Product Management Excellence – Key Trends and Challenges

Today we’re delighted to welcome to the show Janani Narayanan a Director of Product at Salesforce. Currently, Janani leads an area within Salesforce’s broader digital experience where it is part of her team’s job to build out data products on salesforce tech. Janani is a Seasoned Enterprise Product Management/ Strategy leader with over 13 years of industry experience in a variety of domains including Data platform products, Mapping, Ridesharing, Banking and Fintech. Over the past several years she has co-founded technology startups, hired and mentored tech teams, driven large multi-disciplinary, cross-functional programs and products for companies such as Google and Salesforce, built products and performed in client-facing roles. She also loves to mentor/advise early-stage startups specifically in India with business strategy, marketing and development roadmaps.

Watch the full interview episode here.

Janani Narayanan
Director of Product at Salesforce

Janani, there’s a lack of formal Product Management education. How do you see the learning path for someone who’d like to pursue the Product Manager’s role?

This question is very close to my heart because I have gone through the journey from engineering to product management. 

You’re right, there’s a lack of formal product management education, but there is no dearth of literature on developing the skills for a product manager. Even if you come in with all the boxes checked in Product Management – you have an MBA and a relevant undergrad degree, there are still a few things that you can only learn on the job or from the school of hard knocks. 

Here are some skills and qualities you will want to develop on the job to be a successful product manager: 

Prioritization: as a new product manager, it’s something you may find hard to do. Every day, there will be papercut issues and moments that will keep distracting you and the team and can end up crowding out the important from the urgent. Therefore, keeping your team focused on what’s essential is a critical skill that will be tested in many situations 

Build a solid roadmap: you will have to be able to take something ambiguous, loosely defined and crystallize it into an MVP, epics and stories that you can hand to your engineering and design teams, build and launch a pilot. You should be able to get customers interested in the pilot, define the KPIs and adoption metrics to measure success, and get feedback. 

Grow emotional intelligence and a flexible mindset: these are critical survival skills for the next few centuries. We already see it in the pandemic where PMs should be able to empathize with customers and users, cross-functional teams and their team members. 

Remember that successful PMs come in diverse shapes and sizes as we may transition from any industry or domain like literature, design, architecture or strategic management and consulting. Thus, there is a place in Product Management for everyone because you can come in with your own strengths and then train and develop the others. 

What are the key trends that you think are important to note in your field?

The whole notion of using data as a strategic asset, especially data related to customers and prospects, has been leading the way recently. Even traditional companies increasingly realize that customer experience is the new competitive battleground and the best weapon in your arsenal is data. Despite being awash with data, these organizations cannot effectively use it. 

At Salesforce, we effectively develop large-scale, self-sustaining data platforms such as CDP (customer data platform) that gathers customer data from source systems and link it to customer identities. These platforms assemble profiles, build analytical applications and predictive models, and then orchestrate them to “the warriors in the front lines” by enabling sales service across every customer touchpoint. 

I can see you’re an advisor and mentor to early-stage startups. What’s your motivation there? 

I initially started as an engineer, and after I moved to California, I was a tech lead in Wells Fargo Bank. Around that time, a few of our friends had the idea of a startup focused on trade and finances. We established a team in Mumbai, hired engineers and business analysts, and eventually got bought over by a company based out of Dubai. Even now, I think it’s perhaps the best job I’ve ever had – to wear multiple hats as a person who runs the payroll, as well as who understands the product. 

Regarding being an advisor and mentor to early-stage startups, I don’t do that often enough recently because time is a constraint. My motivation for working with startups is to learn about various industries, from manufacturing to gaming to retail, to digital marketing, and to look deeper into different stages of their journey. I lend a hand in refining a pitch deck or brainstorming a strategy. It has been inspiring to watch how companies get creative, persevere through the tough times over the pandemic, and work on the product. 

Do you aspire to the role of the founder in the future?

Maybe. I never say never. With ZENFACT, though, it was almost a passion project, and it wasn’t a runaway success. Though, for young people, I would say go ahead and do it. 

What are some challenges you faced as a working woman and as a mother in the pandemic?

This question is very close to my heart. First off, these are incredibly challenging times, irrespective of one’s gender or employment or marital or parental status. And no matter the industry, title or level of seniority – the financial and emotional toll that the pandemic has caused has been unprecedented and has impacted us in ways that perhaps other historic downturns haven’t. 

The published studies and my experience as a working mother show that the crisis has disproportionately impacted women. Indra Nooyi, the former CEO of PepsiCo, mentioned that the crisis has a more significant effect on women as we predominantly carry the burden of unpaid care. Now for those of us who are lucky to work from home and telecommute, we are still seeing higher rates of dropping out from the workforce, and those who stayed have been under tremendous stress and anxiety. 

During the pandemic, there were several instances when I was very close to quitting my job. I took up my position at Salesforce early in 2020, and naturally, there was a lot of performance pressure to prove myself and establish credibility in a new team. That time was extremely demanding at work and home as I had a three-year-old to look after. Luckily, Salesforce takes care of its employees, and I was able to avail myself of a parent COVID leave that I took for about five weeks. I was encouraged by the transparency of women leaders, such as our own CMO, Sarah Franklin, who was transparent about how she had to work half hours during the day because she needed to split childcare with their family. 

So, if you’re undergoing stress, take action; you don’t have to fight this until you drop. Organizations, leaders, managers need to pay attention because people do not always want to appear vulnerable, and it takes much courage to do it.

Janani, it’s been an absolute delight to have you on the show! Thank you so much for making a time.

Stay tuned for more great interviews coming your way!