“Breaking into Product from Engineering”: Rekha Venkatakrishnan, Head of Product at Amazon (Video + Transcript)

September 21, 2023

Rekha Venkatakrishnan (Head of Product at Amazon) speaks about breaking through into product from engineering. She shares strategies to make it happen, explain how to execute it, and provide tips for what not to do when you are trying to make a successful career switch.


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Sukrutha Bhadouria: Rekha is the head of product at Amazon and she currently leads global teams of both technical and non-technical product and program leaders. Welcome, Rekha.

Rekha Venkatakrishnan: Thank you, Sukrutha. Hi everyone. Good morning, good evening, and good afternoon to everyone joining. It’s a pleasure to be here joining amongst you and sharing my personal journey about how I went on to becoming a product leader from an engineering background. And just a quick mention, I’m happy to take questions towards the end. I’ll try to keep this… Making sure we have some time for Q and A. Happy to answer any questions or any follow-up you may have for me at the end. Let’s get into it.

Rekha Venkatakrishnan: I currently head product teams at Amazon, and prior Amazon, I have experiences working at various Fortune 500 companies. Not mentioning every single company out there. But you can see that out on the screen, and coming from various B2C, B2B backgrounds and also going back years in consulting and being in the engineering space.

Rekha Venkatakrishnan: I’ve been in tech close to two decades now, and I started my journey as an engineer. Right now I’m here in front of you as a product manager, product leader, leading charter of products at Amazon. Of my story, I always like to start this I know, so that it’s personal and you are all able to connect to it. Now, how did this even happen for me personally? I am a software engineer, by profession when I started my career and I was a computer science undergrad. I did my undergrad in India. I never wanted to become a software engineer, just so you all know. It happened that my parents wanted me to be an engineer. It all happened. And there you go. I landed a job of software engineer. I tried to fit myself into the engineering dream of things. Like learning how to code, how to do things, how do you make sure you understand the problem statement to be able to do your coding.

Rekha Venkatakrishnan: A lot of times when I did that, it was more for in the box. You are in this box where you are constantly making sure my code runs. I can test it, I can deliver it. Now here comes the journey in my career where I had an opportunity to move from India to US. And when I moved cross countries, I was moving in the role of consulting. And when I was a consultant, I think that was an eye-opening exercise for me and I had an opportunity to work for Fortune 500 different retailers in US. I would go there, I would really sit with the customers and I’ll start understanding all these problems they are facing. It was not just about how my code is working, but it’s truly understanding how that customer looks through, knows what you deliver to them. Is it really solving their problem?

Rekha Venkatakrishnan: That prompted me to think through, okay, wow, there is so much problem out there and you can do so much with the technology out there. I’m talking all this, think of a decade ago where product management was not even kind of a whole witted function in itself. Maybe we would’ve heard of system analysts, business analysts. There were tons of quite of that role but not truly what a product would be.

Rekha Venkatakrishnan: That’s when I started investing in myself. This was a stretch goal for me. I said, “Okay, hey, I’m seeing all these customers and now I’m doing all this. But how do I start really building things? How do I really solve for some of these problems based on all the knowledge that I have, my different learnings?” And I started doing some of the site projects at that time, on my own.

Rekha Venkatakrishnan: From there, I really worked hard towards finding that breakthrough opportunity with Walmart, when I moved back then and now ended up being a product manager. I should definitely say that, now in that journey I’ve had mentors. And mentors were someone who didn’t know me. I didn’t have them when I was back in India. And when I moved here, I did find mentors and they were male mentors who were very supportive of me and they wanted me to make sure that now I understand what product management is.

Rekha Venkatakrishnan: There was tons of that understanding and hard work and I would also save the time that I spent into really understand what goes into it. One thing that I would tell all of you is product management, getting into it is very much possible. Are there no downfalls to it? Yes, if you think about it, any profession, any function, anytime you try to do new things, there will be downsizing. There will be things around like, “No, hey, okay, am I in the right trajectory?”

Rekha Venkatakrishnan: Okay, is this a downfall? I even had someone who told me, “Hey, you are in the upward trajectory for engineering. Why do you want to move to product?” You may see that downward trending in newer. I was like, “I’m okay to take those risks.” So the moral of the story is yes, it is doable. It is definitely coming with a lot of the skills that you need to build, the traits that you will need to build, the hard work that you need to put in.

Rekha Venkatakrishnan: In the next couple of minutes I’ll share with you [inaudible], what are some of the things I did and what are some of the things I see now. Because I did this years ago and what do I see now in the industry happening that could probably help anyone here who are trying to break through into product?

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Rekha Venkatakrishnan: Start with the purpose. I love the slide, for the reason I say this is I’m sure it’s not a complicated one. Where are you heading to? Anyone who is trying to break through, I would ask you to assess the purpose of it. Why do you want to become a product? I’ve had people tell me, “Oh, I want to become a product because it makes me get that managerial title. I want to become a product because I can decide everything.” No, absolutely not. All right. There needs to be a cause behind it.

Rekha Venkatakrishnan: Make sure you love what you do. Make sure you know why you want to be a product manager. We are all here. We are in different functions. One could be an engineer, I could be a product manager, someone here could be a analyst. I’m pretty sure all of you in your journey are trying to solve for that customer problem.

Rekha Venkatakrishnan: It’s for a different function. At the end of the day, what you’re doing is impacting a human’s life, at somewhere, in some part of the world. I would really ask yourself, what is the purpose of me being doing it? Why I am wanting to be a product manager? And carve out that roadmap for yourself.

Rekha Venkatakrishnan: Put a time in front of you to say, “Hey, I will set 12 months for me and work backwards to be able to get to where I want to be.” So purpose is the very first key that I did for myself and I would highly encourage all of you to do as well. From there, let’s switch to a little bit of the skills. When I think of product management, and I’m sure it’s overwhelming out in the market and in the industry, there are tons of skills that one needs to groom themselves into.

Rekha Venkatakrishnan: I would say some of them comes naturally with the transition of the functions you have been in. And some of them you will have to probably groom into. And it’s a mix of soft skills and hard skill. If you really see some of them that catches my eye out of this cloud here, bubble here, customer centricity, growth mindset. I would definitely tell you that there could be pitfalls, there could be you feeling that, “Oh, am I in the right trajectory or not?”

Rekha Venkatakrishnan: Building that growth mindset, starting with the customer, improving how you communicate, practice your storytelling. Own things. Open to fail. Learn how do you build empathy? We all do that in our day-to-day life. I’m sure all of you out here are customers in some way. There are services that you use in the industry. There are products that you use in the industry. Play around it, practice it. And you can tell a lot more like, “Oh wow, there is a problem out there.”

Rekha Venkatakrishnan: If I was to solve this, how would I go about it? Definitely there is that grooming of skills that I encourage each one of you to build. And it’s okay if you don’t have it, but it’s not something that you cannot do. And all I’m saying is these are the skills and there’s a lot more. But these are some of the things that have worked for me very well, personally.

Rekha Venkatakrishnan: I would encourage all of you to practice, even in your current function, as you groom into product management. Where to start? We talked about skills. I talked about my story. Where do I really start? Resuming, and this is very, very important I would say. In my career, as I mentor a lot of young girls, women, I also have male mentees. A lot of time people come to me with resumes that are six, seven page longer.

Rekha Venkatakrishnan: I would really challenge you. Go back, be a critic for yourself, review your resumes. Position your resume to be more value centric. Position your resume to be more outcome centric. Yes, you may ask me, “Hey, I’m an engineer, how do I do that?” And I’ll tell you, as an engineer, maybe you are building a piece of code that’s really going behind solving a customer problem. I’m sure there is a goal that’s tied to why that problem is important for the customer. And maybe it’s driving some improvement. Maybe it’s about improving the performance of how their systems work or it’s about improving, driving incremental revenue, saving costs, anything.

Rekha Venkatakrishnan: How do you make your resume positioning more in an outcome value centric way? I think that would be a very, very key element. Networking. Unlike the times I was in, I think there are tons of opportunities now for you to network. Elevate. As you see here, we are all here, and it’s a good forum for you to network with others, learn from others, and be vocal about what you want to do. There is no shame in it. If you want to do it, be vocal about it. I would definitely encourage you all to use a lot of these free forums, workshops, meetups. There are a lot of product sessions that are happening, all over LinkedIn, and if you look through Evenbrite, you’ll find tons of that. It does need time.

Rekha Venkatakrishnan: I would encourage you, nobody’s going to come and tell you go do this. I would rather ask you to go and really lead the building your brand. I’ve come to the board of directors. It’s something new that I have discovered in, I would say, a year or two now. Your brand, LinkedIn, I’m sure you all are on LinkedIn for most of you. Tthere are a lot of such platforms now, out there which was not there while the time I was there.

Rekha Venkatakrishnan: I think probably LinkedIn was the only one while I was there. But there are tons of accelerator programs. There are tons of platforms. Even creating your own blog, positioning your portfolio is a good way to showcase who you are and why you exist. And what’s your motto and vision behind getting into product. Last but not the least, personal board of directors. This is a very recent one, I would say. And it’s a, I would say an intersection between having a mentor versus coach and also a sponsor. And there are definitely new platforms that are upcoming.

Rekha Venkatakrishnan: I’m happy to share if anybody wants to connect offline. There are tons of board of directors that are coming up where you have this little cohort of different leaders from different industries experiences. And I have seen this working for a lot of people, to crack into product management because that’s a forum that makes you feel safe and you can talk through like, “No, hey, these are the things I want to do. What opportunities you have?”

Rekha Venkatakrishnan: You do get access to mentors and coaches and even sponsors at some point in time. We talked about where to start. How to navigate this. I’m not going to go through every single one in the interest of time. But for me, what has worked? I would say number one and two. I did this. Obviously I moved it more from engineering to consulting into product within the same organization. And it’s the best way. I know a lot of people try to figure out like, “Hey, I’m an engineer, how do I make this happen?” That exploration in your own organization is the best way to go. I’m not saying you cannot do it with cross organizations, you can. But it does comes with its own time and work and you building your network, a lot of things we chatted about. But within your organization is something, a best place to start with.

Rekha Venkatakrishnan: Sometimes you have to do the number four and five. Job shadowing, role play, and it’s a stretch goal for you. You are probably doing full-time role and then you say, “Hey, I want to role play someone. I want to do a job shadow,” because that’ll tell you, is this the right job for you? Your purpose and what you see, do they really match? Definitely no tap on that if possible.

Rekha Venkatakrishnan: Leveraging your domain expertise is another one that I wanted to really touch on. For me, I was in retail. I gained tons of knowledge, being in the retail I’ve built tons of products as an engineer, as an architect, as a consultant. I think that really helped me when I was trying to really crack into product management, because I tried to be in the same domain for various reasons, because I thought I do have that domain knowledge.

Rekha Venkatakrishnan: What does it takes for me to build those skills to be able to operate? And there were things that I had to unlearn and learn. Because as an engineer I always had a tendency to jump into solutioning. How do I take a step back and spend in the problem space. Swim in why and what? And reduce my time in the house space. Not to say reduce, reduce, but how do you give the opportunities to others who really have to be in that space to [inaudible]. Other things, yes, internships. I would also tell you if you’re able to take junior roles, beginner roles, do go for it. Sometimes I’ve seen people in a senior role as engineers and they say, “Hey, I will always take parallel roles.” It’s okay, I would say. And it is all for good.

Rekha Venkatakrishnan: It’s not a bad idea if you find opportunities and if you’re really desperate and you have a purpose behind it, make sure that you are able to take on those junior roles, beginner roles and go through it. And I would say upskill yourself. And what does that mean? I’ll touch on it quickly on the next slide, but upscale is something like, “How do I really get hands-on on some of the things?”

Rekha Venkatakrishnan: Are there opportunities in your workplace where you can support a product manager to say, “Hey, can I help you with an experimentation? Oh, can I help you write a requirement document?” And this is again, something based on for every individual interest, but there are various ways how you can upskill. I mean, there are tons of books out there. There are tons of training courses there. They’re not mandate, I would tell you that. It’s always a good idea to constantly upskill yourself. This is a very interesting slide that I thought I should bring it in front of everyone here.

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Rekha Venkatakrishnan: I have seen tons of myths out there, which has been a fear. “Can I be getting into product? Can I really get into this?” And some of the myths that I’ve had, I need to have an MBA to be a product. I need to have a tech background to be a [inaudible].

Rekha Venkatakrishnan: Absolutely no in my experience. Yes, these are the things that’ll eventually elevate you. But are there absolute necessary for you to get into product? Not really. Is product management all about new products? Not really. Sometimes you come and you just rebrand, design, rediscovered things. Something out there can also be totally relooked or revisited upon in a very holistic way. So it’s also not always about new products.

Rekha Venkatakrishnan: Is the role the same? Is product manager, is equal to project manager, is equal to program manager. I think there is a lot of that going on in the market today. But I would definitely encourage all of you to spend the time to really understand the role. Is product manager only the idea generators? Not necessarily.

Rekha Venkatakrishnan: Good ideas can come from anybody. How can you be the person who can rally along the team to get to that goal? Sometimes it’s about execution, sometimes it’s about strategy, sometimes it’s a blend of both. It’s not necessarily always about idea generators. And the last point that I want to touch upon is, “Hey, is product manager all about managing people?” No, no. There are individual contributor roles. There are product leader roles who manage a team of product managers, leading product charters.

Rekha Venkatakrishnan: These are definitely some of the myths. I have also seen them while I was trying to get through into product. And I’ll be honest with you, I have worked through every single thing. I do have an MBA, but I didn’t have MBA when I got into product. It has definitely helped me elevate where I am today. But it was not the core reason why I am into the product. I did have technical background, that was a plus. But is it the must have? No, I’ve seen people come from marketing. People come from even different hospitality industries.

Rekha Venkatakrishnan: I have seen people, I know someone who has been in the nurse and veterans and they have come into product management. There is no block to what you can get into product for. There is so much out there. And be open to risk, be open to fail, and you can go. It may not look fancy in the first get go, but I can tell you it is possible, it is doable. I wish everyone out here, very good luck. And with that-

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Hi, this talk was absolutely wonderful. People are posting their comments in the chat about various things that you touched upon. I think we’re close to time. So why don’t we wrap here. I thank you so much for your time. Bye, everyone.

Rekha Venkatakrishnan: Thank you. Bye-bye.

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