We talk to Sai Boddupalli, an Exponent alumnus, on his journey being a product manager across various, distinct industries spanning automotive, e-commerce, gaming, and payments. Sai is going to be a PM at Google starting December, working on the Payments Platform.
Q: How would you answer the “Tell me about yourself” question?
One of the things I was taught very early on in business school was how to approach this question, and it transformed the way I thought about it. I realized that the “Tell me about yourself” question is more of a “Why should we hire you?” question. What I always do with this one is to talk about my experience, and make sure I weave in how that experience ties into the role that I am being interviewed for.
As an example, when I was interviewing with Amazon, I talked about my consulting experience and how coming from an industry where customer satisfaction is paramount to the survival of our business, I am already naturally bent towards thriving in an environment like Amazon, where customer obsession trumps everything else.
Of course, showing enthusiasm for the role and showing that you have done your homework is important, but the most important thing is demonstrating through your experience that you already know how to perform in the role you are interviewing for.
Q: How did you first hear about Exponent?
When I began interviewing again I searched YouTube to see if there were any mock interviews in video format, and stumbled on Exponent.
Q: What was the most difficult thing when you were recruiting for product roles and how did you overcome it?
When Google reached out to me for an interview earlier this year I wasn’t really looking for a new role. However, it was interesting enough for me to agree to discuss with a recruiter on how my career has been going and what I want to do next.
Given I had interviewed with Google before and things hadn’t worked out, I realized that my method wasn’t working and it might be a good idea to get some coaching of some sort. I mainly used two sources, Exponent and a book called Cracking the PM Interview. I don’t recommend using too many sources as sometimes you may end up just confusing yourself with the minor differences. In the end, just stick to a style and structure that you are comfortable with.
The most difficult part of the interview preparation was just how long it took. My recruiter was happy to split my onsite into two separate dates (in the end that was a good thing) but keeping focused throughout the process without worrying about the outcome was tough. I believe having a schedule around your interview prep along with stretch goals helped me stay focused. Something I should have done better was to continue to devote time to exercise. During the preparation process, I kept everything else on hold and in hindsight that’s not a healthy way of preparing for PM interviews.
Q: How did Exponent help with your interview process? Were there specific things that you learned from the course materials, coaching sessions, and the community?
The main thing I learned from Exponent was how to structure my interview answers. Earlier in my career when I was rawer, I had the ideas but wasn’t great at articulating how I arrived at them. Having a structure also just makes arriving at an idea or a solution so much easier, even if at times it may feel like you are stretching the process longer than you need to (especially if you already have an idea in mind).
Having mock interviews (with Exponent coaches) was also very beneficial for me. I felt that by the time the real interviews came around I had warmed up sufficiently to tackle anything that came my way.
Q: You’ve been a PM for 5+ years. Some experienced PMs don’t find much value in interview preparation as they believe being in the job is enough to excel in PM interviews. Would you agree with this? Why or why not?
Being a PM and interviewing for a PM position are two different things. In the real world, you have time for ideation, resources to validate your assumptions (via data, tools or other resources) and usually a lot more background information and knowledge to work with. In an interview scenario, that entire process is brought down to 45 minutes or an hour at best, and hence you need some guidance to figure out what to focus on.
In the real world, as a PM you have an underlying thought process that you follow rather subconsciously that allows you to be successful. In an interview scenario, it's about letting the interviewer see exactly how that internal process works and that comes only through practice and sometimes coaching.
Q: Any advice for aspiring product managers applying, interviewing, and considering offers?
With regard to applying, the best way you can get an interview is to leverage your network and get a referral. The bigger companies get tons of applications and it's not always clear what happens after that. Have a friend from the company you are applying to peer review your resume so that it’s in line with the company and position. An example would be Amazon where you should have a resume that screams Leadership Principles.
In the interview stage, as much as you can, space out and time your interviews. In a best-case scenario, the company that you are most excited about will be last in the process and you would have had a good amount of practice interviewing with other companies and learning from your mistakes. Also, if you can time your offers right, you have some negotiating power.
Q: Throughout your career, you’ve been in various product roles, managing products ranging from automobiles and games to e-commerce and payment platforms. Is there a common thread among these different experiences? How do you choose your next company and products to work on?
I believe the common thread for me is that I have been lucky enough to be in problem areas that have been “hot” at the time. When I interned at Ford in 2013 the automotive industry was on the rebound and in-car infotainment experiences were the next big thing. When I jumped to Amazon in India in 2014, e-commerce was picking up here in a big way. Similarly, when I decided I would like to try Product in gaming, mobile games had just become quite widely accepted forms of digital commerce. Hopefully with Google now in the payments space I will feel the same way. The payments space in Asia is exploding right now, and there’s a need for Product leadership in this area.
When I think about picking opportunities, I always try and pick an area in which I can learn something. I would have to say I learned the most being a PM in mobile games. The market is intense, competitive, and fast-paced. It's at the intersection of art and science and to the surprise of many is extremely data-driven. My recommendation to people is to keep a keen eye on where the market is heading and look for opportunities where you are uniquely positioned to make an impact based on the skills that you bring to the table.
Q: What have been some similarities and differences in your previous roles and companies working on ranges of different products?
I have found it fascinating how the PM role is common yet so different when you move across companies and industries. I would like to start with the commonalities because those are easier to predict.
Traits like being able to influence across functions and levels, lead people towards common goals, and operate comfortably with ambiguity are the 3 areas that are crucial to the PM function wherever you go in my opinion.
Where things get little different stems from company and culture and the products at hand. For instance, when I was at Ford, being in product means that you are always about 4-5 years out. You are thinking about the next truck chassis, or the next-generation infotainment system and not really concerning yourself with the products that are out there already. This is somewhat because the automotive industry typically has slower cycles than high-tech.
In mobile gaming, PMs are extremely KPI-driven and are the go-to people when it comes to monetization. Of course, monetization can only happen if you are doing the other things right (user acquisition, conversion, and retention, etc.)
At Amazon, most PMs are more outbound than inbound and don’t necessarily work as close to engineers at Google, but that tends to change depending on geography as well.
Q: PMs need to become the “go-to-experts” on the product areas they work on to be successful. Do you have any tips on becoming a master of such distinctly different fields as you have throughout your career?
My simple answer to this is to pick areas that you are naturally passionate about. When you pick problem areas that mean something to you, staying on top of things and being market aware just comes naturally and doesn’t feel like something you actively have to become an expert on. Becoming an expert almost becomes a byproduct of you being a PM on top of your game.
That was how it was for me in the automotive industry. When it came to mobile gaming, not being much of a gamer myself, I had to work a lot harder and actually keep time aside to understand the problem area, play the latest games, and learn from my peers to get up to scratch as a PM, as those things weren’t things I was doing naturally in my free time.
Q: Do you think you’ll end up settling on and sticking to any particular product area and industry? Why or why not?
I think at some point in time all of us tend to pick a space that we find exciting and rewarding at the same time, so it's definitely possible! At this point in my career, I am keeping things wide open. I have been lucky to be able to hop between product areas rather quickly. I think the best part about being a PM is that I have seen that while most companies would prefer someone from their competitor pool, they generally are very open-minded when it comes to picking PMs from different walks of life.
I think what allows this to happen is that many a time, companies look for a more “Generalist” type of PM who can move seamlessly between products once they hire that person. And since there are so many similarities in the interview style especially in high-tech, PMs don’t have to feel confined to one particular area.
Q: Favorite PM resource or blog?
Stratechery by Ben Thompson. It’s not quite entirely product but a mix of everything in one place.
Q: What is your favorite product and why?
I love the meditation app Headspace. I wasn’t much into it before but I think that is the entire point of the app - to bring meditation to a new audience. What I love about it is that it is introduced in a very gentle and guided way, and you feel coached and encouraged throughout. Meditation is one of those things that is easy to get frustrated and give up on, but the product does a great job of keeping you motivated enough to reap the rewards of sticking to it.
Q: Who’s a product manager you admire?
My manager when I first became a PM at Amazon really taught me the difference between a good PM and a great PM, and he’s someone I still owe a lot to. He pushed me to expand my technical skills and become more comfortable with complex data. I think those two things have really helped me throughout my career, especially when I compare myself to other PMs who I started off with and how we approach problems.
That's a wrap! Thank you so much for reading.
You can find more about Sai on LinkedIn.