This panel will be diving into the different dynamics of leading product in a startup vs corporate environment, the skills needed for each and how to navigate the different management styles and decision making processes.
We recently got to sit down and chat with Namrata Sarmah, Chief Product Officer at iPlato Healthcare; about her greatest hits on the journey to CPO, finding success in large companies and startups, the importance of diversity in product, empowering the product teams of the future and more.
As well as leading products to revolutionize healthcare, Nam is an advisor, keynote speaker and panelist at tech conferences across the globe. She’s a passionate diversity pioneer and founder of the Women in Product London Chapter. Plus, she’s even been named in Management Today’s 35 Women Under 35 list.
Q: You’ve been very successful working in companies like ViacomCBS, and you've also flourished in the startup space. How has that worked in your career?
A: It's something to do with my personality, I am quite restless. So I don't let myself be very comfortable anywhere. In a large company, you've got bigger budgets, bigger teams, a kind of slower pace of working, which is great for one's mental health. But then what happens is, if you get too comfortable, you could get quite detached from the rest of the world. And I feel like if you're too comfortable in a job, that's probably because you're not challenging yourself enough.
So when I get too comfortable, I then tend to gravitate towards startups. Then you're talking about super long hours, and chaos in general. And then after a few years, then you decide, okay, I need to probably relax a little bit. And then you go back to a larger company.
So that has been the trend in my career. But also most of the companies that I've joined. I think it sounds cliche, but I think the roles have chosen me, rather than me choosing those jobs. So I would say it's destiny to a certain extent as well.
Q: Were you getting too comfortable at ViacomCBS? Is that what led you to jump to MyGP?
A: Yes and no, it’s a lovely company, Viacom, I think it's one of the best companies I've ever worked for. I think the reason I moved was more of a calling, because I was in healthcare. I was in Babylon five, six years ago. And working in health tech is a different type of high, because you're solving some massive problems for people and your products can directly impact communities and people in general. And you have an aha moment on a daily basis.
I mean, my aha moment was actually when I was at Babylon, when my son was born. And I remember he was two weeks old, and he was sneezing or something. It was the middle of the night, 3am, and I wanted a doctor. And obviously it's impossible to get a doctor at that time, unless the doctor is your friend. So I had Babylon in my hand. And there you go, there was a Babylon doctor, who looked at my son, at 3am. And kind of calmed me down saying, okay, this is the problem.
That was the day, I actually realised what we had created. I think that's when I realised the kind of power of industries like this. When the pandemic hit, I felt that I had something more to give. I felt like maybe I should go back to healthcare, if there is such an opportunity. And I just got lucky.
Every job has been a calling, like the job has always chosen me. So that was a time when the MyGP opportunity came up. And I found that it was the perfect way for me to go back into healthcare. And yeah, it's been an amazing journey so far.
Q: Why were you willing to come into a company that is transitioning towards being product-led?
A: I just saw the opportunity. I'm one of those people, just like most product people I guess, we are more like glass full rather than glass empty people as they say. So more kind of optimists by nature. So I saw the opportunity, instead of worrying much about it not being product-led at that point.
Also, I think there's not much fun really going into an environment where everything is perfect. Because how would you make your mark, right? And as a professional, how would you grow if everything is already perfect? So I felt that it would be good to come into a company that's undergoing a transformation of sorts.
Transformation programs are amazing, especially if it's product-led transformation, because that's where as a CPO, I can really show my skills, and I can actually add value. I think my stakeholders can immediately see the value that I'm adding. Now every week we are growing as a company into becoming a product-led organization, and that gives you a lot of satisfaction.
Q: You went from PM to being a CPO in ten years, what were some of your greatest hits from your journey, and how did you get yourself to that position?
A: It's been a lot of stories. And one day, at some point, when I get to write a book, I have to dedicate at least one or two chapters to these lovely accidents that I've had along my journey! Because I grew quite fast in product actually. I was a PM for only two years, and I became a head of product very fast in my career. And again, that was not intended at all, it just happened. There was an opportunity and I took it. I'm quite a fearless type of person. So when I saw an opportunity, I jumped into it. And I love what Richard Branson says:
“If somebody offers you an amazing opportunity but you are not sure you can do it, say yes – then learn how to do it later!”
I'm quite inspired by that. So if I get an opportunity, I do jump into it, then later I up my game, and then make sure that I do my best and I'm very hard working generally. My career has not been conventional, that's for sure. I started as a software engineer in Bangalore and then worked in the States as well, I was at EMC Corporation. So in Boston, EMC, which is now Dell, I spent some lovely years there. And then I moved to the UK to do my MBA.
Most people after doing an MBA go for consulting positions right? I think like 90% of the cohort would get into one of the big four consulting firms, or the rest would get into commercial, sort of sales, marketing roles that type of thing. So I was the only person who didn't do any of these, and I was totally opposite. I went to Kelloggs, who have their European headquarters in Manchester. I got an opportunity to do my MBA project there for three months. And I was in the BI team as part of the tech team. I loved that role and I did very well in it.
Everybody in my class, they were preparing for PwC or KPMG, or McKinsey or whatever it was. For some reason, I just didn't want to be a consultant. I wanted to use my engineering degree, and I didn't want to change my career totally. So I thought I'd find something, and it was an amazing time then, because it was 2012, and product management in London was like a baby, I mean there were like five people doing it or something!
So I got into the train very early on, and I was one of the few people who became a product owner. So that was my first job. So I think I'm super lucky to have gotten on the train very fast. And since then, I think it was never looking back. I found that product management is the best job for somebody of my skills. And I kind of did pretty well in that.
But also there've been some funny stories, like after Babylon, I became a product director in a company called Blow limited, which is a beauty tech company. An exciting, very female oriented company. After that I was actually thinking about having a baby, so we were planning a family and things like that. Startups can be quite hard when you’re building a family and things like that. So I thought I'm going to get back into a Senior PM type of role.
So that was my ambition. After Blow, I was going to go back to a corporate and join as a Senior PM or something like that. As I was interviewing, every interview they were saying you're way too overqualified for a PM. The companies would come back saying, what about the head of product? Or what about the director, and I was like, I don't want those roles, I want to be a PM.
So I was not getting anywhere. And Viacom found me somewhere. And they decided that I should be a senior director. So from wanting to become a PM, again, I ended up in a senior director role. So I had this lovely opportunity, had the baby and it was all fine.
Then of course, once you do become senior director, there's no looking back, and then the next kind of stage, I became a CPU after that. So it's been quite a rocket speed journey in many ways, and very hectic. So if you ask me, I would have preferred it to be a bit slower, to be honest. But as I said, most of the jobs have been very accidental, rather than something that I was actively pursuing.
Q: As a CPO, how do you try to encourage your teams to embrace that attitude of seeing an amazing opportunity, saying yes, and figuring out how to do it later?
A: Yeah it's hard. I do kind of speak to a lot of my friends and family, my parents, etc, who kind of mentor me or coach me in some of these things. Because even within my family, I'm the extrovert, but my sister is an introvert. So there are life lessons to be learned that way.
My ambitions could be very different from someone else's, everyone has their own pace of growth, and their ambitions can be very different. I think being an inclusive leader is an important part of that. I think we are very fortunate, we get to work in London, which is so diverse as a place. And we get to work with some amazing bunch of people from all over the world. And everybody has had their own different life journeys, or career journeys.
So that has been a learning process. I would say, five years ago, I wasn't that great at this, because I just wouldn't have known that much. I wouldn't have known enough people. Now I think I know more people, more perspectives, etc, and I’ve become more mature. And after another five years, I would probably be an even better leader.
I think leadership is a journey. You become a better leader as you grow as an individual. I think becoming a female leader attracts a lot of different types of people immediately, because when I interview people now to join my team, I get people saying they’d love to have a female PM, I would love to have a female boss. I've had male product managers who said to me, they've never had a female boss and would love to have one. I think I do attract quite a broad type of demographics. There's a lot of millennial PMs out there who say that they would love to have a millennial boss, that type of thing.
When I interview more and more people and talk to others, I think I’ve realized that I have such a huge kind of responsibility in being that inclusive leader. But it's a work in progress. I think it takes time. And as I said, I'm probably not even 20% in my journey as a leader. I think in the next five to 10 years, I'll probably be a much better leader.
Q: From your early days as a PM, to now as a CPO, what’s changed about how you hire a PM or how you attract a PM?
A: I think one thing that has changed is people are not driven by the salaries anymore, especially the younger generation. They’re not much driven by the salaries or even the overall kind of benefits package or anything, I think they are more interested in what their impact will be on the company. And how that job will take them onto the next stage in their career.
So I think people are more ambitious now than before, which I think is brilliant overall for the product community in general. The other thing is, I think there's a lot of pressure now on hiring managers. Because you want to hire smart people, but smart people are hot properties in a market. So you have to ensure as a hiring manager that you keep them interested in your company and in your team.
So how do you do that? You have to ensure that you constantly have a pipeline of innovative projects to do, innovative features to develop, which is a challenge in itself. So I think hiring managers these days, whether you're a head of product or a CPO, I think everybody's facing the same problem, how do you keep these small, bright people engaged? And how do you ensure that they can then bring more smart and bright people into the company?
So I think that's probably the focus, retention of candidates, more than attraction. I think retention is the biggest challenge at the moment.
Hungry for more insights from CPOs? Reserve your ticket for the Chief Product Officer Summit, May 19, 2021.
30+ product leaders will be coming together to discuss challenges, share insights and engage with you in one jam-packed day, designed exclusively for those in senior product roles.