This is a candid series on product leaders making an impact across the globe. You can find more stories here.
My guest this week is Kalpana Sundar — Director of Product Management, Pricing at PayPal— who lives in San Jose. Kalpana’s career trajectory is phenomenal, so are the lessons she’s picked up along the last decade. She is an advocate of advancing women in technology. I am excited I discovered her!
She has a Master’s degree in Business Administration from Symbiosis, Pune, an Executive degree in Product Management from University of California, Berkeley, and a Bachelor’s degree in Computer Science from College of Engineering, Guindy.
You can follow her here.
How are you balancing work and life through this pandemic?
1. I have a well thought-out schedule for each day of the week.
2. I begin my day early.
3. I have clear boundaries between work and family time.
4. I make sure I take multiple breaks during the day.
Well, the above has been an aspiration but the reality is a bit different. Most of my days are intertwined with work and family activities. I have something going on all the time. Planning ahead definitely helps but our world is full of uncertainties. I have learnt to embrace it. Prioritisation is key. Multi-tasking is inevitable.
One trick is to combine a high priority task with another simple task. I may not be successful every time, but it’s extremely rewarding each time it works. Converting meetings to audio calls whenever possible has been useful. This reduces the strain on my eyes while I’m not tied to being at one place. I can walk around and take care of chores.
I also try to schedule blocks of time during the day for focussed work. E.g., No phone or distraction during the 2-3 hours of time I get everyday when my toddler naps. That’s focused-work time. Outside of this block of time, I don’t have a set schedule in my day. This has led me to believe in work life integration rather than work life balance. The pandemic reinforced the need for integration more than ever for me.
How has your combination of academic degrees opened doors for you?
I started my career as a software engineer. The learnings from the business degree guided me in understanding the big picture and approaching problems with a business mindset.
What this really means is that the most interesting problems as an engineer may not necessarily be the most relevant for the business.
As I transitioned to product management my exposure to Business, Operations & Finance (BOF) increased. Successful product management needs to connect BOF with Engineering. Being knowledgeable in both areas helps improve communication, define & execute roadmaps better. Additionally you become empathetic towards each role.
What was it like to move from engineering to product management? What has helped you along the way?
Most of my career transitions have been opportunistic thus far. I grabbed what came my way with some qualifications whenever there was a challenging problem to solve and an opportunity to learn something new. In my case, the transition from engineering to product management was not difficult since it was the same product for which I was an engineer.
What also helped with the transition is my focus on Customer Relationship Management in my MBA. This helped me gain insights on how to look at products from a customer’s point of view. There are a lot of “on-the-job” learnings as a product manager and I cherish being in this role for the wide exposure I get.
What areas of FinTech excite you?
I am passionate about my work impacting billions of people and Fintech gave me a platform to realize my dream. Looking at the way financial services have emerged and how it is becoming a part of everyone’s life is fascinating. Being part of that journey and seeing the impact first hand is the exciting part.
As businesses shift the majority of their sales to digital/ eCommerce channels, what is your take on COVID-driven digital transformation?
Most large businesses probably already have a digital footprint and this pandemic has allowed them to pivot faster from traditional sales model to digital. However I presume, small businesses are the most impacted at this time. They have to figure out a way to continue to run their business while also figuring out how to transition to a digital world.
There’s a business opportunity. If you are able to create a platform which will help small businesses make this transition with ease, you are creating value.
Having said that, there are platforms that are available today which will allow small businesses to incorporate their offerings. Using existing marketplaces or payment processing platforms to plug into the sales of their goods or services would be the easiest way to go digital.
What challenges can one expect in the early days of their Product Management career?
I want to highlight a couple of challenges that have allowed me to understand the importance of this role.
My first eye-opening learning was, product managers have to wear several hats every single day, irrespective of where they are in their career path.
Second, as a product manager, you might have more empathy than others in the team because of your role.
Holding on to your principles of product management while keeping the team motivated with empathy is easier said than done.
What advice has helped you immensely in your career?
The most important thing to me is to stick to my core values and philosophies. I challenge myself to be true to them everyday – in what I do to my customers and to the society at large.
I will refer you to a popular article by ‘Clayton Christensen’ called ‘How Will You Measure Your Life’.
I believe in uplifting the lives of under-served people. I get to do that every day. This keeps me motivated and gives me a lot of energy to offer my 100% at what I do.
What are your thoughts on the future of software? What opportunities do you see for young professionals post COVID especially at a time when it’s hard to start their career or pursue higher education?
While this pandemic may have slowed the whole world down, it has opened up tremendous opportunities and seeded the thought of a connected future in many. A lot of things that we have adapted to during this pandemic, will stay here forever. Technology and software are going to be enabling this
Digital transformation cannot have been more relevant ever than now. The world will be back up and running on its feet and opportunities that have been suppressed now will show up in different forms.
Regarding pursuing higher education, the opportunities for in-person education may fade away. I believe this will give opportunity for many students to pursue higher education at a lower cost and at the comfort of their home.
Extending my optimism a bit far, I am really looking forward to a day when education can become everyone’s right in reality.
How does your partner support your career? And how do you?
Reflecting on what has been working for us, two things come to my mind. First, we believe in following our passion and doing what keeps us happy.
Second is, we respect each other’s aspirations and support one another.
Seeing each other as equals and treating both careers as equally important helps propel both careers ahead together.
If you’re into the habit of reading non-fiction, what’s the one book that you’d
recommend to someone you meet?
Currently I’m interested in the works of Holly Schroth and Margaret Neale on the topics of negotiation and influencing.