Product Leadership: interview with Vaibhav Sahgal, Head of Growth at Reddit

What are the traits of a good product manager? Where do you get started from? How do you know you’re on the right track? Those are the questions that should be on the mind of anyone who yearns to have successful career in product management.

While each of us will have own unique journey to success, there’s a lot we can learn from successful product managers. One of them is Vaibhav Sahgal, former Director of Product and Vice President at Zynga, and current Head of Growth at Reddit. In an interview with Anna Buldakova, Vaibhav shared tips on growing your career as a product manager, balancing short- and long-term bets, and also developing the right skillset to become a product leader.

P.S. If you want to learn how data can help you build and grow products, take a look at GoPractice! Simulator.

About hiring and promoting the right people

What’s your take on hiring product managers? What are the things you care about the most?

One of my favorite questions is “what is your favorite product that you use every day”. Another one is “what do you like about it? How would you make it better?”. And then we go deep, like “How would that work? What would it do for the business? How would the users use it? How many users, you think, would use it?”. If you’re a true product manager, you have already thought about these questions in your head while using this product, it’s intuitive to you. I look for people who have those answers on the tip of their tongue. But the most important question is “How passionate are you about consumers of our products? And is this really something you love doing, or is it just a job for you?”.

What do you think would be more important, passion or experience?

I would take the passion for sure. Passion mixed with a drive to learn from others can really bridge the experience gap. It’s much better to have that sort of energy in a team, even if it means that the person is going to make some mistakes every now and then, or they’re not going to have the exact right approach all the time. But as long as you can get them the support, and they’re willing to learn and take feedback well, they can bridge that gap through other people in the team who have the experience, or through leaders who can guide them.

How do you promote people? What are the signals you’re looking for when you think that this person has some potential?

We have very distinct career ladders: if you’re hitting these levels and you’re ready for the next step, let’s go for it. But I also look for the ambition and the hunger to do more and take on more responsibility, and to grow as an individual as well as an employee. And not just “hey, I want to get promoted because I want to make more money” or “I want a fancy title”. I find that people who put their responsibilities first, as long as they are paired with the right managers, their career will grow, and you’ll grow in a way that’s very organic and fair.

About transitioning into Product Management

Thinking about your time in the university, what kind of subjects you were interested in?

Computer science for sure. Those were some really fun classes, but I had a variety of interests. I was pretty involved in theater, I used to take part in debates and also in plays. The other part that I think has helped me over time, is psychology. I was very fascinated with the entire subject, learning more about humans and why we behave in a certain way. I think psychology is a very underrated major in college because so much of what we do in product management is about understanding consumers and their behaviors, and psychology is what’s behind that. And then I also had an interest in economics.

You also mentioned that you were working while you were a student.

I did all sorts of work. My first job was at my university: it was this really depressing place in the basement, and you would have to call alumni and ask them if they would donate to the university. It wasn’t a very fulfilling job. Then I moved to a software engineer role at Delphi Automotives, and it was mostly just a QA work and not so much actual coding. But then I finally started to get cool internships, and things started to progress.

When you were looking for your first job in the Silicon Valley, were you primarily motivated by the job itself, by money to be financially independent, or by living in the area?

A lot of it was living in the area. I spent two summers here, and it was clear to me that it was the place to be if you really wanted to do something special in technology, to have the right culture and the right people. The first job I got was at the company called Hi5 which doesn’t exist anymore. When I look back, I think it was a pretty uninspiring product but at the time I was just so excited about getting any opportunity there. The area kind of captured me, and then I made myself believe that everything else was going to be worth it as well. Dangerous decision but it worked out.

And then Zynga happened. How did you transition into product management there?

Funny story: when I interviewed at Zynga, I was interviewing for a software engineer, not for a PM. When I was at Hi5, I was really lucky to work with the PM who taught me a lot. I was experimenting with different ideas and was really excited when it lead to actual product improvements. I was sharing it with my PM and talking through it. So when I was interviewing for a software engineering position at Zynga, they caught on to that passion and asked me in the mid-interview if I wanted to switch to being a PM instead, and I jumped on the opportunity instantly.

What was appealing to you in the product management position?

I enjoyed being a software engineer: having a problem to solve that is very tangible and clear, getting lost for hours trying to figure it out, and then having this awesome moment of accomplishment when you got it. But what I enjoyed more was working closely with consumers, getting to know them, framing what their problem is, and then figuring out how we’re going to solve it. I think I always knew I wanted to make that shift.

What was the most difficult for you in this transition? It’s definitely a very different mode of work.

It was difficult going from “here’s a very clear concrete problem you have to solve” to this ambiguous, abstract problem of “hey, go figure out how to get new users come back more often to your product”. I wouldn’t say I struggled with it but there was definitely a period of transition that took some time. I was very lucky to start my career at Zynga. I was able to surround myself with people who were very good at decomposing and structuring complex ambiguous problems. Zynga at the time used to hire consultants as product managers, and they are taught this approach very early on. Bringing a lot of that culture into product management was super helpful to me.

So there is structural thinking and problem understanding skills. What else, in your opinion, makes a great product manager?

I remember asking this question to a young PM last year who was trying to figure out which path to take: data science, product management or maybe software engineering. And he said he decided to become a PM because he was more interested in growing his leadership skills. While it’s an interesting reason, I think it’s actually the wrong one. Being a product manager doesn’t mean that you lead a team, it means that you own the facilitation of the process. You get to facilitate this process of making a great product or building great features with a multidisciplinary team. It’s not that “it’s my idea, here’s how we’re going to do it, and then I’ll take all the credit for it”. Product management is about framing the problem with a group of really smart people, coming up with solutions together in a collaborative way. Owning that process, doing it really well, is what you need to love and what you need to be really good at.

About growing as a Product Manager and becoming a leader

At Zynga, within a couple of years you grew to a director of product. What do you think were the key levers or the key drivers for your growth there?

First and foremost, I was lucky to have great managers who cared about developing my career and my skills, gave me great feedback that I worked on. One of the key reasons why I was able to rise quickly was embracing a lot of opportunities. For example, I was a director of product at CityVille, our General Manager had just left, and they didn’t have any other candidates. So our VP asked me if I wanted to try it, and I thought “sure, why not?”. Honestly, it was scary, it required me to get out of my comfort zone. I was unsure if I was actually up for it but I think it was important to take that sort of leap. Often I see that people shy away from any scary opportunities.

Was there anything you did to prepare yourself for such a leap?

I always looked at my GM and how they were doing things, and I learned from that, but I also had opinions on how to do them better. It was always going on in the back of my head. I think it helped as it wasn’t like I was starting from zero: I already had some ideas from my time not doing the role. But, honestly, looking back, I would’ve done so much differently. For example, if I could go back to young Vaibhav and talk to him, I would say “hey, learn from others more, seek out”. I’ve been good at incidental learning from others, like when you are around people who are great, you watch them and learn but I have not been so great at seeking out learning. I was like “I know how to do this, I don’t need any help”. Now, I would have broken some of that arrogance and instead approach people who knew a lot better than me.

What were your responsibilities as VP Games and GM at Zynga?

My role at that point had three parts. Number one was people, number two — product, and number three — profit. And it starts with people, right? It starts with building a great team but also cultivating a really great culture when people are passionate about what they are doing. Number two was product which I personally spent most of my time doing, like “who’s the consumer? What motivates them? What do they want or what they don’t want?” and then facilitating the process for “what are we going to build for them to enjoy”. Number three was profit which was the most boring part of the three, it was the P&L management, making sure that we are making enough revenue, forecasting well, hitting our targets and so on. I think if you did the first and second right, most of the time the third would follow.

What was the most important for you in terms of getting the people part right?

I set up these forcing functions and accountability structures that would make sure we are doing our best work, but at the same time, people feel autonomy, and I’m not micromanaging or getting too much into every single detail. For example, at Reddit we have a meeting called “the roadmap review” where we review everything we’re doing. And I’m not the one who came up with any of the ideas discussed there, figured out in what priority we’re doing them and who’s doing what — but I am the one pressure testing them, asking the tough questions and also getting full context so I can make better decisions. In the long term, I think it’s the only way to scale and the only way to really drive a great team.

How did you find this balance between staying on a high level but still getting all the context?

It’s tough. For example, at Reddit, we take our experiment readouts very seriously so they’re extremely thorough and very detailed. And I read every single one of them. My team does a really great job of giving me all the context so I don’t need to be involved in every step of the process in the future. I can ask the hard questions and give my perspective on what I think the data is telling us but it’s a dialogue between me and the product manager. Setting up these touch points at regular intervals makes more sense to me than trying to be involved in everything because it’s just not going to scale, and you’re going to be under water all the time. As someone who is supposed to be strategic and think very long term, you should be able to step back from all that noise to figure out what do we want to achieve 2 years from now for our team and so on.

Is there any specific structure that you find the most helpful?

At Reddit, for example, what worked really well for us is OKRs (Objectives and Key Results). Every quarter we come up with them together as a team and agree on what we’re trying to solve and what we are going after. We have a hypothesis-driven backlog so, instead of just arguing back and forth on subjective opinions, we’ll just figure out a really cheap way to test the idea and let the users and the data decide. Some of those practices have been really key for getting us on the same page and setting up a structure which is much more data informed.

How did you transition into growth? It seems quite different from what you did at Zynga.

I actually don’t think it’s that different. When I look back at my time at Zynga, I see that I almost exclusively worked on games that already had scale, millions of users, and I was trying to figure out how to grow them. And a lot of it was what we call “growth” here. It was all about “we have all this value in the product, how do we better connect that value to the user so that they retain better and they’re more engaged?”. And that’s what I spend most of my time doing.

What is the key outcome of your work as Head of Growth?

The absolute downstream thing we look at is Daily Active Users, getting more people to come back to the product every day, but that’s the last thing I actually focus on. Retention is probably the one where we spend the bulk of our time. Getting people to use the product more and come back more often is a really tough challenge. And we break it down even further into new user retention, existing user retention, resurrected user retention. It allows us to see the picture more clearly and also set much better goals because building for new users versus for existing users is very different. And in your roadmap you need to figure out where the opportunity is and what you’re going to focus on.

How do you balance long-term bets versus short-term projects?

I think there’s an unwritten rule where 70% of your time should be about optimisation where you’re making existing things better. And then 30% or maybe 20% should be dedicated to new innovations and new products, and then 10% goes to some awesome moonshot type bets. I view our growth team more in the 70% bucket. At Reddit, for the first 2 years on Growth, it’s really been about setting up the table stake components like push notifications, e-mails, onboarding but I can already see the low-hanging fruit being picked up pretty quickly. If we don’t transition some of our roadmap into longer term bets, we’ll get into the local maxima problem. As we mature as a product and move forward, I want to transition more and more of our team to focusing on longer term bets.

How do you make sure that some short-term wins don’t harm the product in the long run?

When I started my career, we were basically building Facebook games and we were spamming Facebook’s notification channels. And what I saw is that our CTR over time was just gradually declining as users were caring less and less about what’s in the channel because they were just getting low value messages. It was horrible, and I learned a lot from that experience. So when I came to Reddit, and we were figuring out how to do push notifications, I made sure that we have a CTR goal and weren’t burning out the channel. I’d like to say, and I really mean it, that I’ve learned more from mistakes I’ve made and failures I’ve had than I’ve learned from the successes. I made so many mistakes over the past 11 years. And if you’re able to be humble about that and embrace that you failed a lot as well as succeeded in your career, I think it just makes you better and better as a PM.

Is there anything you could share in terms of key failures that helped you?

Not caring as much about qualitative user insights. I was like “oh, it’s a waste of time, data will tell you better”. But I actually found that user insights can be super powerful and give you insights that data never will. So when you have a prototype, put it in the hands of users and watch them interact with it — you’ll learn so much, and actually what you learn is that you don’t know anything. And then it makes you better with the data because you are able to come up with sharper hypotheses about what’s going on and why the data is a certain way. Not paying attention to that for many years was probably a big failure on my part.

Are there any game development practices you brought to Reddit?

Not as many as I would want to. One mechanics that already works as a game, is Karma on Reddit: users are very passionate about it. Another one that I find really interesting is how we create some friendly competition between our communities. Like “Hey, this community is killing it, and they’re growing — what can you guys do to learn from them and improve your community?”.

What are these most unexpected learnings for you about communities?

One of the most surprising things for me is how difficult it is to form one. When you look at the successful communities on Reddit, it might seem easy but it’s a lot of thought and effort from moderators, people behind these communities. It’s incredible how much work it took to get them where they are, and how much work it is, even after they are successful, to maintain this level of quality, a culture of that community. It’s not something anyone should take for granted.

All products that you worked on have a social component in them — is it what motivates you?

I really love working on products at scale, and social products tend to be the most at scale. I do also really love the social aspect. Some of the stories that I love hearing are “how I learnt something from Reddit from this random dude with this weird username, and I’ve never met them before”. When I worked on “Words with friends”, my mother-in-law really got into it, and we used to play every day with each other, and then we used to chat. In a lot of ways my relationship with her actually became stronger because of this game. And there were tons of stories about how people got married there or how they got a support system. And you hear similar things from Reddit. Stories like these make you feel proud to work where you do.

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P.S. If you want to learn how data can help you build and grow products, take a look at GoPractice! Simulator.