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In our first episode of "Confessions of a Product Manager," we interview Gokul Rajaram of Square. Don't know who Gokul is? Let me Google that for you.

The man is sometimes referred to as "The Godfather of Adsense," due to his key role in the early success of one of Google's most profitable products. Since leaving Google in 2007, Rajaram has founded (and sold) his own startup, Chai Labs, led ad-product strategy at Facebook and, most recently, joined Square to help the San Francisco-based company revolutionize the world of commerce. As if that weren't enough, Gokul is also one of the friendliest, most humble and down-to-earth guys we know...

Gokul Rajaram at Square's SF offices

In this interview, Gokul and our Director of Product, Matt Pasienski, cover a LOT of territory, including:

  • How to effectively staff up a successful product development team.
  • Which original Star Wars character best reflects Gokul's approach to product management. (Hint: it's not Darth Vader.)
  • Personal tips and tricks for managing the daily grind of product management. (Spoiler alert: stickies aren't a tactic, they're a way of life.)

Big thanks to our friends over at Square for hosting us, and to Gokul for making the time to chat with us.

Enjoy! And stay tuned for future installments of "PM Confessions."

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Full Transcript

Matt Pasienski: It's Gokul?

Gokul Rajaram: Gokul, yeah.

Matt Pasienski: Is that good?

Gokul Rajaram: Yeah. Perfect.

Matt Pasienski: Because my last name's Pasienski and no one ever...and then Rajaram?

Gokul Rajaram: Yep.

Matt Pasienski: Okay. Just wanted to get that...I'm sensitive. So I'm here with Gokul Rajaram who is a product managing genius. He was at Google and has been called the godfather of AdSense. Then started his own company called Chai Technologies which was acquired by Facebook where you then ran product management for ads.

Gokul Rajaram: Yep.

Matt Pasienski: And now you're here at Square. So obviously a whole range of different types of companies and products and experience so we just want to pick your brain about what's the best way to manage product, what's the best way to run your teams and what's the best way to make decisions.

Gokul Rajaram: Awesome. Excited to be here. Thank you very much. (Thank you for having me.)

Matt Pasienski: First question, when you were at Google, it's 2003. Very big time, especially for ads. They do things differently there. What were some of the innovative things that they did around product management that were different or innovative?

Gokul Rajaram: So one of the things that I loved about Google, and we've tried to have it here at Square also, is that success begets success. What that means is you don't staff up a team up front without understanding what that team can accomplish. So you first start really small for any product.  However big the vision is, you start with a very small team. You start with a team of 3 or 4 engineers, a product manager, a designer and you see what they can do. You give them some milestones, you let them set their milestones. You give them some metrics. If they hit their metrics, you give them more people. When I started out on AdSense we were literally 6 people and we launched a product with 6 or 7 people and then it grew from there and then by 6 months from then we were 25 people. So, you hit your metrics and you get more people and that should be how a team should operate. You should never forward staff a project. You should always staff with small teams. And small teams are actually more efficient process.

Matt Pasienski: It's like how do you think about the separation of the team and the product and your consumer base or do all of those things have to grow in unison?

Gokul Rajaram: All of them grow in unison. They all have to be really [inaudible 00:02:12] (tight) and ultimately of course the product needs to be consistent with the company strategy. So first of all the reason for existence for the product comes down from the company strategy and then after that, the metrics of the product need to be consistent with how it feeds back into the company strategy. So ultimately, we have a saying here that launch is not success. It's not just about launching a product, it's about growing the product, making it successful based on any metric that the product has.

Matt Pasienski: Excellent. What percentage of those initial, small seeds of products were actually successful and how well do you think that approach of just putting out all these little projects succeeded and what could have been improved or what ended up getting improved?

Gokul Rajaram: I would say about 80% of Google's initiatives were a success. But more than the 80%, the philosophy of the fact that you are empowered to take an idea and run with it, create a small team, go and influence people and build something has really savored the company. And I think very few companies could have done things like self driving cars and Google fiber and all of these things that Google is doing without having that mindset in the people.

Matt Pasienski: What do you think is the best want to manage that bottom-up process where people are trying things, you're measuring them, you're seeing what's successful and then growing those projects? What do you think is the right type of mentality as a manager? And in specific which Stars Wars character best represents it? You have Darth Vader maybe on one hand and, I don't know, maybe Luke Skywalker on the other hand.

Gokul Rajaram: Laughs.

Matt Pasienski: You just pick one our of that spectrum ...

Gokul Rajaram: So I think it's, as a manager, or as someone who sets frameworks, the most important thing you need to do is have guardrails. What you need to tell the team is, here is the set of things. Here is the surface area of all the things we will consider or work on. For example, at Square it might be focusing around commerce, but even commerce is too broad, so we try to say what are the things that are more specific than commerce that we want to do. And then within those, you then have a process for people to bring ideas. And then have very clear ways that you say that an idea gets converted into a team based on this criteria or this metric. But then after that, you really need to let them run. I can't really constrain them too much, because small teams will feel very clear ownership versus being top-down managed are the ones that are more successful.   

Matt Pasienski: So I think you are saying Obi-Wan.

Gokul Rajaram: Obi-Wan is perfect. I was going to say Commissioner Hans Solo and Darth Vader, but Obi-Wan is better.

Matt Pasienski: Excellent. I'm more of a Lando. I just want to act smooth.

Gokul Rajaram: There you go. Lando is good but Obi-Wan for this one.

Matt Pasienski: Obi-Wan is the best.

Gokul Rajaram: Obi-Wan is awesome.

Matt Pasienski: You have a notebook in your pocket. It looks like it's on you all the time. Talk about how you use that.

Gokul Rajaram: Yeah so, I'm in meetings all the time and I need to take my thoughts down in a way that I can remember it and transcribe it and then take actions on it. So, the notebook is essentially both a to-do list, so I maintain my to-do list on paper form as well as a meetings notes list. It's very hard to take notes on a phone, because the person you are meeting with feels that you are checking your email. And it's also hard to cart around a laptop all the time and open it again, the whole perception of doing email. So I use a notebook. It's served me well for the last 5 years and I hope it will for the next 20.

Matt Pasienski: That's interesting. Okay so you ...

Gokul Rajaram: How do you do notes? I'm curious.

Matt Pasienski: We actually have notepads in every office and I'm a big sticky fan. I have stickies everywhere and the thing I like about those is that they go up and then I integrate all of my notes into documents that I share with my team. So, it this intermediate format but then my biggest thrill during the day is taking down a bunch of stickies as I finish tasks.

Gokul Rajaram: That's exactly...for me it's crossing out a to-do. It gives you such power when you cross something out.

Matt Pasienski: Yeah and if you're lost, you just look up and you're like sticky and you just take it off and you start working. Kind of like an engineer with a backlog. Just building backlogs all day.

What would you say are you're biggest, top 1, top 3 tips for project managers that are looking to improve their team, improve their process, or just looking to improve their own personal performance?

Gokul Rajaram: Yeah. Think like a CEO. Remember that your job is not just to be responsible for the technical aspects of the product, it is for the holistic product. This means go to market, pricing is a feature. So pricing, customers, everything, You need to be the person who is ultimately responsible for the product. You are the guardian of the product. So that mindset is really hard to get because a lot of product managers come from different backgrounds. Some come from engineering some come from marketing. So I've seen that this in their background, they tend to gravitate towards that aspect of the product. It's really hard to find product managers who really think of themselves as GM's and are literally responsible for the product, even though they don't have people who report to them working on the product. They really need to think of themselves as a CEO. That's the biggest...that's the number 1 tip. All successful PMs I've seen have GM or CEO mentality.

Matt Pasienski: Okay. There we go. You heard it from the godfather (laughter). Thank you very much.

Gokul Rajaram: Thank you.

Matt Pasienski: That was amazing. I appreciate it. All right.

Gokul Rajaram: Awesome.


Peter Moore Posted by Peter Moore on Tuesday, September 30, 2014.


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