Charting Her Own Course in Software with a Knack for Extreme Empathy

This is a candid series on product leaders making an impact across the globe. You can read more interviews here. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

I caught up with Sushma Padmanabhan — a Senior Product Manager at Intuit — for profiling her trail-blazing career. A native of Mumbai, she explored the nine yards of finance for a decade — from stockbroking, banking, insurance to taxes, before moving to Bengaluru for opportunities in FinTech. In 2008, Sushma joined Intuit as a US Tax Analyst. 

After earning both bachelor’s and master’s degree in Commerce from Mumbai University, she pursued Chartered Financial from ICFAI Hyderabad. Sushma lives with her husband Prashant Ramaswamy and children in Bengaluru. 

You can follow her here.

You specialized in commerce. What got you interested in it in the first place?

At a very young age, I had exposure to huge ledgers because my father was a banker. I was fascinated by the fact that the balance sheet used to balance itself at the end of the day. 

Tell me about your early career days. 

Although I have been a working professional for the last 20 years, it took me a few years to find a real belonging to a career. It was not an easy path. You name it — and I have been in every financial sector possible. 

In the early years of my career, I would be in a company for 2-3 years and then get bitten by the restlessness bug. I would switch to another company. This would go on until I explored several sectors in finance. I realised I was learning a tonne but never had a liking to the work I was doing. In stark contrast, the men in my family hardly left their jobs. My husband Prashant has switched only two companies in 21 years of his career. My father is passionate about being loyal to a company. Naturally, he used to get upset with me when I switched companies. Moreover, my commute in Mumbai was terrible. There was no concept of work-life balance. 

Then, Ernst & Young happened. 

I moved to Bangalore when I got hired as a US Taxation specialist. I was so happy there because I was passionate about my job. During my CFA days, I had good knowledge of India Taxation. But the training from E&Y on US Taxation was so phenomenal that I became an expert at it. I even won a lot of accolades for my contribution. 

How did you start your career in a software company? What was it like to navigate an unfamiliar world of software?

My experience with US Taxation in E&Y took me to Intuit. I was using Intuit products to prepare tax returns for E&Y. So you may wonder what a commerce graduate does in an Information Technology company like Intuit.

Intuit set up its first India office in Bengaluru in 2005. Sushma joined them in 2008 to work on Lacerte — a tax product for CPAs. She helped engineers in their development centers understand the US tax law changes. She is currently helping build TurboTax.

I recall there were exactly two of us who had joined Intuit as taxation specialists. The software engineers were confused about what we were doing there. I suppose we looked like specimens to them as we only spoke about debits and credits. Eventually, we became the subject matter experts they would reach out to. 

In my first few days, I had nothing to connect with my colleagues on the lunch table. I remember telling myself- “Oh god! Another company and in another two years, I will probably leave.” There were just two of us in the same designation. No competition. No clear path to progress in our career. Due to a lack of precedence, my line manager had no idea what to do with us. My appraisals sucked. It was frustrating! 

Wow! I can imagine how hard that can be. With these challenges, how did you internally move to product management at Intuit? What made you play the long-game at Intuit? 

At that time, managers at our Bengaluru office had specialized in managing software engineers while Business Analyst was a relatively new function. My then manager realized that we were not being set up for success if we continued with the same work. He did not want to let go of me because he wanted me to succeed at Intuit. 

Previously, I had employers who were just employers. Now, here I was in a company that took a keen interest in my career. That changed the role for me. That changed the perception of Intuit for me. Intuit then decided to scrap the whole program of having two tax analysts in India and moved me as a quality assurance person in the team. 

It was also around time Intuit rolled out this new methodology called D 4 D — Designing for Delight — How to Fall In Love With Your Customer’s Problems (And Not The Solution). Intuit has always been a customer-centric company. I was already telling people what to expect from the office of an accountant. So this initiative was right up my lane. I took part in their initiative as an Innovation Catalyst or, as we refer to it as an IC. I felt a real belonging!

It is a turning point for every person when they know they can influence people for good. They will want to do more of it.

That is what happened to me when I was an IC. Every team I worked with started recognising the value I brought to the table. I coached several teams in Intuit. I am proud to say I am considered one of the elite ICs at Intuit.

I loved my part-time role as an IC more than my full-time role as a QA person. Frankly, I hated looking at code or doing white box testing. I spoke to my manager. She suggested I use my unstructured time to build my product management skills. Intuit has a great program called Unstructured Time. All Intuit employees are encouraged to use 10% of their working hours as unstructured time devoted to projects they are passionate about.

So I started an intrapreneurial project called TaxOKPlease. It is a product that helps Indians to seek help from a marketplace for Chartered Accountants. I wanted to grow it into a full-fledged product. However, I struggled with economies of scale. I did not know how I could monetize it. A lot of people in the leadership team took notice of my work in TaxOKPlease. Incidentally, Deepa Bachu, one of my hiring managers at that time, created a role in Product Management for me to bring me into her team. She was working on something out of the box, and that interested me. That is how I transitioned into Product Management. 

That is one incredible story! I saw a patent filed in your name. How did that happen?

Sure. To give you context, QuickBooks, as you know, is a small business accounting software. It lets shopkeepers use it as a regular Cash register / point of sale product without accounting getting in their way. We were building an online version as Intuit was exploring new geographies for expansion. We brought user-generated content in QuickBooks so that expert users like Accountants can contribute templates of Chart of accounts that small business owners can consume with little or no modifications.

Chart of accounts tells us how they run their business in terms of heads of expenses, heads of income, and how they balance it. I reached out to accountants from several different countries to understand their accounting practices, get templates from every industry, and feed those into QuickBooks. The idea was to make it super easy for our users to get started with a template for their industry without having them build one from scratch. We got it patented. 

I came across this managerial practice started by the founder Scott Cook called Follow Me Home and how people say it has been pivotal for product development. He mentions in one of his interviews that – “Customers invented our mid-market business before we even saw the possibility.” 

I would love to learn more.

Follow Me Home is a concept that we swear by at Intuit! It is a very humbling experience as it tells us the things we get wrong about our customers. 

It is a practice of following our customers to their home or to their office where they use our product. (Most small business owners have a home office.) Typically, we have one product manager, one designer, and an engineer do this. We would reach out to these business owners listed on any network. We will spend an hour or two interviewing them and observe them work with our products, actions they take on the screens, peripherals like the files they use, how they run their payroll, how many phone calls they get, how do they get interrupted while using a workflow, and a lot more. 

For example, one of the businesses wished their customers paid on time. They needed a way to remind customers to pay the unpaid bills. Though this does not fall strictly under the purview of accounting software, it is a key pain point for most of our small business owners. Follow Me Home or Office teaches how to look for these verbal and nonverbal pain points which our customers face while observing them in their natural settings.

Since many of our customers using QuickBooks Online, QuickBooks Desktop, or TurboTax are from different geographies, we do virtual Follow Me Home or Office sometimes. Once every product manager has completed a few months into the system, they typically visit the customers at least once or twice a year. Every manager insists that their employees spend travel time visiting customers and not just in our office. That is how we help people grow.

I am curious about how Intuit approaches product management and how this trickles down to hiring good PMs. 

Interestingly, the founder and his partner Signe Ostby, established the Center for Brand and Product Management at the University of Wisconsin–Madison School of Business, which was the first university-based center focused exclusively on training MBAs in brand and product management. 

We used to conduct a series of workshops and talks at many of the elite MBA colleges— such as IIM Bengaluru. There are a bunch of people within the product management organization who take a lot of interest in curating courses for IIMs, and we then invite speakers from either other companies or our product managers to talk about a specific topic. Like speaking about the D4D process or being an innovation catalyst or a product manager. 

We get people as product management interns through these workshops. It has helped to convert them into full-time employees. 

What are the key things that you look for while hiring a Product Manager?

At Intuit, we see how much customer-centricity a candidate brings to our company. 

As a hiring panelist, we look for their ability to drive change in a matrixed organization, and have a passion for innovation in addition to being customer-centric. 

Knowledge in the software domain is never usually a problem as we always fall back on our tech leads. 

What does validation at work mean to you? How do you validate your team members? 

Being a QA on the team is a very underappreciated job. They are the people who look at the product holistically and not just in terms of features. When I hire a product manager or a junior PM, I suggest they sit with a QA person and learn how they work with use cases and test cases. I have found it very empowering to put the spotlight on the QA folks.

I change my domain or the product I work on once in two years. It gives me a breadth of experience. Every time I switch, I make sure I first talk to their QA. It is an enlightening experience. They share with me perspectives that help understand the product better and in a more holistic manner.

Tell me about one of your cherished experiences at Intuit.

When I was an IC, I was in San Diego for an initiative called We Care and Give Back. I was helping a team to get children from low-income neighborhoods to get into schools. We supported them with food and basic amenities. But we could not get them attending the school. We put on our thinking hats and decided to go for a stroll from their locality to the school (aka FMH). Our conference hall was in an upscale location. So it was a pretty safe place to walk. But then after we walked for quite some distance, the atmosphere completely changed. A bunch of homeless people lined up on the streets. Many were drunk in broad daylight. Some were staggering towards us. By the time we reached the school, it dawned on us that the children had to pass by several such streets to get to their school. It was easy for students to get distracted or enticed by those who were selling drugs in those streets. 

As an IC, I help teams unravel these types of observations and insights so that we can gain deep customer empathy, by getting to the root of the problem and the customer emotion behind it.

How does your partner support you in your career and how do you support him? 

My husband Prashant Ramaswamy works as Senior Program Manager at Nokia. He has a busy schedule as his geographical partners are from different time zones— such as Finland and China, while mine is from the US. As you can imagine, our calls are throughout the day. With two children, it gets tough. We try to balance the number of days we spend our time on calls. He takes calls three days a week while I take for the other three days. This way, we alternate being accessible to our kids and support each other along the way. 

He has been very supportive of me when I had to be with my mother when she was battling cancer. Intuit allows employees to take Family time off to take care of any family member besides the personal leaves. So in my absence, Prashant has single-handedly taken care of our children. I’m thankful that I could be with my mother during her last days. 

What do you think is the future of education? 

The future of education is definitely online. 

One thing that I love about the current situation is that everyone is at home. I cannot think of a time I have spent this much time with my husband and my family. We have been thankful to be home to see the first walk of our child, her first tooth erupting, and witness my elder one singing and drawing abilities. I am sure I would have missed this if I was in the office. 

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