Trailblazing Women in Product Management: Padmashree Koneti, VP Product Management at Tableau

For our next installment of the Women in Product Management Series, I interviewed Padmashree Koneti, VP of Product Management at Tableau. View the full list of this blog interview series to learn the stories of more women product leaders.

How did you get into product management?

I started out as a software engineer back in India. Siemens had set up this huge engineering shop, and even though my degree was in electronics engineering, they trained me as a software engineer. When I came to the United States, I landed at Sun Microsystems and worked to become a solid software engineer. But I kept asking questions like, ‘Who is this for?’ or ‘How will they use it?’ I also asked myself, ‘Why do they want this instead of that?’ I had no idea of any function outside of engineering and marketing at the time. There wasn’t an official discipline of product management.

I was trying to decide whether I should go into engineering management or stay as an individual contributor. My manager at the time pointed his finger and he said, ‘You know, there’s a name for people like you, you’re a product manager.’ I realized that I didn’t really understand all the disciplines that go into a business. So, while I was working (and I had a toddler at home), I went to grad school and got an MBA.

I have mixed feelings about how helpful the MBA actually was. There is exposure to aspects of the business that I don’t think I could have gotten any other way, which was fantastic. That said, that’s not the only way to go get the same kind of exposure. At the time, product management wasn’t a well-defined discipline and an MBA was an immensely useful education to get. Sun Microsystems paid for part of my graduate degree, and while there, I started taking on projects that would give me ways to practically apply what I was learning. I would write business plans for parts of Sun’s portfolio. I would go talk to stakeholders and customers and say, ‘Who’s going to use this? Let’s go prioritize the features that are across this dispersed set of users and customers who were asking us for things. Let’s pick the most valuable things to go build.’ These were skills that pushed me outside my engineering comfort zone and expanded my horizon toward connecting problems and needs with solutions. That, in essence, is product management.

So, what do you like the most about product management?

My personality is such that I thrive in context. The more I know, the smarter my decisions. I really like the fact that product management is at the center of everything. I like that product managers get to understand the business, strategy, customers, and their problems. They get to organize all that information while straddling the business and its own financial health, the market, and our position in the market. They get to evaluate the product and the technology and assess whether we are competitive or not. The cross-functional aspect of the role is also exciting. And finally, I like the people side – the fact that they get to inspire everyone towards a common vision and bring folks along on the journey. Without a lot of seniority, PMs get to evolve their leadership.

I believe the same for my team. I trust them with that same context – a lot of information that they need to know for the role that they’re playing. Being in the thick of it and making a decision by looking at all of these different perspectives is what I enjoy the most.

What do you find the most challenging?

The bane of a product manager’s existence is prioritizing what you’re going to build
in such a way that you’re able to demonstrate value. At the center of it, PMs need to have an agile mindset – the ability to deliver and iterate on small slices of customer value. (She holds up a mason jar.) I use this jar as an example. I tell them, ‘You have two or three big rocks in your jar, but guess what? This jar can hold a lot of pebbles and a lot of sand. What are you doing to maximize value for your customers by thinking about those incremental improvements and bug fixes? Is there a way to break down this big rock – a big new product feature – into pebbles and sand? Are there other aspects of the product that need love and care (pebbles and sand)?’ You can fill a lot more pebbles and sand into a jar than just a few big rocks.

I noticed that you’re hiring. What are you looking for when you hire new talent for your team?

Limeade is a B2B2C solution. I joined three months ago and one of the first things I did was to take stock of where the team, the technology, and our operating model are at. I am helping the team here transition from one that fulfills stakeholder requests to one that solves customer problems – in the words of Marty Cagan. What is the root of the problem we’re trying to solve? Where is the user on their journey? Can I actually stay in the problem space long enough and understand and empathize before I start prototyping solutions?

When Product Managers are given the space – and typically this comes with a balance between discovery and delivery efforts – we can bring in more inquisitiveness, iteration, experimentation, and innovation. I also want to grow a culture where we can challenge one another. It is not fun to be challenged. I don’t like to be challenged either. But you’re a great product manager if you’re able to truly be open and take a beating, while still having a defensible story. You are able to say, ‘Yeah, you’re right, that’s a great idea,’ or ‘Let’s go explore that.’

So, what advice do you have for women who are considering getting into product management?

Maybe I’m projecting women at large, but my advice is to speak up. I personally took far too long to speak up. At one of my jobs, I was building a product that had no market-fit. My gut kept telling me something was off. Customers didn’t want this thing. Leadership kept saying, ‘Nope, customers don’t know what they want. You go and figure it out; you need to be able to convince them.’ Not a single customer wanted our product. We paid one customer to buy our product, and they used us. We were at their beck and call. I did not speak up fast enough. I kept telling myself I didn’t know the facts. I hadn’t done my math. I needed to go study this more.

Inherently, most women (and possibly many men) suffer from imposter syndrome. One of the positive side effects of that syndrome for me was that I was always prepared. This may not sound intuitive, but here’s how it played out for me. My instinct was telling me that the status quo plan was flawed, but I didn’t trust myself to be right. To bridge that gap, I did a ton of work to research the market, talk to customers, and test different strategies. And I kept coming back to the same conclusion – my instinct was right. You can leverage imposter syndrome as a strength because it makes you that much more prepared, and makes you ask good questions.

More often than not, the most obvious mundane questions that you think you don’t want to ask are the questions that need to be asked in the room. Those questions can expose fundamental points of misalignment in the room. If you speak up with confidence (rather than get washed over by other people) and actually say, ‘Wait a minute, I don’t think we’re fully aligned on the basic concept of what we’re trying to solve for here,’ it will invariably open the floodgates for other people in the room who haven’t had the spine to say it.

Any motto or saying that you live by?

Perfection is unattainable.

The average woman, at least one from my generation, is trying to be a great mom, a great cook, a great partner, a great colleague, a great friend, all at once. It’s hard to do all of those things because as much as we might want an equitable world, women still carry a disproportionate burden when it comes to parenting and running a household. If you have that perfectionist mentality, you’re going to burn yourself to the ground. Instead, if you start to really understand that 80/20 rule, it’s going to make you that much smarter, faster, and saner. Being able to call it good and having confidence in your decisions, and then moving forward is something I learned slowly and the hard way – my wish is that other women will make that transition sooner.

Download the Trailblazing Women in Product Management E-Book


View the full list of this blog interview series to learn the stories of more women product leaders.

About the Author

Mira Wooten
Director of Solutions

Mira (she introduces herself as half of a Mira-cle) is your 280 Group concierge. She helps clients navigate our training and consulting solutions, and also oversees our contingent-search recruiting practice. As a certified life and systems coach, Mira is great at listening – not just to our customers, but to our entire 280 Group team. She has a wicked sense of humor and a song for every occasion. Click on our chat button to say “Hi” to her!

280 Group is the world’s leading Product Management training and consulting firm. We empower Product Professionals with the knowledge and tools to create products that matter.

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