Interviewed by Bhargavi Shankarananda
In our March ’22 edition of TPM Stories, we highlight unique career experiences, including what it’s like to take a long career break and transition to the role from an unconventional background.
Meet Nayantara, who has been at Stripe for almost 2 years. She leads the Stripe Platform TPM team which spans Developer and Product Experiences, and Accounts, Identity and Risk. She’s a long time resident of the San Francisco Bay Area and is grateful to have been spoiled with great weather, a vibrant cultural scene and amazing food.
Tell us about yourself!
I grew up in Hyderabad, India and moved to the US on my own to go to college. It was practically unheard of at the time especially since I didn’t have any family here. I am forever grateful for the sacrifice my family made in giving me this opportunity. I graduated with a double major in Math and Computer Science. At first I wanted to go into academia and started a Phd program in CS. I realized fairly quickly that was not my calling and pivoted into industry after completing a MS degree. On the personal front, I love traveling, photography (which I intend to pick back up someday), cooking, and board games.
How has your career transformed over the years?
Coming into the industry I first started off as a software engineer at Oracle. This was followed by working at successive startups first as a tech lead and eventually taking on leadership roles. Working at startups, one has to be adaptive and take on many different responsibilities. I got to dive into a lot of different areas — M&A, vendor negotiations, setting up ERP systems, owning back-end services and third-party integrations, customer on-boarding/success, managing offshore teams, etc. In many ways these experiences prepared me well for becoming a TPM where one often leans into adjacent disciplines and roles.
I transitioned into the TPM career track 10+ years ago. I first started as a TPM at Intuit in the CTO Development team. I worked both as an IC (independent contributor) and a manager, and have been fortunate to work in many different areas — mobile, tools, social, financial services, etc. After 6 years, I moved to Salesforce where I expanded my experience working on HA/DR, infrastructure and finally on developer platforms (Heroku). It was interesting to see different approaches to growing and scaling the TPM practice. At Stripe I first led a cross-company initiative as an IC and have since moved into a management role.
Did you have any career breaks? How did you navigate those?
I actually had a 10-year break in my career. I spent that time raising my children. I consider myself very fortunate to have had a choice to take a break in the first place. I just never planned for it to be that long. Being a stay at home parent is incredibly tough, the OKRs associated with raising a human being have a purpose unlike anything else I will ever do. It is also one of the most undervalued roles. But for me, these were the most fun and satisfying years; I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
When I decided to come back to work I put together a plan and gave myself a timeline. I began talking to people who knew me professionally, getting their advice and input. I did some pro bono consulting to get my feet wet. I then began reaching out to former colleagues, letting people know I was looking or straight up asking for introductions and that just got things moving.
The transition back to work was tough. Everything had changed so I not only had to (re)learn a lot, but was also navigating the logistics of balancing work and family. The one thing I was very clear about was that I would not compromise on my family; my children were still young and it was important for me to be present for them. I carved out time around their schedules and school events. But then I put that time back in late in the evening or early in the morning. I also had a tremendous amount of support from my spouse and a fantastic network of friends who had my back many, many times.
Workwise, it took me a long time to build back my confidence. What helped was the realization that I hadn’t lost my instincts — the ability to approach problems methodically, having a keen aptitude for discerning organizational dynamics and being judicious about what to work on and when. I invested a lot of time reading and got comfortable with asking questions. The teams I worked with appreciated that I really wanted to learn. I was able to build enough context to be able to contribute. Along the way, I was also fortunate to be supported by mentors, peers and other leaders who I partnered with.
Building resilience and grit through this experience has made me that much stronger. I’ve learned to be adaptable, curious, resourceful and patient. I’ve also learned the importance of building and sustaining relationships — personal and professional.
Any advice to others who might experience a career break?
I won’t lie, it is tough to come back from a career break but it’s certainly doable. Some advice:
- First, be kind to yourself. Change is hard and it takes time and patience. As long as you’re clear about your decisions, you don’t need to justify it or apologize for it. Don’t spiral into self-judgment and negativity. Just figure out how to move forward.
- Recognize your specific constraints and communicate early and clearly about them. Don’t surprise others who are depending on you. It helps to build credibility by delivering on your promises.
- Keep up your connections. I received a tremendous amount of help from my former colleagues. They were the ones that opened doors for me by providing references, counseling me as I weighed different options, and introducing me to their networks.
As tough as it was, in the end, it was so worth it for me. I have a lot of great memories with my children and am very close to them. I also have a fulfilling career that I am continuing to grow and learn in.
How would you characterize career development and what this means to you?
Career development is a constant — you have to invest in yourself and others. I frequently take a step back and introspect. What am I doing well? Where do I need to double down? What do I want to learn?
I think a lot of people think of growth as linear. I’ve learned that one needs to be comfortable making lateral moves, sometimes even taking a step back. Be intentional about the opportunities you take — consider what you will get to experience that will make you a better contributor or leader overall. Switching back and forth between being an IC and a manager, I’ve been able to sharpen my craft, learn new technologies or business areas, work on acquiring a new skill set, perhaps work with someone that I have a tremendous amount of respect for.
Outside your career break, what have been the top 2 challenges in your career?
I am actually an introvert and quite shy. This is definitely a challenge in a culture where we value “big personalities” and louder voices. I also have a cultural bias towards humility. I’ve definitely had to learn how to advocate for myself, and put myself out there to ask for opportunities. I’ve learned that it’s simply not enough to expect your work to speak for itself.
In general the TPM function is not very well understood and I’m always pushing for TPMs to have a seat at the table. In general it’s well understood where Eng and PM fit in. I frequently find myself educating teams on how to partner with TPMs and stressing how important it is to bring them in early to set up the partnership for success. Having a TPM scrambling to build context because they weren’t included from the start just sets your entire program off to a delayed start.
What advice would you give to someone who is considering becoming a TPM, or your former self?
Definitely ground yourself in a technical role first as you’ll be able to contribute that much more. To be an effective TPM you have to be able to understand the underlying technology, architecture and the overall development process. You need to be able to learn quickly and build context. Don’t be afraid to ask questions or push back. You have to strike a balance between helping teams to deliver and advocating on their behalf.
“What helped was the realization that I hadn’t lost my instincts — the ability to approach problems methodically, having a keen aptitude for discerning organizational dynamics and being judicious about what to work on and when.”
What is your favorite part of being a TPM?
I love winning and getting that big, gnarly program done! But for me the most important part is how we get there and what happens next. Getting a whole team focused, humming and working well together is incredibly satisfying. I also relish knowing that we’ve built durable, scalable solutions. My favorite part though, is working with people, building relationships and helping others to grow and succeed.
What is the most memorable program / project that you have driven?
At Intuit I worked with the Emerging Technologies team to release “Snap, Tap and Done”. This allowed one to automatically ingest data from a W2 by taking a picture of it, and using that data to file taxes. This was featured in a Super Bowl ad and it was absolutely critical for us to deliver. The work spanned several teams that learned to work well with one another, requiring us to be laser focused yet scrappy and really pushed the boundaries of what had been done before. I really loved the sense of urgency, everyone was invested not only in the areas they owned but in genuinely understanding other areas and collaboratively solving problems. All functions came together to review user studies, dig into metrics and do design and product reviews. I worked with some of the smartest and humblest people. Egos were checked at the door and we were just intent on meeting our goal. I was also working with a leader whom I respected tremendously and working with those particular teams was a real privilege and joy.
How would you characterize your TPM or leadership style?
I tend to be collaborative, direct and practical. I expect people to show up prepared and having invested time to understand their areas. I also have little tolerance for egos.
My job as a TPM requires me to be the trusted voice in the room. TPMs drive accountability, and own the end to end outcomes and deliverables. Aside from aligning teams and managing timelines, we’re also responsible for holding the team together and representing the current state with accuracy and integrity. To show up for the team, you have to invest time to understand the what, why and how. You have to build the relationships, earn trust and demonstrate the right aptitude and integrity. When teams trust that you have their back, they’re that much more likely to work with you and be transparent.
Leadership is very much the same. People have to trust that you’ll have their back, give them the right feedback and help them grow.