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

Vaibhav used to be a Director of Product and then Vice President at Zynga, and now he is the Head of Growth at Reddit. In the interview he shared some insights into growing your career as a PM, balancing short- and long-term bets, and also developing the right skillset to become a product leader.

About hiring and promoting the right people

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

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 alumnis 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?

The full version of this article is now available on my personal website https://nfng.pro/2020/05/08/vaibhav/

AI/ML Product manager at Facebook (ex-Intercom, ex-Yandex).