Product Management

Akshay Goel, Amazon Alexa Product Manager, Talks About Products

Akshay Goel, Product Lead for Google and previous Head of Product for Amazon, Alexa.


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From our interview, full interview here, with Akshay Goel, Product Lead for Google and previous Head of Product for Amazon, Alexa. 


Serge: Welcome to the first episode of The FinPro podcast. My name is Serge Amouzou. I'm the founder and CEO of FinPro. FinPro is predictive financials used by startups, small businesses, and product managers in large enterprises to forecast financials. They can use industry data, to forecast multiple scenarios, and improve actuals for intelligence projections. I'm really excited about our first episode, because I have amazing guests with me today. Just to give you an idea of his background, he's worked at companies like Adobe, he's also been at companies like Amazon, and he's behind Alexa. He's also behind product like Google Assistant. I'm excited about this episode, because we'll have a wealth of knowledge. So without further ado, our first guest for this very first podcast, Akshay Goel. You've had a breadth of experience in the product management arena, at companies like Amazon, Google, and Adobe. And I want to start by letting you tell us about yourself, your background.

Akshay: Sure, thanks. Thanks, a lot, Serge, and great to be here. So about myself, yes, I started out as a software developer with Adobe and had a ton of fun there worked on some very popular products that you know, most people know about. So Adobe Reader, Adobe Photoshop. So contributed to the growth of those products. And then got my MBA from the Indian School of Business in India, and transitioned to product management, starting with Amazon. And I've been leading product management for about seven years now. And recently started at Google. So spent a few years at Amazon and now I'm part of the Google Assistant team.

Amazon Alexa 

Serge: Yeah, that's, that's phenomenal. I mean, I think, you know, working on a product like Amazon, Alexa, it's fascinating. I mean, what can you tell us about your involvement in the product? What are some of the features that you've built? And how, and I think our audience knows how Amazon Alexa, Alexa is changing the world, but from your own perspective, you know, how has your contribution affected the product? And how does it change the world?

Akshay: I think, as most folks know, Alexa helps us do multiple tasks, you know, ranging from setting alarms, playing music, and controlling your smart home. So a ton of stuff, just by the access of your voice. And my role particularly was in the ML and AI platform team. So this is the platform that powers these multiple features across different verticals and helps us get features that are developed by these different teams to users faster, and with higher quality, you know, that users can rely on. So the platform essentially powers supervised ML models. So these are models that use training data for them to be improving on precision and recall. And my team and I, you know, helped in the development of this platform.

Serge: That's exciting. You know, as a product manager, you know, first of all, it's an organizational role. And, you know, you're tasked with creating the product strategy and leading the team in order to deliver the finished product. You know, how's the process like at Amazon?

Akshay: Amazon has a very user-centric, customer-obsessed way of thinking about products. So, as you said, definitely product manager role tends to be highly cross-functional, you know, so a Product Manager works with multiple functions including software development, design, marketing, PR, legal a bunch of different functions. And typically the way it starts is a product manager or in fact, this could be anyone thinking about a product, they start with articulating, what is the user need, we're trying to meet with this product? And what does the long-term vision look like? Internally, this is called a press release. If somebody was writing, let's say, a newspaper article about this product tomorrow, what would that read like? As a product manager, you try to write it on your own. And then organize the team and different functions towards that vision of what you want to achieve.

Press Release Concept

Serge: Yeah, that's fascinating that this concept of the press release, is that unique to Google? Because it sounds fascinating to me that you can think of it as a press release, so that in a way, you're already ahead of the market, of what you want your product to sound like to the consumer, or if it's enterprise, the enterprise, or whichever customer segment you're you're addressing. So this is, this is fascinating, you know, approach to me, is it specific to Google?

Akshay: I came across it, only at Amazon. But I think now I've read a few articles where multiple other startups are starting to take, you know, this approach as well. They're trying to, you know, assimilate that into their culture too, but yes, definitely something, you know, a very ingrained into the Amazon culture around being able to clearly articulate the long term vision, who are your users that you want to serve? And what are the key needs you want to target? And how will you do that? So very forward-looking way of aligning everybody to that vision?

Getting Stakeholder Buy-In

Serge: Amazon is a massive organization, right. You have to think of different product segments to serve customers. And you have experience at the biggest companies in the world. You know, and I'm sure that you know, that experience transcends across the roles that you take on, right. And so, you know, how do you get stakeholder buy-in, when you think about a new product at a company like Amazon? Or at your current role at Google?

Akshay: That's a good question. And I think as a PM, it's a lot about both, you know, looking at it from multiple angles, so I would say, you know, three, three primary areas that pm needs to look at, like, from a strategy point of view, definitely. One is, from a user point of view, what is the value you're going to provide to the user? And can you make a case for that, yes, this is a big problem for users, it's a widespread problem. And, you know, if we solve this problem, then we impact their lives in a meaningful way. Right. So definitely, that user empathy needs to be a part of the proposal. The second piece definitely is from a company point of view. So companies have you know, or, in fact, different organizations have articulated missions and, you know, things that they stand for. So you need to make sure that your proposal in the idea, you know, aligns with that company or organization's mission. Definitely, you know, there could be some great ideas that are, you know, impactful for users, but if they don't align well wit, the rest of the organization, the mission, and where the organization wants to go, then it can be a hard sell. Right. So, that definitely helps. And I think the third piece is, you know, more from sustainability and you know, from a financial feasibility kind of point of view, being data-driven and being able to support your arguments with you know, this is the size of the problem. And, you know, this is how this is beneficial for the company, if we invest in this initiative, I think tying those three aspects together into a proposal helps, you know, get stakeholders aligned.

Becoming a Product Manager

Serge: Yeah, that's amazing. What got you excited about becoming a product manager?

Akshay: For me, I was, even when I was a developer, I was always, you know, sort of thinking about, hey, what can I just build this quick prototype? And, you know, show it to my manager or the pm and, you know, see if this works. I was, I was developing iOS apps on the side, you know, just on my own. So I always sort of had that, you know, feeling of being closer to the user in terms of what needs are. And just, you know, even though I was terrible at design myself, but just quickly putting something together that, you know, that works is more tangible. And, you know, I can show it to someone. So, those were, I think the seeds of maybe, you know, curiosity and being closer to the user needs, and felt that you know, maybe a pm role does this full time. So it seems like an exciting career path.

Finding Your Career Path

Serge: Yeah, that's great. And, you know, so your background, you're from India? And, you know, how, how did you, you know, manage to get into organizations such as Adobe, you know, then follow up that up with Amazon, and now Google.

Akshay: Yeah. So yeah, it's definitely I was born and brought up in New Delhi, India. So I did my undergrad there in computer science. And I think similar to I think, the, for most of the multinationals, the interview processes, etc, tend to be fairly similar across countries. So yes, you know, and a lot of the companies in India also visit campuses as part of the placement initiatives. So I bought, you know, my undergrad, school, as well as my business school companies, you know, have placement drives, and students, you know, sort of appear for them and take interviews. So, in both cases, yes. appeared for interviews with both Adobe and Amazon and, you know, was lucky to, you know, get through.

Having an MBA as a Product Manager

Serge: Yeah, I mean, I would say it's, you know, it's, it's unusual, for sure. As in, you know, you have to have a certain type of drive right to, you know, want to be in product, want to innovate. And so, I was doing my research, you know, before we hopped on this, on this podcast, you know, I was fascinated by, you know, the fact that you have an MBA. How does that contribute to your expertise now as a product manager?

Akshay: Yeah, that's a great question. And,

Serge: And would it be something that you recommend to other PMS right, who are looking to get into the field?

Akshay: Yeah, I think first to talk about a little bit on you know, the value of the MBA and you know, its relevance to product management. So, I think definitely, you know, based on an MBA is also can be highly varied based on you know, what specialization, you take, and you know, like your majors and minors, etc, right. So, can be very, can be highly varied based on what a student takes, but definitely, I think an MBA you know, helped me personally to a, you know, get a more diverse view of, you know, different functions that are relevant to serving users. So, for example, coming from a software development background, I knew very little or nothing about market research, product strategy, you know, organizational dynamics of working with other folks, etc. Right? So all of these, I think my MBA definitely helped me give visibility into and also, you know, some extremely diverse peer learning, right. So, in an engineering school, you know, everybody is an engineer and you know, might have a very logical and somewhat similar way of approaching problems. But at a business school, you have people from, you know, accounting, background, finance, marketing, engineering, different backgrounds. So, it was fascinating to me that, you know, how my, how my peer group approached a problem, and it would sort of, you know, give me a completely way new way of looking at things. Yeah, so, definitely, I think diversifying the view of, you know, approaching a problem is, is something that might be really helped with

Making Alexa Work

Serge: That’s phenomenal. Amazon, Alexa, is in millions of homes. And you may have talked about this a little bit early on, and or mentioned a little bit, you know, but how do you, you know, or what tools or, you know, do you use, right to intake data that can help you fine-tune Amazon, Alexa? Right. I mean, again, you know, it's an all of our homes, right? And so what pieces of data help you to continuously improve the product, right, so that when I go asking Amazon to play, you know, Machine Gun Kelly, or you know, give me an example of an artist, you know, what tools do you use and help you write, build such feature sets that help millions of users when they're talking to Alexa?

Akshay: So I think there are there are multiple levels at which, you know, sort of user research, or user feedback happens, right? So one definitely is in the form of, you know, when we are thinking about new features or new capabilities that don't exist today, you know, there's a ton of once there is an idea, there's a ton of research with users about whether this, you know, we try to validate and prove it to some extent, whether, you know, this will be useful to users or not, like, you know, so there are surveys, there are studies, there are, you know, focus groups. So we try to figure out, Is this a valuable problem to solve for users, so that sort of, you know, at the initial concept kind of stage. And then as we come up with some concepts to solve those problems, we continue to iterate with users. So let's say, you know, we'll come up with multiple design options, and we'll show them to users and say, hey, you know, can you try doing this for me? And the user will try it, sometimes they'll succeed, sometimes they're not. And, you know, so we try to figure out, you know, is this making sense to users or not, and try to pick the most user-friendly option out of those. So that's the solution stage. And then, I think once the feature is launched, there is a complete sort of, you know, the cycle of getting user signals of feedback ad from different sources, right? So for example, you know, to take your example, let's say you asked Alexa to play some music. And, you know, just after asking that, you say, you know, hey, stop, or, you know, you turn it off, right? So, that's a good signal for us to say, hey, maybe Alexa did not do what the user wanted to do. Right? So we look at that kind of a signal. Similarly, you know, there are, you can fill, you can provide, you know, feedback within the app, to say, hey, you know, this did not work or that did not work. So, so combining these multiple signals together, there is a continuous improvement process to identify where are the biggest issues or failures happening? And then how can we fix them? 

Getting Stakeholder Buy-in Continued

Serge: Wow, that's great. That's great. Yeah. So and, you know, as we talked about product management, I'm of the belief that every organization thrives based on the product that they put out in the market, right. You know, the, you know, whether you're small business here, you're providing a service, right? Or if your product company, your service is the product. And so, you know, you also mentioned this briefly early on, but how do you get buy-in from stakeholders? 

Akshay: So yeah, I think as a PM there are typically you know, several stakeholders, you need to align in order to you know, achieve the vision that you want to go towards. So, there are engineering partners, design partners, leaders of the organization, you know, who would typically, you know, give feedback around, you know, the right long term direction, and, you know, whether, you know, how, how should this initiative be resourced compared to other items, right. So, I think, each stakeholder, my personal approach is, you know, individuals, you know, and leaders, they would come with their own way of looking at things. And, you know, it definitely is a great thing to sort of, you know, get a diverse set of views, but at the same time, it's also a PM’s job to keep moving things forward. Right. So it's their job to ship that product and put it in the hands of users. So a few things that I definitely try to do. One is, I tried to layout, you know, sort of some product principles or, you know, kind of decision-making techniques upfront, as approved in the proposal, right. So, there are always, you know, trade-offs to be made, let's say, you know, you could say, Hey, do we focus on growth versus engagement, or, you know, hey, monetization comes later or sooner, right. So, I do take a stab at putting in some product principles that, you know, I want folks to align on so that they have a decision-making framework with them. So So you know, instead of people evaluating the proposal from, you know, a completely different lens, they can use those principles to evaluate it. That's one. And I think, the other piece I definitely try to do is, I try to deeply understand where the, you know, stakeholder feedback is coming from what's, you know, what's driving it? And a lot of the times, it turns out that, you know, maybe they're just looking for more data, and if they're not truly opposed to the proposal or anything, they just want more details. Right. So I think, I do try to, you know, sort of look at the individual feedback or concern, and, you know, is that feasible to meet or not, and then, you know, try to try to get them in. And, lastly, and this is, you know, this could be an effective tool to get things moving if it comes to that is, you know, if there's a stalemate and, you know, folks cannot agree on something, then definitely, you know, escalating and giving the recommended option to leaders and saying, Hey, let's, let's break the tie.

Managing a Team in Multiple Timezones 

Serge: Yeah, yeah. That dives into my next question, which is, you know, you lead multi geographical teams, what has enabled you to work with teams in different time zone? You know, and especially geographies, to achieve our primary goals?

Akshay: Right. Yeah, I think definitely. I've been part of several multicultural multi-region teams. And, you know, apart from sort of timezone overlap, kind of coordination challenges.  As a product manager, I feel putting things on paper really helps in getting people on the same page, like, yeah, for sure.

Serge: I would imagine, it makes sure that you know, if and when someone is not able to, you know, join a meeting and, you know, for a specific reason, they can quickly, you know, follow up and catch up on what the conversation was about because it was documented. Correct?

Akshay: Exactly. Right. I think one of the key things that are challenging when they are in different time zones, and in different geographies, is giving everybody a voice on the proposal. Right. So because what might happen otherwise is, you know, hey, most of the folks who are in the same time zone they got together, they discussed, and other folks might feel left out. So that, to me, is the key problem to be solved in, a multi-regional setting. And I think having, you know, the plan, or the proposal clearly documented, and then giving all the stakeholders, you know, whichever geography, they are in a forum, to provide feedback on that proposal. And gives, you know, sort of goes a long way, both from a trust point of view. So you know, you are able to get buy-in and trust from multiple stakeholders, and also from a point of view of getting the project along, if you need their help to get stuff done.

Google Assistant

Serge: Yeah, that's amazing. So, you know, I want to shift gear to your current role, which is Google. Were you working on Google Assistant? You know, so Google Assistant is a fairly, they said product from Google. And, you know, tell us about your involvement with Google Assistant.

Akshay: Yeah. So on Google Assistant, I lead the music and video playback, primarily related to YouTube and YouTube music. So, you know, and this is, across multiple device types. So this could be the Google Home mini speaker, or this could be the Google Assistant on your phone. Or this could be, you know, the smart display, the Google hub, on your kitchen counter. So across all of these devices, the music and videos area is gonna look good.


Serge: Yeah. For some of us who don't use these devices or services we're now inundated by multiple assistants, I mean, we have, you know, Apple Homepod. We have you know, Siri, right, and Google Assistant, tell us what the, what's the difference between Google Assistant, and Amazon Alexa?

Akshay: I think a lot of them in terms of capabilities and features, there is a lot of similarity between the two products. So as you said, you know, Alexa had a bit of a head start, compared to Assistant. So there are some use cases where, you know, it has a rich feature set on the Google Assistant front. I think,, what Google leverages its strength for is, you know, being countries and languages. So, you know, you'll, you'll find that you know, Google Assistant is available in, in a lot of different languages. So users that speak that language can use the assistant. And definitely, you know, goes without saying that there is a, there's pretty strong integration with the rest of the Google product suite like you to Google Photos, search, and you know, the ton of Google products that we all use.

Serge: Yeah. I remember when I remember watching that announcement of Google Assistant, where for the demo was, you know, Google Assistant, book, a barbershop appointment for me, and it was able to do that, you know, in real-time. You know, what do you think about a product such as that, that has to make decisions in real-time, right? How do you interface the product with the end-user such as well, what actually, in this case, there are two end-users? There's the person who's giving the command, and then there's the merchant who's got to be able to make their availability available, so that, you know, Google Assistant can make that appointment for me. One question I have here is, what part of that process are you involved with? How does that tie into Video and Music for YouTube if at all?

Akshay: That’s a team within Assistant and it was showcased during the Google IO event as well. So that’s a team within the Assistant called duplex focused on making the Assistant more intelligent. The more human-like intelligence it has. Such as understanding speech; we all know that speech is extremely nuanced.  There are different accents, there are different ways of saying things, the same thing, there are pauses that mean something hmms and uhms mean something. That team is focused on making Assistant more intelligent. And the way that the music and media team works with that helps as more of a horizontal solution that improves our understanding of music-related queries. The more improvements we drive on speech understanding the better we are able to serve music requests. So that is how the two are tied together. 

Upcoming Product Managers

Serge: Yeah, that’s amazing. For the audience that is listening, what’s the advice you have for up-and-coming product managers. What is your piece of advice for staying innovative during the product development process?

Akshay: Staying focused on the user's need or the problem instead of the idea can really help take a step back. If we are balanced in our approach, you know, being passionate about solving the problem versus being married to a cool idea that you have, that can go a long way. Staying focused on the user's need. Anyone who is an upcoming product manager, I suggest that you be extremely crisp on who your users are and what problem you are trying to solve for them instead of starting from a cool idea and then trying to find a market for it. That can keep you driven until you have solved that problem. You keep innovating to solve it in a better way. 

Fun with Cooking

Serge: Wow, that's phenomenal. Such an amazing gem there for our listeners. Actually, before we wrap on this episode, I will say I was doing research prior to us getting on. First of all we are all diverse individuals on this podcast and the world is increasingly diverse. One thing I noticed when doing this research is that you have a passion for cooking mean Indian food. I love Indian food. This is where I ask you about the fun aspect of Indian food for you, but what is that one dish that Akshay loves to make? 

Akshay: Yeah, I do enjoy cooking. I don’t know if it goes well or not when it comes out but I really do enjoy cooking. Shai Paneer, it’s cottage cheese in a tomato gravy and it’s one of the favorites for me. 

Serge: That’s amazing. Excellent. Akshay, thanks so much for taking the time to join me on this podcast. I’m very excited because this is the first one. And I feel like you’ve shared such an amazing gem with our audience. I cannot wait to see what’s next for you at Google with your new role. 

Akshay: Thanks so much sir, this was great. Thanks for chatting. 


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