Madhuri Aggarwal: About remote work, technologies, and skills for PMs

Madhuri Aggarwal

We interviewed Madhuri Aggarwal, a senior business consultant solving product challenges for clients such as eBay and Cisco. Madhuri shared her expertise in product management and favorite tools and processes she uses on a daily basis. 

What’s your background, and what are you working on?

With a masters in marketing and computer science engineering degree, I sit at the intersection of Business, Technology, and User Experience. I have led multiple IT projects from ideation to execution for my employers and clients alike during the last 8 years. I really enjoy synthesizing customer and business needs, defining and driving product roadmaps for developing client facing platforms and employee facing applications.

Apart from supporting my client in their business continuity planning efforts amidst the COVID-19 crisis, these days, I am devoting my time on community building efforts.  

Can you describe your current role and how you got started in product management?

Out of business school, I found this amazing opportunity to work at an Indian SMB that offered a Marketing Rotation program. While there, I fell in love with product management—and that led me to a job at a Silicon Valley startup and later Cognizant Business Consulting. My consulting job has taught me how to uncover problems, identify solutions, and more importantly, how to build and market some of the cutting-edge technology offerings. 5 years ago, I got the opportunity to lead product lifecycle management responsibilities in order to bring a B2B solution to life for my client, eBay. Since then, I am helping them – as a Product Manager- in developing platforms & applications while delivering lasting experiences and business value.

Could you tell us about your day to day? What technologies and methods do you use on a daily basis?

Product manager responsibilities vary not just from company to company but also at project/team level. Due to this variability, there is a wide range of day-to-day activities, but ultimately, a product manager is still responsible for doing whatever it takes to collaborate with multiple teams and move different conversations towards closure.

On a typical day, right after checking my emails, I like to prioritize and stick with 3 or less things that I want to achieve on that day. Being prompt about answering my customer or team’s questions or concerns, standups or other sprint meetings, stakeholder meetings, requirement definition or backlog prioritization within JIRA, keeping abreast of industry trends are some of the other tasks my job demands on most days.

At eBay, we follow agile. Agile works best with projects with uncertainties as this methodology allows quick iterations as per the user validation. However, you need to keep an open mind, be adaptable to change, and assess the risk to cope with agile methodology.

  • Using a tool such as Zoom allows not just virtual meetings but makes it easy to record conversations- to be referenced later. 
  • Gartner for the collective industry research and the latest thinking of the analysts to help determine where your market is headed.
  • Axure for wireframing
  • Slack for team messaging
  • Visio for flowcharting
  • JIRA for project management but I also love the simplicity of Trello and intuitiveness of Asana

This doesn’t mean that MS Office 365 shouldn’t have a prominent slot in your product management toolkit.

What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced and the obstacles you’ve overcome as a PM?

While building a product from 0 to 1, it required the use of different mental muscles and a deep understanding of all of the factors in a launch, not just the ideation and writing requirements. Everything from operations, how do we sell, how do we support, how do we go to market, how do we measure, etc. was a grilling exercise while I was building eBay’s first business-to-business platform. Scaling from 1 to N was another beast for the same platform in a different industry and in different geography.

Apart from these complex problems, I had one issue in the past and I believe many Product Managers have is, ensuring that their successes and the value they deliver are articulated across the organization. This is so important as you could be doing an amazing job at delivering features one after the other and oftentimes, you tend to get so involved in delivering a great solution that you forget to tell people what you and your team have achieved. This can lead to people not understanding the value you or the product bring to the organization. I am not claiming to have addressed this completely, but I am getting better at analyzing.

What are your favorite ways to learn more about your users?

  • Feedback from users directly- but more often, you don’t get a lot of it.
  • Quantitative research – numbers can unravel behaviors that might be difficult to discover during an in-person interview
  • Feedback from or through customers teams or partners
  • User session recordings to see how the users interact and their journeys
  • Assume now and test later approach when we lack any substantial information about my existing users

Do you have tips for managing teams in different timezones?

When it comes to remote teams that work across time zones, structure and order are everything. The more people work on your team, the more important is it to establish processes and procedures for everyone to follow with a clear escalation path if an issue arises. Developing a Code Style Guide has helped my teams spread across multiple geographies.

  • Building relationships – not just business ones, but personal ones, with all stakeholders, is as critical as voicing appreciation and celebrating the wins together.
  • Have one time where everyone can get together in real-time. This invariably requires sacrifice for somebody, but it’s important.
  • For better communication, I use time overlaps for conference calls and/or joint team assignments and whenever possible, meet virtually through videoconferences
  • I emphasize JIRA or Slack for Asynchronous Communication

Being constantly in touch with all the team, not only the customer, is key to building a good relationship with them and this will help you to create better products.

How often do you run meetings? How do you run them? Does your team run standups?

Apart from a daily scrum, we do Sprint Planning, Sprint Review, and Retrospective every 2 weeks. Backlog grooming is typically monthly to fill the gaps, only if the PM deems it necessary.

We work using Scrum, so it’s a matter of keeping track of work with the dailies in each sprint. After a few sprints, you’ll get to know the capacity of your team in order to be more effective when planning the next ones and also to prioritize your backlog.

During daily scrum, every team member answers:

  1. What did we do yesterday?
  2. What are we doing today?
  3. What is in our way?

Before the sprint planning meeting, I ensure that all items in the backlog that could be considered for the sprint (features, bugs, optimizations, stakeholder feedback, etc.) meet the team’s definition of ready and are not too large or small.

As a PM, I keep the roadmap both current and visible to the whole team inside of Jira before the sprint planning meeting. Everyone keeps their availability updated in project wiki.

During the sprint planning, I will present the sprint backlog to the scrum team and look for alignment. If items are not estimated already, we estimate them to get a sense of how many can be selected for a sprint. We discuss any issues, assumptions, or dependencies before the team can go back to work.

At the end of the sprint, we review the increments and check the backlog. I ensure that the definition of done is met for the increments and that the QEs do not have any issues. The entire group then collaborates on what to do next.

During the sprint retrospective, my scrum team discusses what to:

  • Start doing
  • Stop doing
  • Continue doing

How deeply should product people know about marketing strategy, UX design, and coding?

In my experience, background doesn’t make much of a difference. You should go towards where your passion is. And, as long as you’re not afraid to learn on the fly, you’ll be fine.

Do you have coding skills?

As a computer science engineering student, I did code quite a bit during my undergrad but never had to, after then. I wouldn’t hesitate to, as a PM, if a project demands.

What skills do you think would be most valuable to learn and prioritize for an aspiring PM with no technical background?

Good product managers know what they don’t know and are excited to learn about it. They have a basic familiarity with technology and are curious to understand how a product works.

My advice to the PM aspirants with no technical background would be to learn how to solve problems before attempting to learn to code. Be aware of the technical goings-on and trends in the industry. Learn tracing through the product flows to understand fundamental user issues. Know the difference between ‘urgent’ and ‘important’ which can be a difficult distinction to make. Learn to empathize – not just with your customers but also with your developers. As a PM, the more I asked questions to the developers and genuinely listened, the better I could appreciate and represent their point of view. 

If you understand your product, communicate effectively to technical and non-technical audiences, eager to learn, and stay organized, you’ll be ahead of the game.