Why Product Management is mistook as Project Management in Indian Startups

If you are working in tech or have a lot of friends working in tech, when was the last time you were asked to try out a new internet product/app and whether you liked it? 

Masai School's opinion on Product Management in Indian startups

Probably last week, or last month. If you are an ardent Twitter user who tweets a lot about different startups and products, probably every alternate day. What might be masquerading as user research, is actually a basic survey presented to you. In a tech and product system like India’s, these insights generated from basic surveys actually find their way into building products for large-sized businesses.

But is there a problem? What harm do these simple surveys cause?

Michael Burk, the Product for Amazon Music HD admits that user research isn’t derived from something as simple as surveys and there are people who devote their entire careers into it. By definition, user research translates into building a deeper understanding of a user’s persona, his or her needs, and why it is useful and relevant. The idea is to help product managers why a particular product is useful and who it is being built for. In a nutshell, mere user surveys are not going to cut it to fully understand the structure behind building a product.

Masai School’s Head of Product and Engineering Ketan Sharma says that a Product Manager typically has his multiple roles spread across user research, technology and engineering, UI and UX design and also closely works with other stakeholders like founders, marketing and sales. According to him, the nature of the job in itself is very different and dynamic, and the way it is handled in Indian companies isn’t at all up to the par. 

PMs with over 5-6 years of experience still end up performing user research through these audience surveys and generating insights.

Ketan adds, “The idea is always about parking the outcomes for later and telling ourselves ‘We’ll see what happens’, but we never see what happens later. Most organisations would want the design team to guide a developer to build out the entire product, which just goes to show how product management is majorly undermined.”

The first principles that existing Indian PMs should ideally rely upon, do not really come from a top-down approach. Many senior leaders overlook the obvious visibility of inefficiencies and brush away many responsibilities and roles by wanting to ‘get the job done’ with only the limited and available tech resources. 

The delight of product simplicity

For any business ecosystem to build products for making lives simpler for small and medium sized businesses and owners, the right ideology is simplicity and convenience. In India, if an MSME owner has to transport his goods from point A to point B, something like a Bengaluru-based Porter app comes to the rescue. Similarly, a ledger book based mobile app like Khatabook exists for these small business owners in order to effectively replace the legacy system of pen and paper, avoiding the hassle of having to make entries of transactions and thereby using a calculator.

Looking at this product-led thinking from a product manager’s perspective, it tends to become all the more challenging to create products like these that do not allow any room for redundancies. The simpler the product, the larger the user adoption. This effectively equates to how much a business’ success relies on the simplest possible product. 

However, like most things in life, building a product is simple but not easy for something like the MSME market segment. It comes down to being tenacious enough while performing user research and sticking to simplicity throughout the lifecycle. 

The product fraternity in India has evolved from the likes of SaaS-based B2B products for enterprise customers to solving for large-sized B2C consumers. On the premises of convenience and simplicity, the phenomenon has spread across various sectors like Ecommerce, Fintech, Healthtech, Logistics, Urbantech among many others.

But are there enough product managers in India that fall under this category of ‘the right talent’ to solve for simplicity?

To build for user convenience, it requires an entirely different level of strategic thinking for product managers and most of them in India are not quite used to it. PMs who love to build products with simplicity and delight who also carry the right pedigree and calibre would round up to less than 15 percent in the country, according to Ketan. 

He says, “The product management scene in India is highly unorganised and fragmented. It is such that anybody and everybody goes on to apply for the role of a PM in the country. There is so much contrast when compared to a more mature market like the USA, where there are specific requirements like the candidate would have to do a course or be qualified enough to even apply.”

Developer v/s Product Manager 

As for a developer or an entire engineering team, the metrics they’d have to look at are possibly maintenance, downtime or latency. But when it comes to making the product as simple as it could get for the end user, the product manager is the sole owner and also the most accountable. He or she is fully responsible for both success and failure of the product, considering that it involves building out an entire roadmap for the product and working with the engineering team to ship it.

The engineering team or the software developers on the other hand are responsible for building the software and shipping it, whether it’s on the backend or for a consumer-facing product. The quality and the scalability of this product depends on the reliability of the code the developers write. A developer role’s requirements would be more laid out in an organised fashion with things like number of life cycles observed, number of applications developed etc. 

But there is hardly any awareness of the same when it comes to product management. An open PM position in the USA receives many more relevant applications and the current situation in India is a clear indicator of how large the gap is in terms of basic awareness, let alone upskilling. 

Ketan admits that the classic jugaad system that goes around in India only leads to creating shoddy products. 

He adds, “One of the reasons why this is very prevalent in Indian context is because Product Management is often confused with Project Management in a tech environment. There have not been any examples set for Product Heads in India nor do they have a role model to look up to for inspiration.”

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