PM Intern Experience at a Growth Stage Silicon Valley Startup
Airtime, Palo Alto
With the onset of the virus right before summer, and humans locked down at homes, it seemed that the world was shutting down, one company at a time. Amidst this chaos and uncertainty, there was one domain that was booming. Social media. Now, more than ever, the world was craving human connections and looking for ways to emulate real-life experiences.
Being enthusiastic about this space, and excited to tackle this interesting problem at hand, I decided to spend my summer Airtime — a fast-paced growth-stage silicon valley startup. 🚀
This blog outlines my experience as a first-time product manager, touching on my challenges, experiences, and learnings in a remote internship.
I come with a background in user-experience design and psychology. Having been in the tech space for a couple of years, I’ve had the opportunity to work on a variety of products ranging from hyperlocal delivery apps and enterprise software to experiential AR spatial designs. Despite loving every bit of my creative design job, I always craved to be part of the ‘behind the scenes’ process where major product decisions and calls were made. This summer, I wanted to step out of my comfort zone and move away from the intricacies of “how” product experiences are created and delve into “why” these experiences matter in the first place.
One notion I was bullish about was working at a small growth-stage startup. Smaller teams ensure the wide-ranging variety of responsibilities, and building for a pre-PMF growth-stage company keeps you on your feet, where you’re shipping and learning through fast sprint cycles.
After my interview rounds and learning about the team and culture, Airtime checked off all the boxes and seemed like the perfect fit for what I was looking for.
I onboarded remotely from my home in Cambridge and set off the internship zoom-ing my way through team introductions throughout the day. Off the bat, I could see how passionate everyone was; beaming about the latest release or filling me in about what’s next for Airtime. Scattered across the globe (even before COVID), the team consisted of people from diverse backgrounds and phases of life. The one common thread that tied everyone was the enthusiasm, which was palpable.
My internship was structured in a manner that comprised of direct product responsibilities with fixed objectives, along with flexibility in picking up ambitious open-ended projects. Having a knack for design, my tasks during the first phase of the internship involved design-heavy, consumer-facing features.
The first project I picked was building video filters in the app. The north star metric was simple and straightforward — increase user engagement. ‘Filters’ was something the team was curious to build-out for a while now, and entrusted me with driving this from the ground up. Surfacing in the main experience of the app, this challenge was really exciting. My strategy in approaching this was to build upon from my learnings in design — Determine why are we building this. Identify user demographics. Establish where to surface in the app. Estimate the impact. After a fairly intense process of researching, ideating on the design, hypothesising the metric bump, and estimated dev impact, I drafted (my first ever) spec document. Before kicking off the feature with the teams, I decided to run it by the PM group and get some initial insights. Comments and suggestions starting pouring in, from considering backend details to novel ways of instrumenting the data. It dawned upon me that there were multiple essential touchpoints crucial in building products I hadn’t considered, segments that aren’t generally part of a general design process. To assist me with a direction, my mentor Bushra assisted me with putting together these missing pieces. We discussed at length about how to balance between hygiene and ambitious details, prioritisation techniques, when and where to conduct A/B tests, and most importantly scoping. The biggest learning from this exercise was the underrated skill of breaking down a mammoth task into small chunks. Setting mini-milestones and tackling them piece by piece lent in structure and made the process much smoother. The filters project involved immense collaboration with design, engineering, and analytics. From being a data noob, I became the person who kept a close eye on the company’s core metrics on a daily basis. I don’t want to let out too many details, so do keep an eye out for some fun filters on the Airtime app!
In a month, I had wrapped up two more app features and then entered into the second phase of my internship. Airtime was transcending into a web-version, and I had the opportunity to work with the Airtime Web team. Building features inside a polished product was one thing, but building an entirely new experience on a different platform felt like launching another startup of its own. With a stringent timeline in place, and a brand new team entirely dedicated to this project, I was ready to embark on this new challenge. Every week commenced with a 5-day agenda with regular check-ins with design and engineering. The process of building the web MVP involved working on anything and everything that was necessary for the project — testing iterations, working with the designers to create journey maps, instrumenting web events in the backend or even adding tasks to JIRA. I was part of the daily syncs and partook in the product, strategy, and go-to-market discussions. From its inception to releasing the staging build, I witnessed one of the fastest spring cycles I’d ever been a part of.
The third and final phase of my internship was all about growth experiments. A great strength of Airtime is the continuous experimentation of new ideas, trying, and testing unique, even traditionally risky features. My mission was to identify and collate interesting growth concepts that the team could quickly test. Being in a crowded market that was evolving quickly due to the pandemic, finding a niche was crucial. To shape this vision, I immersed myself completely in learning about the industry. I become a power user of tens of social apps from across the globe, curated my learnings from blogs, podcasts, Twitter, indulged in psychology to further understand digital identities and subcultures, and even spoke with a couple of startup experts. One of the most insightful discussions was with Turner Novak, who shed light on how investors evaluate the “next big thing”. Riddled with interesting social themes and fun domains, this research ended in shortlisting some key themes Airtime could venture into, and ideas relating to experiments to test the space.
What marked the highlight of my days were the PM team sync ups, reserved for every Friday. The team of 6 would come together and share their weekly learnings, intertwined with conversations around gaining feedback on the features they were driving, brainstorming their upcoming releases, sharing the newest products in the space, and seeking feedback on the releases. This catch-up of sorts was my mini weekly PM boot camp session. By observing each of the PMs approach and tackle issues, drive consensus, and lead teams, it assisted me in learning the intricacies of the role, and the wide variety of skills this role entails. Furthermore, the strengths and backgrounds of each individual were so distinctive — legal, arts, history, literature, economics, which added a unique flavor to everyone’s working style. I thoroughly enjoyed engaging in these sessions, jotting away my learnings, sometimes nuggets of prioritization approaches, or congenial conflict resolution secrets, hopeful to implement and these in my day-to-day.
There are multitudinous definitions of what really defines the role of a product manager. While everyone has their own variation of it, one attribute that is ubiquitously agreed upon is the sheer amount of valuable company resources PMs get to align. My action-plan to optimize the responsibility this role gave me, was to structure my work in a way that made the best use of the company’s efforts.
The 3 core learnings to drive this:
1. Be a great communicator
You’re working with multiple teams to get stuff done. With zero people reporting directly to you, the responsibility of representing and championing the feature falls on your shoulders. Why should the engineers spend x hours of the week working on this? Why should the designer prioritize y over z? Is the A/B test even required? Questions, advice, queries, and ideas will pour onto you, and you’re meant to ensure that everyone who’s a part of this is on the same page.
Being a thorough and persuasive communicator helps everyone feel heard, understands their impact your team is having, and eventually, feels valued. Now this answer is different for each team, and even for each person. What helps in this process is being brutally honest, and understanding and being thorough with the ‘why’. Setting the right expectations by being sincere always turned out to be the best approach.
2. Know the ins and outs
A great way to identify potential areas of improvement for the product is to become a superuser. As for me, I swapped Facetime with Airtime, created group chats with my closest friends on the platform, and binge-watched content here instead of Youtube. I also made sure to be a part of the regular user interviews and testing sessions, keeping an ongoing excel sheet with the common themes of annoyances they were facing.
Airtime also hosts daily ‘Watch Parties’ — events by artists, creators, influences, musicians, and performers on the platform, for everyone in the company to tune into. From watching afternoon bukwangs to late-night ghost stories, these Watch parties covered a gamut of genres, demographics, and emotions (and also a great means to peek into the GenZ life).
3. Leverage your strengths
The role of a PM is sometimes over-glorified; stated as the “CEO of the feature”, or someone who is great at everything. In reality, this role is super murky and very difficult to put a label on. I believe that instead of mastering all the skills out there, identify your forté. What are the core strengths that differentiate you? Be interested in turning these strengths from good to excellent, and leveraging these as your superpower as a PM.
My manager, Bushra, put her own spin on this definition -
“You’re like a chef. There’s an eclectic array of ingredients at your disposal and it is upto you to pick the right ones, in the right quantity, in the right order, and cook up the most delicious medley one has ever seen.”
No two PMs are the same, and beauty lies in identifying what you, finding a zone, and optimizing for that.
All in all, my learning from this has been phenomenal. Working on a great diversity of projects, with some of the smartest people, I couldn’t have asked for a better way to transition into product management. With so much to learn and explore, I can’t wait to see what the future holds.
I head back to my academic life to complete my final year at Harvard. It’s been one amazing journey to work with Airtime, and I can’t wait to work with this lovely bunch again.