Back in 2016, product manager ascended to the highest ranking dream job of MBA graduates. The timing fits; in the past few years, product management has garnered considerably more attention than ever before, making it seem to many like a brand new field.
But it isn’t. Some trace product management’s roots all the way back to 1931, with the emergence of the “brand” manager at Procter & Gamble or to early-adopter Hewlett-Packard’s fifty-year period of growth in the second half the twentieth century. The more modern iteration – a role that stands on its own, outside of engineering and marketing – has existed since at least the early aughts.
Even then, few have understood what the role was, including Naba Banerjee, who has since become the Head of Product for Walmart’s Samsclub.com. Unlike many would-be product managers today, Naba didn’t seek out the role. Back in 2007, PMs were hard to come by. When one of Walmart’s left, Naba, then a technical consultant, was offered their job. At first, she questioned her readiness, but her manager and the PM she replaced both assured her that she had the necessary skills for the job.
Unsure exactly what those skills were, Naba read and re-read a fresh-off-the-press product management manual her manager had gifted her when she first took the job. The book, Marty Cagan’s Inspired, eventually fell apart from use – a testament to the lack of other reliable resources or the dozens of blogs, conferences, and workshops that PMs can lean on today.
Though Naba remembers that guide fondly – so much so that she had it hardbound – it didn’t even scratch the surface of the complexity of her day-to-day. Over the past decade, Naba has owned dozens of products and held seven product management titles all within one of the highest grossing companies in the US. Each title, each product, was accompanied by a set of challenges that would warrant a guide in their own right.
Naba persevered without one. Since accepting that first role, Naba has learned what it takes to be a top product manager, how to hire and lead a team of top product managers, and to chart a path of growth at a massive conglomerate like Walmart.
Be a customer advocate
Naba had only been consulting at Walmart.com a short time before the team came to depend on her. When she moved from consulting on Walmart.com’s supply chain engineering team to a full-time product management position, she felt equal parts excited and apprehensive.
“My immediate reaction was, ‘Oh God, I’m not ready for that.’ I think many women feel that way when presented with an opportunity – even one that they’re absolutely ready for. Luckily, the PM who had the position before me pushed me to take it. She said I knew more about the systems and operations at play than anyone else, so I accepted.”
Though Naba took on the product manager title, she didn’t embrace the role entirely – at least not in the sense of how she thinks about product management now. “I would plan these strategy meetings, and we would focus on this laundry list of to-dos from our business stakeholders. The ‘strategy’ referred not to what would have the most impact and therefore should really be on that list, but instead, on how we could check off as many boxes as possible as quickly as possible.”
Because Naba could ship a lot of product features very quickly and because she could solve problems that business leaders wanted solved, her manager and her team considered her an incredibly effective product manager. Naba did too, until around 2009, when her view of what counted as good product management shifted entirely.
“I had a meeting with a supply chain consultant who asked me how many backorders we had for Walmart.com. I immediately started explaining how backorders worked in our supply chain, but he stopped me. ‘No, no,’ he said. ‘I wanted to know how many backorders Walmart.com receives in a given month.’ I was embarrassed – mortified even – but I was also indignant and defensive. ‘Why are you asking me this question? That’s a business question,’ I said.
“I’ll never forget his response. He told me, ‘As a product manager, you should care whether the product you build improves the experience of customers – not just how well it’s received internally or how quickly you push it out. Customers shouldn’t have cancellations and backorders, so the number of cancellations and backorders that Walmart has should be one of your key metrics.’”
That brief meeting was a wake-up call, a turning point in Naba’s career. In the years following, she read and annotated that book on product management so many times that the pages tore and the highlighter bled through. “My vision of my role as a product manager completely transformed as a result,” Naba recalls. “I went from executing someone else’s strategy to creating my own.”
Build a customer problem roadmap
That meeting with the consultant— now, Naba’s husband — inspired her to take a more customer-centric approach to product. “We don’t build product roadmaps – we build customer problem roadmaps, and we track the metrics that tell us how close we’ve gotten to solving them.”
“Once I became customer-driven, leadership started to recognize how well I understood my business area and my ability to move our metrics forward.”
Their customer problem roadmap has proven very effective at keeping the team from developing an intuitive attachment to certain solutions by holding them accountable to the qualitative and quantitative data on customer experience. “Ruthless prioritization is a key aspect of product management, and it can be done well or it can be done poorly. That is, it can be done based on what executives want and what immediately serves their bottom line, or it can be done based on what customers need and what will solve the most problems for the largest group.”
Naba is known throughout the company for her willingness to take risks and successfully manage competing priorities. This makes her in demand when executives have to select leadership for a new or particularly challenging initiative or experimental team. “They brought me in to write up the back-end requirements for Walmart Canada because the project was running way behind schedule and no one had the subject matter expertise. Or when the new CTO came in, he had to choose a handful of people to launch Walmart’s first global service-oriented platform. I was one of them.”
Naba’s first instinct was to resist the offers. “When a senior director asked me to lead Sam’s Club’s desktop site, I doubted myself because I had never had any experience working on customer-facing products. Supply chain was so black and white to me – we ship a product on time or we don’t, it arrives or it doesn’t. But he knew I could learn it and I did.” Eventually, Walmart’s executive team gave her the desktop experience, then mobile web experience, then apps, then all membership e-commerce, and pricing too.
No matter the product, Naba makes sure her team keeps a watchful eye towards customer experience. What they see informs the team’s product vision and the choices they make daily about what to scrap and what to prioritize.
Unfortunately, the upsides of a customer-centric strategy can look like a downside from the perspective of other time-strapped organizations. “Sometimes, other teams complain that we change our plans a lot. That’s certainly true, but we haven’t changed our metrics. We continue to try and fail and try again so we can improve our customer experience.
“Of course it would feel more comfortable for everyone if we just had a roadmap full of tasks and then just execute on them, but if they don’t make an impact, it doesn’t matter. As much as we would like to know in advance what will work and what won’t, we don’t. It’s worth the uncertainty that the customer problems roadmap creates because it keeps us on track towards solving those problems and it keeps us honest.”
Evangelize the product mindset
When it comes to generating cross-organizational support for a customer-centric strategy, shared goals and metrics are essential. Naba’s team regularly works with a range of teams including operations, e-commerce merchants, in-store merchants, marketers, engineers, and analysts on different products. To create a great customer experience, everyone has to agree that great customer experience is the ultimate goal.
But even before everyone buys into that goal, they first have to buy into a product mindset. “Many of us have been indoctrinated with the idea that what makes a team successful is its ability to complete a task well and fast. I see product managers do it all the time. They get attached to checking off boxes so they seem busy and accomplished and efficient. But in an effort to get more boxes checked, we don’t take the time to understand whether or not the effort aligns with our goals or to measure whether past efforts made any impact. On my team, we broke this mold. We’re much more interested in the ‘why’ and much for flexible on the ‘what.’”
Naba brings this philosophy into the conversation with the cross-functional teams that she works on. “To manage all of those moving parts, we have to agree on our goals, choose our KPIs accordingly, and then nail down what success looks like for each metric. Otherwise, the model breaks down.”
Recently, Naba’s team worked with a team of engineers, operators, marketers, and UX designers on a product called Re-Order Your Essentials. Like many of the products Naba owns, it was born out of a customer problem: “It took some customers up to two hours to search, add to cart, and then order the thirty or so products they needed to buy regularly.” The team’s new KPI was average order time, and their goal was ten minutes.
With eyes set on the same target, the team stayed buoyant and enthusiastic – even as they struggled to hit their mark. “Instead of growing tired of the product or feeling frustrated that their idea wasn’t chosen, everyone on the team just kept asking, ‘Since this didn’t help us hit our goal, what else can we do?’ or ‘I saw this in the data, I’ve seen success with this, should we try it next?’”
Naba considers the adoption of the product mindset a key factor in Samsclub.com’s double-digit year-over-year growth. “The results have proven the value of our investment in analytics, and a strong, flexible product team that could partner with these other organizations.”
Even though Naba regularly collaborates cross-functionally, she holds herself and her immediate team accountable when it comes to customer experience. That doesn’t mean she encourages her PMs to start doing other people’s jobs. She does, however, want them to ask questions of about the motivations and methods of other teams, make an effort to inspire them, and strive toward lofty goals.
Though Naba pushes herself to the absolute limit to deliver a great customer experience, she didn’t always think as a big as she now realizes she could have. “When our new CEO came to Samsclub.com, he asked me, ‘What would you do to increase the revenue of the company by 5x?’ No one had ever asked me that before, but now it’s a question that I ask every PM. It’s not that I expect them to have a viable answer or that I think one of us can transform the revenue of the entire company, but grappling with such an overwhelming question makes us more prepared to address what we can do in our particular area with our skillset and the people we have available to us, both on our team and across organizations.”
With the support of the rest of the leadership team, Naba has the space to invest in everything related to customer experience. “We agree that product managers should never stay in their lane.” Naba traces that belief back to another conversation with the CEO. “He asked me how I would discover the product I was working on. My initial response was something like, ‘Well that’s the email marketing team’s problem. We told them to send out an email.’ And he said, “Last time I checked, you were the Head of Product.” He would even ask, “What about the description of this item? It’s not right.” And I would say that’s because the merchant didn’t coordinate with the content, but he said, as the product leader, I needed to care. That really pushed me to break down all the silos.”
On the flip side, that means when something Naba and her team push for doesn’t work, they admit and own failure, too. By keeping herself and her team honest and demonstrating a commitment and passion for everything she works on, Naba has gained the trust she need to work cross-functionally and deliver the experiences that keep customers coming back.
To find fantastic PMs, look beyond the degree
When hiring the product talent that will complement her existing team and work well cross-functionally, Naba looks for something a bit more intangible – and even more rare – than an MBA. What she wants in a candidate maps directly onto her philosophy. “It matters less what they can do, and more about the way they will do it.”
Naba described someone who did not take themselves too seriously, but took their job seriously; someone with an insatiable curiosity about the ‘why,’ but little attachment to ‘what’; someone with a propensity towards nosiness, but an intuitive sense of where to draw the line; someone with a deep sense of personal accountability, hard-coded resilience, and a willingness to strive.
“Moving quickly, working hard, technical savvy – those things are all golden, but it has to be paired with attention to detail, attention to data, and follow-through. Whether they have experience with machine learning, data science, or whatever coding language the hiring manager is hellbent on finding a candidate with ‘mastery’ in” – none of that matters. If they’re dedicated, if they’re curious, if they hold themselves accountable, they can learn everything else.” Just like Naba did.