Product Management

Afrina M, Google Product Manager, Talks Being the Bridge, and More

From our interview with Afrina M, Product Manager at Google, we discuss being the bridge, cloud, getting buy-in, leading teams, and more.


From our interview, full interview here with Afrina M. Product Manager at Google, we discuss being the bridge, cloud, getting buy in, leading teams, generating new revenue, and more. Afrina has helped companies like Bank of America generate $12 million in revenue, has won a prestigious award from Honeywell CEO for exceptional performance, and generated $45 million in revenue.

Serge: Welcome to another episode of the Finpro podcast. I'm your host, Serge Amouzou, CEO and founder of Finpro, seamless forecasting and planning SaaS. My guest today is Afrina. Afrina, your background is impressive. It's phenomenal as I was doing my research before we hopped on, I've learned, your experience as a product manager, helping Bank of America generate $12 million in revenue with a product, winning awards at Honeywell and helping companies generate $40 million in revenue. And before we dive into all of that, I learned that one of your hobbies was traveling, and also visiting all the national parks in the US, and learning to cook Indian food within 20 minutes. Tell me a little bit more about that.

Afrina: That's a good, good start, right. So I became a new mom during the pandemic, which led to taking care of  a little one all by myself, but also having to feed her with all healthy stuff, right. And Indian cooking is quite elaborate. Just the ingredients in my kitchen would go into triple digits sometimes if you were to start counting. So one of my goals was 1) be able to cook for my family all three times. And 2) was having a healthy weight. I changed my lifestyle from being able to shop without looking at ingredients to making sure that I understand each and every ingredient that's on a packaged product. So that's a massive change. I ran into this person whose name is Rama Krishnan, and he's Hebrew. He's from the southern part of India, and he patented this cooking technique, it's called RPOs. What it basically does is teaches you to cook everything in a pressure cooker, which reduces the cooking time significantly. Like if I were to cook an Indian curry on a pot, it would take me 45 minutes. But believe it or not in this little pressure cooker, it takes me like seven minutes. So that's a massive thing that changed my life. Because now having a toddler, I'm not going paranoid about not having enough time to cook. I gotta work, I gotta do a million other chores around my house, so I'm taking this as a hobby and trying to learn different things. It's just not with Korean stews. I've mastered the art of making ghee in my pressure cooker. Ghee is a better version of butter. I can make lots of desserts, I can make jams, I can make sauces, I can make curries, all within this one little pressure cooker that I carry around. So, my friends would know me as the person with a pressure cooker, because that's the only thing I would carry, no matter where I go. That's my must have.

Being the Bridge

Serge: Wow, wow, our listeners are definitely in for a treat here. You'll really appreciate learning more about that. You're actually the second guest who enjoys Indian cooking. So really, there's a trend here, and it's fascinating. It's amazing. And so, diving in, you're a product manager at Google right now, and, as a product manager, you are in an organization role tasked with coming up with a product to essentially deliver a finished product. And so, tell us what that process was like, for you at Google.

Afrina: I recently started out at Google, and it's been about six months, actually. And my role is more outbound focus, meaning I am the bridge between a product manager and the rest of the world, right from a go to market strategy, from connecting to the field, the sales, the marketing team, and essentially being the person that spreads out the information on the product. And I focus on working on Cloud products. So which is a totally different ballgame when compared to consumer products. But then for our product, to get back to your question, how is strategy focused? I think that it's a lot of working with different people, but aligning with the stakeholders on the strategy being on the same page kind of matters. And the way that we do at Google is really document right, you would see that every person on Google creates multiple documents. And that's the best way to collaborate instead of getting into meetings. So one of the most important things that I admire about Google is they really value your time and are very empathetic. They understand that as a product manager, this is my goal. So when they come to the table, they understand what you are trying to achieve and what value they can bring to the table. So collaboration is great. And I feel like I'm super blessed to be in this culture because it makes my job as a product manager easy.


Serge: Wow, that's phenomenal. Right now you're in cloud and essential enterprise, but you've also had experiences at Bank of America working on consumer products. And so what's that process like there?

Afrina: Okay, so looking at a financial and consumer product and working on Cloud, I feel like there are a lot of similarities because 1) ultimately how it matches a consumer product. Of course, the user is the end consumer, and especially in the banking world, it's a bit easier because you are the console, the product manager, but at the same time, you're also the consumer of the product. When there is a frustrating experience in the mobile app, you'll be like, Oh, my God, this is the first thing I should have looked at. Now, I don't know how many other people are suffering with this. Why don't I pick this as a use case and take it back to the team? So when you're a consumer and the consumer side of the house, you have to leverage, like, you use the product day in and day out? You're your own guinea pig to start with? What is the cloud side of things? To be honest, that does not happen. We do use our own product, but not as much as you would use your mobile app, because that's your bread and butter. That's where your paycheck comes in. You’ve got to make a budget, you’ve got to pay your bills, etc. Or on the cloud side of the house, you’ve got to understand the customers and regulated market. So my experience in Bank of America totally helps me understand how the clouds are regulated markets trading clouds. So they would love to see a lot of security features, compliance features, like audit is a major, major part of the banking world. So, here in the cloud, I try to understand, okay, how do I ensure that if I have, like Bank of America, were to be my customer? How do I ensure that I'm fulfilling all of the needs in the cloud world? How can they be 100% auditable? How can they ensure that we create an architecture that is zero trust? They’ve got to trust us, like when you're in the banking world, you're used to having this network, then you think about everything around, but behind the network wall is where your data is safe and protected. But to get out of the network wall is difficult. That's what happens when you move to the cloud. Now, you're really questioning the cloud provider. Where's my data? Are you keeping it safe? How can I keep it safe? And how do I ensure that you are not looking at my data? So all of this experience from Bank of America really helps me empathize with the regulated market and strong financial companies that we work with on the cloud side of the house.

Bank of America

Serge: Yeah. And to dive in a little bit deeper, you've helped Bank of America earn 12 plus million dollars in revenue. What was that process like? Talk to us about that journey for the product?

Afrina: Sure. I was a release manager at Bank of America. So that role is a little different than a product manager. A release manager basically makes sure that, let's say there are eight or nine releases in a launch. So you've got to align with the team to ensure that all releases are sailing along and ensuring that so the way the bank works is they will tell you that  at this date, in particular, we are going to launch this feature. So patrolling puts you under a certain deadline that you cannot miss. So your planning has to be 100 100 100%. Perfect. So places like that you’ve got to over communicate, you’ve got to both plan that and work cross functionally across different teams, the dev teams, the QA, the marketing, and just getting a go, no go decision takes a huge process that's involved. So working in a bank is very process oriented. They have very strict rules about how you go about rolling a product, and customer empathy is placed the highest. And on top of customer empathy. I think banks are more security focused. No matter what product or feature that you're going to release, the first hat that you would put on as a security hack. Who is going to use this and how would they feel secure about this. So generating revenue for a company like Bank of America is, I wouldn't say pretty straightforward. But you’ve got to keep a lot of things in mind. There is a reputation that the company has created for a long time. But there is also the need for features. That's one of the leading banks in the country. So they always have the need to beat the technology. You’ve got to deliver the best in class experience. Because you have all kinds of customers in the bank that use you, have a customer that is super high tech savvy versus you also have a customer that barely knows how to use a phone. So you create an experience that works for both the ends of the spectrum. So for me, it was truly an amazing experience working there and understanding the process and being able to deliver, but it really takes a huge team to do that. Right. It's just not a one person show. It takes an army to kind of deliver that, that kind of revenue.

Getting Buy In

Serge: And how do you get buy-in from management? What data points do you have to show to say, hey, there's the problem that we need to build on? We agree security is paramount. How do you get buy in, what tools do you use? What data do you have to show in order for them to say, Okay, this project is greenlighted.

Afrina: So, the way the bank works is that there's so many channels that we get feedback from our customers, there is a line of business they constantly use from the call centers, the banking channels, we have all the banking locations, and there are reviews from the App Store, and then there’s feedback that comes in from several stakeholders on the other side, which interface with customers. So we have a standardized way of collecting the data. And to obtain buy in, the number one thing to do is to create a proper use case. And both qualitatively and quantitatively kind of defining, let's say, okay, here is the problem that's been raised by X amount of people, and here is the true impact that we would make by solving this problem. Creating a strong use case is so important to get the buy in. And number two is the strength to align with the overall organizational goals. Every organization at this point has a standard OKRs. And they said this is the top three things that we're going to solve this year. So ensuring that the problem that I bring aligns to that, if everybody's on Row eight, if I'm going to be running on road, see, nobody wants to take a look at Oetzi. And three is kind of ensuring that you're aligned with your engineering counterparts in terms of resources having a strong use case, and then trying to ensure that you're aligned to the organizational OKR. And then of course, without resources, nothing can be executed. So the combination of these three things would help a product manager get by.

Leading Teams

Serge: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. That's phenomenal. And, you're an engineer, turned product manager. So I think this gives you a grasp, in terms of technical resources that are required to get a product off the ground. And so, with that, how do you manage or lead teams?

Afrina: So to be really honest with you, in product management, it's not about managing leading teams, but it's more about seeing them as your equal partners. With engineers it's about, hey, here's the problem that I'm hearing from the other side. And this is probably the potential solution that I think it would look like, but I leave the decision with the engineers to tell me how they would go about solving it. So really having the trust is super important. And also ensuring that you're not going to put them in a position of technical debt. Let's say the engineer says, Hey, can we solve this for the short term, but here's the long term solution. And then as a product manager, you’ve got to take a step back and think, do I want to sell something that is so short term, and I gotta put my team and that kind of dead, having to make them rework on this again. So really empathizing with engineers, having them, trusting them, like 100%, but also trying to ensure that when you make a decision, I'm able to qualify, or I'm able to explain well enough as to why I did this from a long term strategic perspective.

Generating New Revenue

Serge: Yeah, excellent. Thanks so much for sharing that. I would like to now segue to another one of the experiences and again, I think, as I mentioned, you're a powerhouse. And so, would love for you to take us through some of your learnings and processes and how you were able to help an organization generate $45 million in revenue. We'd love for you to tell us a little bit about your background that led to that. Was this a Honeywell or which organization? 

Afrina: So I feel like with every organization generating revenue it is like the part. It's not that I went and I built something from the ground up. I think it takes a team. And we have great management teams across. And we're generating revenue, I think you’ve got to think about working it backwards. Like, let's say if this were to launch, would you know how many people might tentatively use this? Like this is a very common interview question. Like if you were to interview at Google, this is how they would ask you. Let's say they give you a product ID they were like okay, can you estimate how many people have what is it June AR that you will generate out of this? So the way you do it is to identify the use cases and identify the use of personas precisely. And then project okay if this were to still at this point, this is how you would generate. So I've always worked on building features for organizations. And the way I come up with a new feature, or the way I request a feature request is, it's really quantifying from customer needs. Having deep empathy is so important and being 100% obsessed about your customers is the key to generating revenue. Like all of the products that I worked with, back when I was in Honeywell it was an automation solution to train the traders. So a lot of companies in the oil and gas industries didn't have a proper platform to train their operators on. So there's a clear market need for that kind of product. But it's just that there are not enough people on the other side with that kind of experience to build a product. So now you saw that there is a clear market need. And all you needed to do was come up with a plan to kind of fill that hole, right. So really identifying the problem and identifying the user and being able to estimate how your product would fit along as the key to go to do that.

Afrina’s Background

Serge: Yeah, yeah. Tell us a little bit about your background and how you got into product management.

Afrina: For sure. Okay. So I have a super non-traditional background. I did my engineering in electronics and instrumentation. And then when I started with Honeywell, I was an application engineer, and I worked for oil and gas industries. I traveled across the country, to a lot of oil and gas plants, just to understand how automation works, how distributed control systems work. So I was nowhere close to being in the software technology world. I would work with technology, but most of my customers were oil and gas companies with chemical industries in the field. And then I worked there for a few years. And then I came to the US to do my MBA, I got my MBA in project management. And then I started out as a TPM, a technical program manager. So few years and TPM that I felt like Okay, very good at managing projects and people, how about I go manage products now? I felt like product management isn't an exciting career for me, and to move at this pace was like the perfect thing. Because I understand how the structure works. I understand so many different functions because of my TPM role. So then I moved into product management.

Tools to Becoming a Product Manager

Serge: Yeah, excellent. Thanks. Thanks so much for sharing that. What tools helped you along the way in your journey?

Afrina: Are you asking just to migrate into product management?

Serge: Yeah, into product management? I think that the expression to this question would be, what sort of tools helped you get into product management. Let's say, someone is interested in becoming a product manager, what should they be looking at, what's the educational experience? Why are potentially tools that they should be looking at to learn how to become product managers, or even for existing product managers? What are tools that, once they're in their organization, can anticipate to use as they navigate to even sharpen the skills as they're already in the organization?

Afrina: So when you're trying to transition into the first part of your question, product management, the way I saw this when I was a TPM, and I wanted to move into the PM role, I understood how these roles are very different primarily, and what a PM would do. So one important thing is the way that you think. In TPM, you think about your team, you're thinking about execution and delivery versus product management. You're thinking about strategy, you're trying to identify problems to solve. So a very important skill to have is to be able to come up with hypotheses. You're not always given enough data to say, Hey, 10, people are asking for this, go fix this. That's not always the case. That says you shouldn't really have that brain muscle to think this is probably the hypothesis of why all of these problems are coming. People don't report problems and the way that you want to hear, like, let's say you have a toothbrush, there could be 50 different complaints about a toothbrush, but it's a small toothbrush. So learning to tune the brain muscle is a super important thing. It can happen in your day to day life, like take a look at your refrigerator and say, if I was a product manager for this, or if I have to own this, what would I build inside this refrigerator? So I started questioning myself as how can I make life better if I were to design this product? So that helped to really build that awareness and your market. So I read a lot of analysts' reports, let's say for Cloud Pro, that's super important. So it's important to understand, okay, what is the trend around small businesses, mid businesses, large companies? So are they willing to move to the cloud? What are the top 10 problems? And how are companies really trying to solve their problems? Really diving deep, like, you got to be horizontal, but you’ve got to know when to go vertical, else I think you will get it, it's so easy to get lost. So pick your specialization and then figure out where to go in depth, and then try to understand, okay, if not, you understand the overall market, you understand the competitors, and then you see how your position kind of aligns in the big picture, and then go from there. I'm not sure if I answered your question correctly. But that's how I transitioned into PMA. And to stay up to date, I would say that constantly networking totally helps. Understanding what happens with products that are similar to what your product is doing. So that helps you build like, oh, okay, I didn't think about this, but they're solving this, why might they be solving this? Just asking the why question over and over and over, would help you be a better PM.


Serge: Yeah, yeah. And, your technical as well as, non technical skills, you have experience with GTM, release management, etc. And, of course, product management, and then you are also technical in that, you have a PMP certification, right, you're a certified project manager, and, you pass your PMP in 30 days. And not just that you are also a Bitcoin professional and get your certification in four days, and pass your Oracle Cloud Foundation exam in three days. You know, I'm not an expert, product manager, or in Oracle Cloud Foundation, or even not a professional in the Bitcoin space. But I know that those are phenomenal achievements. And so, I think they're phenomenal achievements, and probably not everyone is aiming to get the PMP in 30 days, or, maybe the chemists that we get become big Bitcoin professionals in four days, or pass this exam in three days. So, what gems or perhaps how can people think about studying for their PMP, Cetera through certification, for example, are there some tips to help them crush that exam?

Afrina: Everything is a process, everything is a system. And people who are successful are the ones that know how to crack the system. Like, say, for example, it's the same, I think I have the same formula that I apply across everything, from being able to pass interviews to pass exams to whatnot. So let's say for the PMP, take the rubric towards the end. I know how PMP is graded. So I took a look at the rubric. And they understood, okay, here are the seven different things. And then I think it took me a week to understand the key to passing the PMP. It is to think the way that PMI wants you to think right? I might not agree that that's exactly the way that you would think in your day to day life because of how PMP was more for a waterfall environment. But there's so much to learn out of it even in agile culture. But the minute you understand the rubric, and the minute you understand what they're expecting out of you. So when I appeared for the PMP exam, it was so easy for me to crack because I didn't answer the question thinking about, okay, if I were to solve this, instead how would I solve it if a PMI were to solve this. Like they would ask you what is the first thing that you will do when you encounter this problem? I'm like, Okay, the first thing I would do is probably document this and talk to this, but they'll be like, no, no, the first thing that PMI would do is this. So just wear different hats and try to understand, Okay, here's the rubric. And what is the expectation out of you? So I think that's the key. Just understand everything is a system. And to be able to get the system, you have to know the rubric like 100%. Spend enough time to learn the rubric before you prep, I think your prep is going to be super easy. And I realize a lot of people don't do this. They walk into interviews, and they walk into tests without understanding how they are being evaluated or greeted. And to me that's a big no, no, because if you don't know how you're getting graded, how are you prepping for it? So yeah, understand the rubric, start from there and then everything would fall in place.


Serge: Wow. I feel like I could have learned some of these skills while I was in college. That would have made things so much easier. So, I really appreciate you sharing that. And so, you've won a prestigious award from the Honeywell CEO for exceptional performance. And for the product managers out there, or really, actually almost any professional out there how do you continue to keep your head on your shoulders after having received such an award from the CEO of a company.

Afrina: So, I think when I received the award, I was pretty new to the workforce, and all I cared about was okay, how do I make six. There was this important customer and there were like, 10 people in the customer. And, they kept complaining about why this is not working. And the impact really stood out to me, they said, it does not work properly, there might be impact to human life, there might be impact to costs and whatnot. So that really hit home. And when I sat with them, all the focus was okay, how do I make life better for these 10 people that are sitting right in front of me. So when I didn't feel I would just work with them day in and day out. Just make note of every single thing that comes out of their mouth. If they told me a problem, then I'm like, Okay, let me try to figure it out, let me understand why that's so important. I'm always wearing the listening hat, which is super important. And after getting an award the first time, then I think it puts you on a track where you got to prove yourself over and over. And for me, growth is personally super important. Like, if I was in the same place where I wasn't last year, then that would be a bit of a motivating thing for me, I would be like, Okay, I gotta learn something new. When my daughter was born, like, just a funny story aside, right? But there are massive changes in her life. Within the first six months, she went from turning around, crawling, walking, and running, and for seven months, I was like, Okay, this little girl in seven months could do so many things. And what did I do in seven months? And I looked at myself, like I did nothing. And that's when I said, Okay, I'm gonna probably go to the Bitcoin certification, probably going to do the OCR. Like, I’ve got to sharpen up my skills, too. So she motivated me to do that. If not, I could be this person that walks into my work day in and day out. And at the end of the year, I feel like I probably won't learn so much. And I feel like we all have that impostor syndrome, where we complain to ourselves, like, we could be better. So the way I go about doing this is to set things or goals for me to solve this. But when I caught the God, then I think the benchmark kind of stepped up, like, Okay, I gotta prove this over and over. But I cannot do the same thing over and over, I have to step up the game, I have to be better than what I did. Like, let's say it took 30 days last time. Can I do it in 25 days? So one, I'm not lazy. But at the same time, I really want to save time, so that I can give it somewhere else that I could put it somewhere else. So really trying to constantly improve is the key. And wanting to do that. I think there should be an inner drive to. If you don't, there's no way. I constantly believe that. And I also strongly believe that ignorance is not a bliss. People say ignorance is bliss. But honestly, it's not. It's good to be aware of things. If you're not aware, how would you improve? I'm so open to feedback, I'll be like, huh? What do you think about me? Can you tell me how I can improve this, like, I'm always in the learner and curiosity mindset. But I never think that I notice 100% I look at everybody on the opposite side as there's so much to learn from them. And I feel like it helps me grow massively.

Staying Innovative

Serge: Yeah, I agree with you on that. 100% Ignorance is not bliss, is actually the first time I'm hearing someone else say because I think that to myself I agree 100% on that. And so, so for our listeners, if you aren't picking up gems yet, I can tell you  what our friend has just said is to constantly look for ways to improve yourself. And this is true in any field. So with that, I want to segue to another topic that we already talked about, but really focus more around innovation, because I think innovation is essentially how the world works. And product managers are driving their organizations forward. And so, how do you stay innovative throughout the product management lifestyle cycle? We talked a little bit about tools, etc., but what data helps you to prioritize different product features along that process. But more specifically, let's focus on how do you stay innovative throughout that product lifecycle?

Afrina: Okay, oh, I think you have to be innovative at different places in the product life cycle. 1) is when you come up with an idea. And 2) is when you talk about that idea, and 3) is when you're going to market with an idea, there could be a super great idea. But when nobody's looking out on the other side for it, then who's going to catch your idea when you throw it? It could be your internal stakeholders, your external stakeholders and whatnot. So innovation definitely is what keeps the world going. But to be innovative, I think you have to be short, deeply customer focused. I know I've said this before, but nothing without customer obsession. Like successful people are the ones that have great listening skills. Like, if you were to notice this one trend among everybody that's successful, it's because they've heard they've listened. And they've understood. So empathy, and customer obsession takes number one. Number two is being a good storyteller. Like, if you understand the problem, and if you do not know how to articulate it, if you do not know how to express it, then I feel like you fail right there. And so being able to tell the story in a way that resonates with your stakeholders, internal or exogenous totally matters. And number three is being able to showcase your impact. If this were to solve this, that, yes, that's when innovation comes in. Number four, to believe that you are the only person that can innovate is not possible. And only what, like, let's say, for me, let's say for me, when I come up with an idea, I believe that okay, the idea is probably a seed. And to make it a tree, I probably need a village. And to keep that open mindset and be able to be able to be open to feedback, open to collaborate with other people, and really look out for mentors. That's the key, right? If you have a good idea, the way to expand or the way to raise that idea is to go to industry experts, or go to your mentors and go to people that know. And great ideas come with collaboration and discussion, I feel like these four things would lead to innovation. By just keeping things I've seen a lot of people do this where they have an amazing idea, but they just keep it to themselves are not open to expanding, because they're not willing to listen to the other side of the story that kind of brings the idea down, it's truly not innovative, right, which is keeping an open mind. I think innovation is possible to a greater extent.

Remaining Current

Serge: Wow, some gems here, Afrina. And I really appreciate that. And so to wrap up here, what for the up and coming product managers or, established ones like yourself. And I feel like you've already shared a lot of this. But, I always like to ask this as a last question, what's your parting word on staying innovative for these up and coming product managers or even existing ones at establishments, like yourself?

Afrina: I think what I do is kind of try to stay current. I think you can get outdated pretty easily in this world. If you were to just log in your email, do your work and log off, I think it's the first way to not stay innovative. So number 1) is really trying to stay current and network, like truly network a lot. Try to be in conferences, try to be in places where Hallway Conversations are a great place to move forward. And by just doing these two, you can kind of get the environmental awareness, until COVID has kind of brought that out down by several percentage rate, although you would walk into an office and just the conversations around water cooler would give you all of the experiences but today, I am locked inside my room like to get that is super difficult. So I'm on Instagram, I'm on Twitter, I'm in so many other places, but the things that I choose to follow, as are the things that I want in my life. Building that awareness, I tried to follow other product managers on LinkedIn, on product school and in so many different places. So I feel like when I do that, I kind of build that awareness and I know what's happening in the outside world. And that's totally the key to being innovative. And definitely if you have time, take a look at all the analyst record reports. They do a great job at summarizing excellent interviewing companies summarizing what's the true problem out there. And then that's a good way to kind of validate your hypothesis. I have millions of hypotheses in my mind, but there's really no way for me to have time to go prove it but when I read all of this, they're like hey, this is what I thought about Okay, good to know that this company has actually done the research and proved right. Choose what you want to go after and then this and then go after it. But really stay current network and then try way to build awareness around what's going on around that would help

Serge: Wow! Thanks so much Afrina. I really appreciate your time and having you on here.

Afrina: thank you so much for giving me this opportunity and I enjoyed speaking with you today Serge.


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