more blog posts that deal with general career advice. This will be based on advice that I have read over the last few years and some of the mistakes I have made in my career. Look for them in the next few weeks.

Deep Work

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Cal Newport is a computer science professor at GeorgeTown University, author, blogger and is obsessed with productivity. He writes on this topic in his popular Study Hacks blog. I was introduced to him and his work after I read an article of his in the New York Times where he argued that passion was overrated in picking a career and that it would follow in time if you focus on achieving mastery.

Deep Work is his latest book and is a summarisation of many blog posts on the importance of focus in the workplace. For the uninitiated, deep work refers to activities performed in a distraction-free state that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. By contrast, shallow work refers to tasks that can easily performed while distracted i.e email, non essential meetings etc. So why then do so many spend so much time on shallow work? The answers are some of my favourite lines in the book – a) Deep work gets you promoted while shallow work keeps you from getting fired and b) Busyness is often used incorrectly as a proxy for productivity. The second one will sting those of us (myself included) who take pride in spending the day attending meeting and always being available through chat, email and phone throughout the day.

Part 1 of the book focusses on why deep work is valuable while the second part is spent on detailing ways to get more productive. As with the last book I blogged about, this is not a book to read and move on. It’s essential to put it into practice if you agree with it and hope to benefit from it. Cal argues that focus is a skill to be practised and will not come naturally to many of us who are used to multitask endlessly. Some tips for focussing on deep work are to avoid social media and to avoid working after you leave the workplace. The most intriguing one to me was the idea of embracing boredom. Cal argues that the constant switching of tasks at the slightest hint of boredom teaches your mind to never tolerate boredom. Hence he argues against checking your smartphone when you are in a queue at a store or eating alone, instead he advises that you learn to be bored. He is also a big fan of structure and recommends planning your workday in hourly blocks.

In the past I have written about the trend especially in software firms towards open offices. Cal abhors this trend and cites research that shows that such environments made it hard to focus. This puts him at odds with those such as Steven Johnson, Facebook, Google who argue that multitasking and open offices encourage innovation. Cal suggests a compromise using a hub and spoke model for a perfect workplace. While offices need to have spaces where people regularly meet and exchange ideas (hubs), they also need private areas (spokes) to focus.

One of the critiques of the book is that the advice is much more applicable to those in academia than to those in management positions. Nevertheless, there is a lot of good advice in there and I plan to try out a few things that the book recommends and I will report back on my progress in a few months from now.

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

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This highly influential bestseller was first published over 25 years ago. I had wanted to read this book for a long time and I finally got around to it last month. While the book can be applied to both personal and professional goals, I read and interpreted it mostly from a professional viewpoint.

The following three goals, the first three in fact struck a chord with me and I have detailed them below

Be Proactive

I was a very reactive person early on in my career but I have learned from watching others and through experience to be more proactive. This chapter introduces the concept of circle of influence vs circle of concern. Reactive people waste time focussing on things that they cannot control (circle of concern) because it is easier to do. This is a bad habit that I occasionally fall into as well and I was reminded to stick to focussing on what I can control (circle of influence).

For example as a PM, it may be tempting to blame marketing, sales, or someone else for a missed deadline but that will achieve absolutely nothing other than alienating them. Focussing on being more efficient during scoping and development (circle of influence) would actually help in shipping features faster.

Begin with the end in mind

This chapter exhorts you to have a plan and work backwards with that plan in mind rather than mindlessly going about your daily life. For instance, rather than hope that you will be promoted to the next level after a few years at your current level, actively understand the skills that will be required and work towards acquiring them. (I did this as soon as I read this chapter and now I have a plan for the next phase of my career).

Put first things first

Having identified goals and the steps to take to achieve those goals, the third principle is about prioritising them. As a PM, there are a ton on things that you could work on. Deciding what is important is what isn’t is a decision that individuals must actively take in order to become effective. This chapter also asks a question that I found quite interesting – What is the one thing that you are not doing that you could do in your personal or professional life that would have the most positive impact? In my case, I decided that the answer was to read more books and become better at networking. I am an introvert and the second goal will not come naturally, but having identified it as critical, I have made a plan to get better at it.

I did not find any of the other principles as compelling as the first three. This book is not one to be read, it is to be applied. Therefore, I highly recommend that you reserve a complete weekend for it, one day to read and another to apply the teachings to help you become a more effective person.

 

My average PM workday at Freshdesk

PMmemeA question that one can always expect from a prospective Product Manager is – so what’s an average day like?  This post is my attempt at answering this question.

7:00 AM: The alarm goes off and I get out of bed half an hour later.

8:00 AM – 9:00 AM: Hit the gym to workout. I try to workout three times a week. If I’m not working out, I go out for a walk and get some physical activity before it gets really hot.

10:00 AM: Leave for work. I don’t have a car, so I call for an Uber or Ola (Ola is the Indian competitor to Uber. It isn’t as cheap as Uber, but the sedan class of cars have wifi, which allows me to check emails while I ride to work. I live around 5km (3 miles) and it usually takes me about 20 minutes to get to work.

10:30 AM – 12:00 AM: I reach work and grab a cup of tea and check my emails, Twitter, and check my to do list for the day. This is not the most productive time of the day for me, so I try to keep it for light/shallow work such as reviewing the roadmap, collecting metrics, making notes etc.

12:00 AM – 2:00 PM: At 12, my team has our daily standup where we talk about what we did yesterday and what we plan to do today. Along with the PMs and engineers, we also have the PMM and QA attend this meeting. The QA at Freshdesk is organised as a functional unit i.e there is one QA team across the company and involving them in the standup is a great way to ensure that there are no communication gaps. Post standup is usually a productive time for me and I try to avoid meetings and distractions.

2:00 PM – 3:00 PM: I have a late lunch. Most days, I will head over to our cafeteria for the (free) lunch, but there is a food court downstairs with additional options that I will head to once a week. After lunch,  a fellow PM and I go for a quick walk. On my return, I usually spend a few minutes reading the day’s newspaper.

3:00 PM – 5:00PM: I try to keep most meetings in this time period as most people in the office are usually present at this time. Most days I usually spend 1-2 hours in meetings.

5:00 PM – 7:00 PM: This is another productive block of time for me, so I will use it for work that requires my full attention such as research, PRDs etc. Right now, I’m helping write the technical documentation for the APIs and the app framework.

7:30 PM: I spend the last few minutes of the day tying up loose ends and then I leave work at around 7:30 or so and I reach home by 8.

8:00 – 11:00 PM: At home, I cook dinner and relax. I will watch TV, play games, or do read interesting articles online. Occasionally (1 time a week), I will have a few small things from work to take care of, but most days are free.

11:00 PM: I turn off all screens at this time. I had pretty bad insomnia that improved after I  started limiting my caffeine and screen time, so I try to be disciplined about this. I will usually read a book until I feel sleepy. Right now I am reading “The hard thing about hard things” by Ben Horowitz and I will post my thoughts soon. I usually turn the lights off before 12.

Summary: I used to be really bad at answering the average day question when I first began working. This was because there was no average day – I was overloaded and did whatever came up. This resulted in me focussing a lot on what Cal Newport calls “shallow work” such as answering emails or solving support tickets. However, the deep work (research, PRDs) did not get enough attention. Recently, I have gotten better at recognising my productive times during the day and reserving them for work that adds the highest value.

Latest Updates

It’s been a really long time since I last posted but I promise to post more regularly (at least once a month) from now. I began the Oxford Comma once I began my MBA at the Said School of Business, Oxford. My main motivation was to provide the information that I had found missing when I was an applicant and I also wanted to improve my writing. However, once I left, there wasn’t anything I could add to the blog and more than a year has passed since I last posted.

After I graduated, I was looking for Product Management roles and I started a new blog to catalogue my experiences learning about the role. However, once I got a job, that blog started to be neglected as well. I intend to make more PM and career themes posts but I didn’t really want to maintain two separate blogs. In addition, I also wanted a blog to share my travel experiences and other musings.

Long story short, I plan to convert The Oxford Comma into my personal blog and make posts from all the aforementioned categories here. I have already merged all the posts from my PM blog into this blog. I plan to rename the blog name and domain accordingly.

Thoughts on Uber’s Surge Pricing

A few weeks ago, the following tweet popped up in my timeline.

By now, everyone is probably familiar with the mechanics of Uber’s ‘surge pricing’. When the demand for taxis increases, the price of a taxi ride spikes. The company claims that higher prices encourage more drivers to get on the road. It also rations taxi usage by ensuring that only those who really need the taxi immediately and are thus willing to pay higher prices, continue to use it while others wait for the demand and supply to balance each other out.

The economic principles behind surge pricing are widely accepted by economists, which begs the following question – why don’t more companies adopt this pricing model to boost revenue? The answer as Megan Mcardle points out is that raising prices during periods of high demand is usually very unpopular with consumers who feel like they are being exploited. This is reflected in the sentiment behind the tweet at the top of this post. This negatively impacts the reputation of the brand and thus companies will usually forgo the short term boost in revenue in order to prevent the long term loss of reputation. Uber itself has faced tremendous criticism when it has (automatically) raised prices during natural disasters or emergencies.

So why does Uber unabashedly continue to persist with its aggressive surge pricing algorithm? I believe that one of the reasons is that its business model enables it to use it as a competitive advantage. Uber is a platform business, with taxi drivers on one side of the platform and taxi riders on the other. Most businesses fight over customers, but platform businesses have to fight over the suppliers (taxi drivers) as well. As Ben Thompson points out in this brilliant article, the fight over drivers is much more consequential than the one over riders, as having more drivers will enable Uber to lower the average wait time for a rider, which will attract riders to the service. The wait time is of course directly related to the number of available taxis on the road, which explains the mad rush to sign up drivers.

So how do you get drivers to sign up, especially when they have a choice between competing services? Like most other humans, drivers too will choose the company that they think will enable them to earn the most. Now read the tweet at the top of this post one last time, but this time, put yourself in a taxi driver’s shoes. Would you prefer to work for a company that paid you a base rate that remained constant at all times or one that gets raised aggressively during periods of high demand? The choice should be apparent, which explains why Ola was forced to abandon its initial stable pricing model and introduce peak pricing earlier this year.

Post MBA: Seven Month Update

It has been a fairly long time since I have posted here, but I definitely did not want to sign off without giving readers a quick update on my personal situation. I had a couple of job leads from Silicon MilkRoundabout that I converted into interviews where I performed quite well. However, in the end, both companies were unable to sponsor me for a visa and I had to return to India in February after working for one of these companies for two months until my visa expired. I definitely would have liked to work in London for awhile, but it is hard for smaller companies to navigate the visa process and you definitely do not get enough time after graduation for the job search as the hiring process pretty much shuts down in December. I have however made the transition in role that I was hoping to get out of the MBA as I found a job as a Product Manager at a rapidly growing technology company in India.

I have received a few requests for an update to the career statistics for Indian students (without work authorization) that I posted back in November. The same caveats and limitations that I referenced in that post apply here as well. In addition, as I relied a lot on LinkedIn and since I know many students have not yet updated their LinkedIn profiles, I have tried to verify their job status through other sources. In many cases I was unable to do so and hence I added these to the “Not Sure” category.

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These numbers are just a rough indicator. Please do not make a decision on whether to attend Oxford based on them alone. Make sure you contact alums who are in jobs that you aspire to be in and ask them for advice. In addition, the school should be releasing their official career report soon so keep an eye out for that as well.

I don’t really have any concrete plans for this blog going forward, so please feel free to leave comments on what I should write about. One thought I had was to maybe interview classmates who found jobs in the UK on their job search strategies. Once I have more work experience, I may also do a post on how the MBA in helping/hurting me in my role as PM.

Advertising revenue on LinkedIn and other ‘meet’ platforms

Earlier this month, the professional networking site LinkedIn, released an impressive earnings report for the fourth quarter of 2014. Revenue for the quarter was $643 million, an increase of 44% from the fourth quarter of 2013. It wasn’t just the top line numbers that impressed, all segments of the business grew at a healthy pace.

  • Talent Solutions – Revenue earned from recruiters who pay a fee to access the database of professionals on the site. This accounts for 57% of LinkedIn’s revenue.
  • Marketing Solutions – Revenue earned from the advertising that is on the site. This accounts for 24% of total revenue.
  • Premium Subscriptions – Revenue earned from premium subscriptions. Accounts for 19% of total revenue.

This post is going to focus on the second revenue stream i.e. Marketing Solutions. But first, a little background information is required. In my social networks class, Profession Piskorski divided social networks into either ‘friend’ platforms or ‘meet’ platforms. Friend platforms such as FaceBook help users develop closer relationships with their existing network. Meet platforms such as LinkedIn or dating sites help users broaden their networks by introducing them to new people.

From a business model perspective, there is one key difference between the two. If a friend platform is successful, you spend more time on it i.e if everyone you know is constantly on FaceBook updating their status or uploading pictures or messaging, the more interesting content there is for you to see hence and the more likely you are to visit the site. On ‘meet’ platforms, the more successful the platform is, the less likely you are to visit. For example, if you are successful in meeting someone on a dating site, you stop using the site. For this reason, ‘meet’ platforms typically derive their revenue from subscriptions whereas ‘friend’ platforms tend to rely on advertising.

This is a challenge for sites such as LinkedIn that would like to get additional revenue from advertising. However, LinkedIn was initially seen as a place that you went only when you were looking for a job. Thus even though many users created profiles on the site, few visited regularly. This brilliant article details how LinkedIn addressed this issue by essentially turning itself into from a social network into a media platform. The entire article is worth reading but the key passage is the one below.

To get things started, the company launched LinkedIn Today in 2011 as a way of enticing professionals to log in every morning to catch up on industry news. The following year it signed up “influential thought leaders” to provide occasional commentary. Last year, the company bought Pulse, an app that focuses purely on content, and which the company would like professionals to check for a quick update on news relevant to them. And now, it runs a content behemoth that drives the internet’s manicured hordes to business publications around the web.

The strategy certainly seems to have paid off with advertising accounting for 24% of revenue in the most recent quarter as opposed to 22% a year ago. However, the company is not resting on its laurels. It plans to scale its B2B advertising revenue to one billion dollars by 2017 having acquired B2B marketing platform Bizio for 175 million USD last year. The company also recently launched its own ad network to allow companies to identify which LinkedIn user is visiting their site. If successful, this strategy could act as a template for other ‘meet’ platforms to make a play for a share of the lucrative online advertising pie.