Change has been the only constant in my life. To give some perspective, I have studied across 6 schools, 2 continents, worked at 4 different companies and moved to 10 cities over the past 30 years. Some of this change was intentional, the rest was compelled by circumstances. Over the years, I have come to enjoy this constant change, and it always brings a new sense of purpose and excitement to me.
The prospect of a career at Haptik generated the same sense of excitement in me when I first heard about the Program Manager role. The chatbot on the website was fun to play around with and gave me a good taste of conversational AI. I genuinely felt great about the idea of spending the next several years learning the tricks of the trade in this domain and was fortunate enough to be given the opportunity to join the Haptik team.
I think the Program Manager role is synonymous with my outlook on life, as described above. It is a role that involves constant change, and the fun is in learning to ride the tide and ebb of what comes your way. I recently passed the 90-day mark as a Program Manager at Haptik and thus thought it would be a good time to share five key lessons that helped me tremendously during the initial transition.
Lesson 1: Understand your audience
I was super pumped to start working on my first project. The analytical and problem-solving part of me wanted to immediately dig deep into user personas, data for use cases, the best way to design user journeys, etc. But I soon realized that there is another aspect that is equally, if not more, important when it comes to being a Program Manager. And therein lay my first lesson:
Alignment requires communication, and communication requires a deep understanding of your audience. On my very first day, I had interacted with members from multiple teams who were focused on running Haptik as a smooth engine. Interactions with them over the course of the next few days painted a complete picture of the enterprise in my mind. To ensure that our virtual assistants genuinely delight our users, I had to interact with the following key stakeholders:
This process also led to some discoveries along the way. For a Program Manager, the ability to influence people is as crucial as the ability to solution virtual assistants for your clients. Here are some pointers I have for fellow Program Managers to keep in mind based on my experience:
Am I a servant leader? Can I serve the team in a way that they will appreciate and enjoy?
Can I speak a universal language that everyone understands? Everyone will have different perspectives but you have to steer your team towards a common frame of reference
Identify what each person excels in, give them space and get out of the way
Taking the time and energy to know each and every one of your key stakeholders is a painstakingly difficult task, but I’d recommend investing in it for better long term results. Also, don’t lose your positive energy and cheerfulness while you are at it!
Lesson 2: Get your hands dirty as early as possible
There are lots of moving pieces in a fast-paced setup like Haptik, and you can’t possibly have everything documented. One of the best ways to feel comfortable in your role is to test your knowledge within the current environment. Also, to be aligned with everyone, we really need to know what are the highs and lows in their daily routine.
I had to get my hands dirty right from the start. My initial week was spent towards building my first ever virtual assistant on the Haptik platform. This helped with familiarizing myself with the platform and its intricacies, and gave me my second lesson:
This really helped with the transition, and my superiors felt comfortable assigning me the responsibility for running my own Enterprise pod within a month of my joining Haptik. To reiterate, I learned:
Go deeper, till you understand the basics of everything related to your technology
Spend a day imagining yourself in the shoes of your key stakeholders. Understand their pain point
This is a never-ending process, so try to experiment and learn as early as you can
Lesson 3: Better you plan, further you’ll go
If you have made enough progress towards lessons 1 and 2, then you’ll probably find yourself in the middle of exciting projects after the first few days of settling down. After getting comfortable enough with Haptik’s truly formidable Conversational AI platform and the entire delivery process, I found myself in the middle of 4-5 different projects ongoing simultaneously. This exposure to the dependencies of our enterprise partners significantly challenged me at first. It exposed me to situations where I didn’t have complete control over the outcome. Specifically, I ran into this particular issue, which became my third lesson:
Consider this situation – you were expecting an enterprise partner to provide API documentation today. They provided it 5 days later when you have a commitment to keep for some other partner. In the meantime, yet another partner is having an issue on production. And suddenly, you end up with a new partner with whom the discovery process needs to start. Sounds familiar?
A Program Manager’s life revolves around firefighting in the midst of unwavering focus. After a few bruises, late night sessions and hard-earned wisdom, I’m happy to say that I have learned from my initial missteps. Prioritization is paramount when it comes to putting out fires instead of letting them spread.
Now, I plan my day for both known and unknowns. Here’s what my checklist looks like:
Do we have a level for priorities?
In case everything can’t go on time, what can we justify and push back?
Am I setting the right client expectations from the start? Are we committing to something impossible?
Having clarity on these questions helps me balance the present vs the future. We keep a buffer to innovate and be prepared for emergencies, and also keep enough time to share and discuss.
Lesson 4: Every minute counts
As cliched as it sounds, this particular lesson isn’t that easy to apply and execute. When Haptik’s Co-Founder and CEO, Aakrit Vaish, interviewed me, there was one thing he mentioned that stuck in my mind – that the Program Manager role is equivalent to being a mini-CEO. When I got on board, I got the first-hand experience of this from a time management perspective.
Considering various stakeholders involved and the long list of enterprise partners on my sticky notes, it was very tempting to respond to every request or email. I could literally spend 14 hours a day at work and still be left with a lot on my plate. Prioritizing work is only as fruitful as your ability to properly timebox it and deliver. I found myself increasingly engulfed in this spiral. This led to my fourth lesson:
Now, I spend the first 15 minutes of my day splitting my tasks into the above buckets. This activity helps me stay focused throughout the day as waves of requests pile up. Did it take me 2 hours to design the user journey for a particular use case? I’ll try to do it in 1.5 hours next time. Can I bring something from my past to create a better process/outcome here? This philosophy drives my calendar these days.
I ask myself these questions quite often:
Do I need a meeting for this ask? Can it be done over call/email/slack?
Get monkeys off my back. Is this ask a distraction or a fair request? Say no to distractions
Did this activity take less time than last time? Am I spending too much time on a particular step?
Lesson 5: Expand your horizon
When you are juggling multiple priorities every day, it is quite easy to get consumed by what’s on your table. Initially, it was very hard to focus outside ongoing projects, customer requests, and daily priorities. What was on my plate seemed exciting and challenging enough to keep me consumed throughout the day. I was satisfied with small wins and low hanging fruits.
However, what I realized is that sometimes you need to look beyond your bubble to innovate. Do you need a lot of custom development for a customer requirement? Or did your recent bot have a lower UX score? Your solution might just be an ask away. Taking some time and understanding what others are up to definitely helped me get the bigger picture. It also led me to understand if a particular ask falls within my purview, or the purview of our experts from the platform, DevOps or other teams, who could potentially come up with a better solution. Which leads me to my fifth and final lesson:
This is because:
Others might have the same problem as you. Collaborate to innovate
Cross pod discussions always yield great outcomes
Learning beyond your own zone improves the way you think about solutions
To sum up…
These lessons and questions have allowed me to balance and not lose focus during the initial phase of my journey at Haptik. While I have discussed these learnings keeping the Program Manager role in mind, an argument can be made that they are relevant to other functions as well. These are not the absolutes that merely help me thrive in my current role, but rather act as a guiding light to my ship in the storms that our business cruises through every day.
I hope that this read was interesting and that these lessons resonated with you. We at Haptik are right in the middle of an exciting space in an exciting market, and I am fully committed to my leap of faith in conversational AI!
This article has been penned by Varun Deshpande, Program Manager at Haptik.