Interviewed by Bhargavi Shankarananda
For the 2022 year-end edition of TPM Stories, we hear from three TPMs on their career journeys and their thoughts on leading a team of TPMs.
From Bhushan Balani — I always had a deep fascination with software development and design, so I came to the USA to do my Masters in Computer Science. Since then, I have worked in a variety of technical roles and led multiple teams. Currently at Stripe, my team manages programs related to Stripe’s developer APIs, Stripe dashboard, Stripe’s App Marketplace and others.
Prior to Stripe, I have worked in a number of industries leading engineering and product teams. I was the head of product and engineering at AWS, a Software Engineering Director in Winn-Dixie, Digital Loyalty systems manager at Meijer and Technical consultant at Crowe Horwath. On the way, I wanted to learn business principles and leadership skills, so I completed my MBA from Michigan.
In this journey I have worked with amazing and talented people, many of whom I am lucky enough to call my friends. Outside of work, I play recreational Tennis and Racquetball. Still sneak out to play a game or two with my son every weekend.
Tell us about yourself!
What gets me excited is building “Zero to One” products. “Zero to One” describes the process of creating something radically new and taking it to the first step (or intensive growth). It can be building a new digital loyalty system, or launching a counterfeit detection system at scale, or building a new marketplace for developers to develop on Stripe platform. The common theme of all these is how to focus on delivering something innovative and relevant in a limited time, optimizing tradeoffs in the broader ecosystem, and delivering on a high-quality experience. It is hard work but the experience is really worth it.
Can you briefly share how your career has transformed over the years?
Earlier in my career I had a 9 year stint as a software consultant, but it wasn’t until I raised my hand for a greenfield project I realized my passion was working on “Zero to One” products. Meijer (a retail firm) was dabbing its feet in launching a digital loyalty system. I jumped head first to establish Meijer’s digital loyalty system. After the successful launch of mperks.meijer.com, I moved to Winn-Dixie where I was leading charge for multiple engineering teams including Point of Sale systems, Pharmacy systems, In-Store manufacturing systems and labor management systems. This was the time when Product Management was evolving as a distinct discipline (before Engg Directors were expected to also do product management). I love the fact that a Product Manager’s job is never complete, as customer preferences always keep evolving along with the product. I joined Amazon as their head of product and technology conceptualizing their counterfeit product identification systems, led product teams in AWS and now I am leading technical programs in Stripe.
How would you characterize career development and what this means to you?
Career development is a squiggly journey. It is a process of exploring, learning, making impact, while at the same time loving what you are doing. The last part is very important. It isn’t always about climbing the corporate ladder. To me, career development is fluid and can take many different paths. It is about being flexible to all the opportunities that life brings to you; all the while honing on your skill set to provide customer value.
Every role I have taken has had a broader impact than the previous one. The good thing about my current role is I get to wear multiple hats at the same time, identify and address gaps where there is the most need and essentially get the satisfaction of successful delivery.
What were the challenges you faced while moving from an Individual Contributor to a managerial role? How did you overcome them?
There are quite a few lessons I have learned on my way. Listing few of the important ones:
- Asking the right open ended questions: Asking right questions is a powerful way to gain insights, build relationships, and advance in career. Open-ended questions are questions that cannot be answered with a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’, and instead require the respondent to elaborate on their points. The right question is the one which is not prescriptive, retains the responder’s autonomy while at same time achieves the purpose or concern. It is a muscle that I had to develop over years.
- Celebrating Success: In our day to day operations and especially when we are all remotely located, we often forget to celebrate. A big part of building relationships is giving team members validation and motivation through recognition. Any missed opportunity to compliment a success is a missed opportunity to connect with team members.
- Avoiding Peanut Butter Spread: As a Manager it is fairly easy to not prioritize and aim to do all at once, stretch your team and yourself to do everything Sometimes it looks possible but many times the team compromises on actual value add. For example, if you stretch a TPM too much, there is a high likelihood they will pivot more on program managing multiple programs but their depth of technical contributions in each program will suffer.
- Right balance to support team, organization and culture: There always comes a point when you have to draw clear boundaries. For instance, telling a staff member that they need to fix a concern from their stakeholders. My learning was how to provide clear evidence, have crisp conversation, and provide support; all of these with kindness.
You have been an Individual Contributor, a Product leader, a Program Manager and a Manager of TPMs across companies. What have you learnt the most from these versatile roles?
Irrespective of the role, the short answer is focus on providing “Customer Value” and “Taking care of your team”.
Each of these roles has some unique expectations but there is also a good amount of overlap between these roles. This is by design. Working in all these roles has helped me get a good understanding of learnings and pitfalls in each role. Being a Product leader has taught me how to be external focussed (i.e., how to create a 3 year strategy, focus on customer segments, define product roadmap, identify product pricing and how to iterate the product based on customer sentiment/feedback). Being a TPM has helped me sharpen my abilities to negotiate, collaborate and take risks. And managing tier-1 services as an Engineering Director has pushed me to think strategically, identify inefficiencies in processes and keep the lights on. But there has been one common theme in all of them: providing customer value.
What advice would you give to someone who is considering growing as an IC vs. TPM Manager?
Find your own style to help your team, work with your team members to understand their career aspirations, and be their most vocal advocate.
One piece of advice I would give to new TPM Managers is to treat your team’s 1:1 as the most important meeting. Early on in my career I thought 1:1 was only about building rapport. Very soon, I realized that it is as important as any other meeting which requires prep, focus, attention and action items. This is one of the few times where you will have uninterrupted attention for your team. They need to know you value their work, their career aspirations and their overall wellbeing, while at the same time it gives your team members a secure space to voice their concerns, FUD (Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt), etc.
What is your favorite part of being a TPM?
It is a much more social role than an Engineer Manager or a Product Manager. You’ll form close ties with a cross functional team and become a resource to improve their work life.
What is the most memorable program / project that you have driven as a TPM? What made it so memorable?
One of the most memorable programs that I have led is identifying counterfeit products in the Amazon supply chain. My team was building an ML based product to identify counterfeit products, but we did not have enough data or tell-tale signs. So we established a program which reviewed images of any new product inbound to identify the counterfeit give-away signs for each established brand. We collaborated all the way from fulfillment center associates, to legal, finance and executives in ensuring no counterfeit product leaked the system. While it was important for all good reasons, it is memorable because we ended up building a library of counterfeit products (a glass cupboard museum) which had everything from counterfeit electronics to a counterfeit culinary knife.
How would you characterize your leadership style? How has this helped you?
I believe in Situational Leadership. There is no one size fits all, remember no peanut butter spread. The style varies depending on the maturity and experience of the team. If I am working in a more experienced and settled team, I am a participating leader. You would hear me say “I think this could be an option, what is your thought?” It is more about giving clear goals and having mechanisms to check progress and help remove roadblocks.
On the other hand, if I am working with newer team members, my leadership is a more prescriptive one. I get closely involved in the initiative and take an active role in the decision making to unblock the team. This is until such time when the team feels comfortable to drive themselves forward.
“If you want to lead something, start with saying this is what I care about, this is why I am passionate about it and finish with this is why you should also care about it” — Bill Clinton.