Never underestimate the potential of what you create

Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, considered one of the mankind’s greatest artistic achievements, is awe-inspiring in person when I visited Rome years ago. While the chapel was elbow-to-elbow packed with crowds, I was simply mesmerized when looking up at the ceiling paintings.

Michelangelo’s Frescoes at the Sistine Chapel

One of the most difficult artist skills to master is fresco painting. Michelangelo had very little experience with the style. He sought out fellow painters to assist but eventually settled on using the “buon fresco” technique, where he painted quickly on wet plaster before it dried.

As I learned more about Michelangelo, I was amazed by a few facts:

He didn’t consider himself a painter. He thought of himself primarily as a sculptor. He spoke about aiming high that really resonated with me.

“The greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short, but in setting our aim too low, and achieving our mark.”

Many of us are career switchers. I myself began my career as a software developer before becoming a product manager. It is possible to reinvent oneself and still reach the pinnacle in a second or even a third career.

He designed his own scaffolding as Pope Julius II insisted that religious services would continue to be held so he couldn’t use a standard scaffolding, resting on the floor and rising up to the ceiling.

Faced with a hard requirement that the church remained open, Michelangelo had to design a system that satisfy the constraint. Software development is working with a set of constraints. He would have made a great software developer!

When Michelangelo was about 60, he was ordered to paint the Last Judgment on the altar wall. He ended up cutting down two of his lunettes (an arched window in a domed ceiling) for the new painting.

“Out with the old, in with the new”. As I get older, I’ve been more open to toss out my long-held ideas to embrace more innovative and disruptive ones. For years I’ve taken videos in the landscape mode. The overnight sensation of TikTok and Facebook Reels quickly challenged the status quo and standardized on the portrait mode.

In summary, there are many lessons we can learn from the fresco paintings of an old master. Another surprising fact is that he painted a panel in a single day. Until next time…

Originally posted to Medium


On building the best team


Nearly two years ago, I reconnected with a former manager from Yahoo who had just begun at his new role. His “pitch” was to build a team where people want to work together for 3 to 5 years. Given his decade-long tenures at two tech giants (Yahoo and Microsoft), I was sold.

3 months after he started, I joined him at Wayfair, an online furniture retailer. Our grand vision was to personalize every customer touchpoint from email marketing to the storefronts. Shortly after, a world-class data scientist from Netflix joined our team. Then a brilliant yet humble engineering director joined us from Yahoo. He was able to attract several talented Yahoos to join him. The triad was the dream leadership team. Soon our team was considered the best tech team within Wayfair.

I was determined to create a team culture that people would want to work together. The next step was to make that happen through concrete actions.

1. Model behaviors you want to see

As a senior product leader on the team, I set up meet-and-greets with new teammates joining the team or syncs with those colleagues working on my initiatives. I always start out with what led me to Wayfair and what inspired me to be part of the team. For those I work with regularly on projects, I ask questions to learn about their challenges and desires (e.g. areas of growth).

After the initial syncs, I continue checkins consistently and put work into cultivating each relationship. I strongly believe that this type of outreach and human connection is infectious and leading to people connecting more deeply with each other.

2. Advocate for the team but listen intently

As a newly formed team (or rather a re-startup from previous attempts), we needed to build our reputation and trust with teams outside our immediate organization. I took it upon myself to articulate our long-term vision and speak about our plan to extend our current capabilities toward that. I respond transparently about what we can do and cannot do. Transparency and honesty go a long way in building trust with stakeholders.

Addition to advocating for my team, I listen to stakeholders’ wants and needs. When I took over a project from a colleague, the relationship with a partnership team had gone sour. I went on a “listening tour” to attempt to understand their perspectives, mostly frustrations. In return, I ended up becoming a “reverse” advocate to bring understanding back to my own team.

3. Inspire through stories

As a product leader, I am fortunate to be able to interact with many cross-functional teams in my role. I quickly turn around what I’ve learned to share with my teammates to inspire new ideas and implementations. The best way I find to inspire isn’t a laundry list of features, but stories on how a consumer would interact with the site or engage with the email. Forget about personas, just talk to your colleagues about consumer pain points you want to solve. A cohesive story unifies individual’s ideas into a shared vision.

One of my favorite quotes on inspiration is by the author of Little Prince Antoine de Saint-Exupéry:

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.”

Do we truly have the best tech team within Wayfair? That is certainly debatable as we didn’t define metrics and measure against them. But are we proud of what we have? You betcha.

Originally posted to Medium

Anyone Can Be A Product Manager, But What Makes A Great One?


I am a self-taught product manager. I made the transition from a software developer more than a decade ago.

In the past 3-4 months, I’ve been recruiting for a product manager to join my team. A question I often ask is “What makes a great product manager?”  As Chef Gusteau exclaimed that “Any Can Cook” in Ratatouille, almost anyone can become a PM, but not everyone could be a great one.

Undoubtedly, product management is one of the most undefined roles in an organization. Unlike software engineers, product managers don’t have to code. Unlike data scientists, they don’t need to know statistics or machine learning techniques. But great product managers have many intangible qualities that make them exceptional.

  • A great PM studies and understands market dynamics. For example, someone working in the gig economy should follow the Uber China-Didi merger and understand how that might be bad news for Lyft.
  • A great PM is intellectually curious. He or she tries new products, formulates opinions, and evangelizes great products to others. Ask to see what apps they have installed on their smartphones.
  • A great PM has hobbies and talents outside of work. Some of the great PMs I know love photography, painting, gardening, cooking and building robots. They apply the same passion and discipline to their extracurricular activities.
  • A great PM inspires. Whether one is in a product or engineering-focused organization, a PM can always inspires others through narratives.

Keep my fingers crossed. I hope I will find that elusive one soon!

How To Influence Others


I attended our company’s 3-day offsite where product, design and ops gathered.

On day 2,  our group did a “trust-fall” like game.  The goal was to communicate verbally, while blindfolded, to get the 15 people holding one rope to form a perfect square.  Our team had many strong voices in the beginning, but we finally followed one person and ended up with a rectangle, not quite a square but at least with 4 corners.

The takeaway was quite insightful.  There are many tactics to influence others.  The ability to persuade others is a key trait of a great product managers.  Here are some levers one can adopt.

  • Legitimizing – leverage an authority figure or validate with credible sources, e.g. the CEO asked for this feature. Personally, I avoid this approach as much as possible.  However, some may readily respond to this approach.
  • Appeal to friendship – building a strong network means that you can find someone who knows someone to get a problem resolved or a question answered.  This helps you win others over to your idea.
  • Logical persuasion – use data to prove your case.  While this is my go-to tactic, this is not necessarily effective for everyone.
  • Socializing – get your idea across the organization by meeting with others one and one.
  • Consulting – ask others for feedback.  Often this is a great way to start a dialogue about an idea you want to get across.
  • Stating – articulate and reinforce your ideas and rationales.
  • Appealing to values – persuade others by appealing to a shared value, e.g. one common goal to get the product launched on time.
  • Modeling – demonstrate to others how the idea or approach can work.
  • Exchanging – quid pro quo.  If you do this for me, I’ll return the favor..
  • Alliance building – if you take on a really challenging task with many naysayers, build up allies first before facing strong objections.

Not all methods are equally effective.  The key for a PM is to broaden tools in his or her toolkit and try a few until you can win others to your ideas!

The Intangible Qualities in a Product Manager

One of the most challenging tasks in my job is recruiting and building out a team. Whenever I am asked to draft a job description, I ask myself these questions:

  • Does someone need to have 3 or 5 years of experience?  Does the sheer number of years really tell me how good they are coming into my team?
  • Does this person really need a Computer Science or Engineering undergrad, or someone who can earn respect from engineering to establish a great rapport?
  • Does this person even need to have domain knowledge for what I am looking for?

There are many things I don’t include in a job description that I look for in a product manager.

Are they naturally curious?  Do they try out new products & services? Are they early adopters or laggards in new technologies?

Do they have an opinion about good and bad design in products?

Do they demonstrate good judgement in past product decisions?  Are they able to defend their positions?

I don’t typically add these as job requirements or even “bonus” qualities.  They surface from a good conversation during interviews.  These are what I call “The Intangibles”.  When you find someone who meet these 3 criterias, consider hiring them.  Ultimately, it really doesn’t matter whether they meet any of the “official” qualifications.

Big Data Is De Rigueur In Product Innovation



I recently attended a Kellogg alumni workshop on “Big Data Doesn’t Make Decisions, Leaders Do”.  Coincidentally I also came across this WSJ article on b-schools re-vamping curriculums to include data analytics.

My takeaways:

  • Business leaders need a working knowledge of data science to be effective in leading with analytics.  In other words, they must be able to nterpret analytics to inform their decision making.
  • You can outsource the infrastructure of big data and data analytics; you cannot outsource product management.  A good product manager is essential to connect business problems with data science findings.

Data science is about discovery – learning about what’s going on in your business.  Product management is about innovation – taking the business to the next step and use data to experiment along the way.

I came across a number of online courses to learn more about data science.  Here’s a link to Cousera’s data science specialization.  I welcome your input and comments are to what courses you’ve taken and found valuable.

Blending Art And Technology


sketchesOver the weekend, my family visited Exploratorium at its new location at Pier 15 in San Francisco. I was especially drawn to one exhibit and its blend of art and technology. It was a contraption that created a pencil sketch drawing of a video footage of me in real time.

The concept is so simple, yet elegantly executed.  That’s what products should be – hide all the complexities from users, show a simple user interface and output something that is beautiful and delightful at once.

Three Legged Stool

To create a successful product, three functions must come together: engineering, design and product, much like a three-legged stool.  If one function is broken, you are unlikely to have a great product.


For this partnership to work, each function has its role.  It’s the Product person’s job to articulate the “why”, and Design and Engineering to figure out the “what” and “how”, respectively.  Some tension is natural.  My philosophy is that some heated debate is healthy.  No one should take things personally, since debates push more clear thinking and help flesh ideas out.

In terms of Product’s “why’s”, it’s the Product person’s job to answer a few questions:

  • Why are we building this product?
  • Who are we targeting?
  • What is the market landscape?  Who are the players in this space?

It’s Design’s role to articulate the “what”.

  • What’s the overall user experience? In the case of a mobile app, this ranges from the onboarding experience to navigation to rewards to sharing with others.
  • Visual design – from color palette, font selections, etc.

It’s Engineering’s role on “how” is to determine the technology stack that can accomplish said product.  Engineering should be primarily concerned with performance, scalability, and flexibility (tweaking features as a product finds product-market fit).

I mentioned three functions above, not three people.  In some cases, it’s necessary for someone to take on multiple roles.  This is often the case for new products, when someone has a new idea and wants to prototype a product, or even launch an MVP.

I’ve worked in a number of startups and bigger corporations that don’t have a designer on staff. I take on the role of an interaction designer and then seek out the support of a visual designer.  That’s never ideal but is necessary to move projects forward.

While I did not explicitly include a QA lead in the paradigm, this role is often combined with engineering.  Bringing a QA lead into the discussion early is always helpful as he or she often helps identify failure use cases based on experience with other products.

Regardless of how many people you have to get started on a project, having a strong Product person who can articulate a clear vision on “why” we are building this product is crucial.  Without one or someone to take on that role, you may not be building the right product to begin with.


Saying No Is Hard But Necessary

People want to be liked.  So naturally you want to say “yes” to people who asked.

As a product manager, having the confidence to say no to a feature is a necessity. Building a product is all about focus.  Focus on your target audience and strive for simplicity.

Kevin Systrom, founder of Instagram, began with a complicated location-based iPhone app, named Burbn, that let users checkin and post pictures of meet-ups with friends. Kevin and his colleague Mike Krieger used analytics to determine how their customers were using Burbn and learned that people were using the photo-sharing, not the main check-in, features.  They decided to focus on their photo-sharing infrastructure and eliminated almost everything else.

This is a case of saying “no” after a product has been built.   Emotionally, it’s really hard to kill features.  But you have to consider all your investment as “sunk cost” once you learn that something is not working.


Books About Silicon Valley Founders

I love listening to audiobooks on my daily commute.  It’s challenging to find free blocks of time to enjoy books on weeknights and weekends, which made my 40-minute commute each way a blessing in disguise.

I love “reading” about biographies or memories of Silicon Vally startup founders.  Here are my favorite ones:

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  • Steve Jobsby Walter Issacson
  • The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Building a Business When There Are No Easy Answersby Ben Horowitz
  • Hatching Twitter: A True Story of Money, Power, Friendship, and Betrayal by Nick Bilton
  • Delivering Happiness by Tony Hsieh
  • Rework by Jason Fried, David Heinemeier Hansson
  • The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon by Brad Stone
  • Creativity, Inc: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration by Ed Catmull and Amy Wallace

Other books I am reading or in my Audible library are:

  • The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution by Walter Isaacson
  • Zero to One by Peter Thiel, Blake Masters
  • The Launch Pad by Randall Stross

I am always looking for book recommendations….Please share yours.