Employee Spotlight | Sapan Gupta, Graduate Product Manager

Getting my feet wet…

A bit of a cliche to start with but genuinely trust me when I say that it’s a bit surreal that I’ve been here for a year already when I’m writing this. I’m saying this not because “time flies” but because A LOT happened within a year and without an iota of doubt I must say, it has been an intriguing journey. In this fantastic run of events, I have learned something or the other everyday but here I wish to jot down a few profound ones so as to give you a little glimpse of how the first 365 days of an early career Product Manager look like at a fast-growing tech scale-up.

I’m a firm believer that ‘there’s only so much that can be learned through observation and research, you have to get your hands dirty’ and I feel that BlueOptima epitomises that rather perfectly. Over the period, I worked on six major projects and picked up countless little ones every now and then. What blows my mind is that everything I picked, big or small, directly affected the product/company. I mean, after all I was just a freakin’ rookie – but I had legit responsibilities from the get go.

I’ll try to gradually unwrap my takeaways (and giveaways) but allow me to first start with why I’m glad to have begun my career at BlueOptima…

What I loved about BlueOptima beyond everything else:

 
  • Talent over experience: Personally, I have seen that everyone at BlueOptima is freakishly smart and extremely self-driven, making experience a secondary factor for success. The average experience of the employees (managers) is probably on the lowest rungs of the industry and I think* the entire product team is under/around 30 – but this doesn’t mean we don’t know how to build crazy smart shit. More interestingly, although BlueOptima is a highly technical company, a lot of people (especially in the product team) do not have conventionally technical backgrounds – and that’s been okay! Now the youth isn’t to imply that we hardly work and just burst into random Wednesday evening parties (that’s for Fridays!) but this is to say that BlueOptima recognizes and values talent more than experience.

  • Diversity and gender neutrality: Extending the first point, I want to emphasize on this as it has caught my attention repeatedly. Not just BlueOptima as a whole but each individual team may it be product, Ops, TA, CS, and even engineering has almost equal participation from women. The entire company is extremely diverse; in my team of 5, 2 are women (and shout out to those 2, I think they are extraordinary leaders). Being from India, unfortunately you don’t usually get to see this, especially in tech companies. And I might as well add that, we have 4 different nationalities within the team of 5 and at least 15 in the company of 200. Being a proponent of inclusion, this fills my heart full.

  • Balance: BlueOptima is big and is a fast-growing tech scale-up working on an array of products. But it actually works like a very well structured combination of small start-ups within it. You get the best of both worlds. There is an extremely nice balance between letting you do your thing but also ensuring you do it when it’s due, while making sure you get all the help and resources you need. To top it off, I want to add that I’m still floored by how much they value work-life balance here. They know how to PARTY! It’s a lot to adapt to a new company and they know it but people here make it very easy.

 

The main lessons I learned as a new product manager:

 
  • Asking dumb questions doesn’t make you dumb, not asking questions does.
    It’s so easy to get lost in the layers of a large technical organisation. When I joined, I didn’t even know what a VCS was – how the heck am I supposed to get engineers to listen to me? Or more so, how am I going to think of new ideas when I don’t understand the ABCs of the product? Company’s decks and documents aren’t ever enough either. I was constantly feeling like an imposter and would spend hours googling words, which at the end would just confuse me more. Lucky me though that I have a great team. My managers would allow me to shadow them, ask me to note down anything I didn’t understand, and set time after for explanations separately. They always push the idea of actually playing dumb, getting answers, and then put the answers through experiments. Also, my socialiability allowed me to ask random questions to random employees I would bump into in the office – that is very helpful!

    Basically, you need to know that you aren’t supposed to know everything. Asking questions would rather seem inquisitive than dumb. Conjecture can be dangerous.

  • It’s not a ‘sprint’, it’s a marathon.
    Perfect products only exist in the imaginary world. And, I want to confess that I say this with utmost hypocrisy. My world turned around when I realised that I can’t turn the company/product around in my first year!! But fortunately, my world turned around for good and I have stopped worrying about being perfect at everything I do. I have this perpetual habit of not passing/delivering something over if I feel that it isn’t perfect – and trust me it is a biggg red flag! Frankly, I realised this on my 180th day that it’s all about putting something out first and then continuously iterating it for the better in the long run. That’s the key.

    Basically, you have to learn to define and be okay with ‘good enough’ and move on. You cannot do everything perfectly, especially initially.

  • Ambiguity and Prioritisation go hand in hand.
    There are a lot of ‘I don’t know what I don’t know’ situations in a new company (and this btw is my first job in a new country!). This particularly is super integral to the role of a PM. We always deal with decision making under ambiguity. How to work and get work done, and how to decide what everyone else does – all of it a constant battle. All I have learnt is to objectively quantify impact and effort of each task and get the ball rolling. Priorities will keep changing as well. Learning how to find the sweet spot between taking up too little or too much (worse!) is a skill that you develop and nurture.

    Basically, you need to know that there will always be new and multiple things to do. While one may be eager to do/learn everything, you need to be mindful and practical.


Tips to succeed in your role here: What helped me?

 
  • Be curious: Literally everyone in the company knows a wee bit more than you about it, thus everyone can teach you something. For me for example: someone who joined two months before me, helped me navigate the best through my onboarding (and believe me I was overwhelmed) and the ones who have been here longer have consistently have helped me understand more complex things easily. All you have to do is ask.
  • Be open: Especially as a PM, you probably will be working with every single team and different people across those teams almost regularly. Be consciously social and take initiatives to introduce yourself. In a particular scenario, a very random “small talk” with a sales guy in the queue for the coffee machine helped me decipher the ‘why’ of my project. Also stalk your own team member’s calendars and block times with them. The more people will know you, the easier it’ll be for you to openly ask for help. Start with people.
  • Be wise: One thing that worked well for me was that I would always prepare for my meetings, no matter if it’s a 15 minute catch-up call with the team or a feedback meeting with my manager. I would do my research and have back-up answers ready for each scenario. Be smart and diligent about this. Always do your homework and prepare for each meeting as it might make all the difference in your work. Remember, initial impressions last.


What could have still gone better?

 
  • Asking more questions: While I emphasized the importance of asking questions repeatedly, I do not think I myself did a great job at openly asking enough and correct questions. However, asking the right questions is an art and I will definitely get more chances to practice this.
  • Planning for dependencies: Setting roadmaps/processes, especially when it involves a lot of other stakeholders, is no less than a squid game. The ambiguity I’m talking about here is understanding everything everyone involved in the project will have to do and then planning accordingly. Again, this is an evolving skill that I’m sure I’ll get better at as I go.
  • Setting expectations: An indirect consequence of the first point, led to some blurred lines in project deliverables, expectations, and timelines. I believe I could’ve done a better job at defining those – both in terms of what I will do and what I need other people to do and by when.

It is undeniable that the first year is the hardest. I’ve tried to somewhat summarise a lot of those prominent emotions one can feel during this time and I hope it has done justice to the time you’ve invested in reading it.

And if you didn’t get the gist already, “Getting my feet wet” is a metaphor drawn from how you first dip your foot in the water to check if you like the temperature. For me it is to emphasize here that this is just the beginning and I have lots more to explore. I’ve tested the waters and I do like it. I know that it’s going to be challenging still but how else will it be fun?

See you on the other side 🙂

Sapan Gupta