Galen Low is joined by Dharma Mehta, the Director of Program Management at Roku. Dharma shines a light on the impact an Enterprise Program Manager can have based on his career working in some of Silicon Valley’s most influential companies. Listen to learn the secrets of a high-performing enterprise delivery team.
- Dharma Mehta has over a decade of experience managing complex technical programs for some of the digital world’s most prominent organizations including Amazon, Accenture, and PayPal. Today he is a Director of Program Management at Roku where he leverages his technology and business background to run high-visibility corporate and platform business initiatives at all levels of the organization. [2:45]
- Outside of work, Dharma is married to his partner of many years, stays in and around the Bay Area, plays cricket, and volunteers at BAPS Charities, a socio-spiritual organization focused on early child development initiatives. [3:08]
- Dharma is a part of a centralized program management organization. Dharma does program management for two types of initiatives. 1) The corporate-wide initiatives which come from the office of the CEO, and 2) platform business initiatives. [5:43]
- Dharma and his team manage diverse sets of projects. On the corporate initiatives side, they work on mergers and acquisitions, or strategic partner integrations with external partners or dealing with unique situations. [7:39]
- On the platform business side, they work on supporting strategic advertising or content partnerships, developing robust ads product offerings, supporting their payments platform, etc. [8:11]
- Dharma recently worked on integrating a music provider into Roku’s ecosystem and one important skill which is required in this job is being able to deal with the technical and non-technical conversations. [9:06]
- As a technical program manager (TPM), Dharma’s management style is hybrid — not one size fits all situations. Being a TPM, you typically want to be loved and have trustful relationships across the organization. [10:27]
“An important skill that will help you succeed is influencing without authority, which comes with trust.” — Dharma Mehta
- Dharma’s preferred management style is democratic, but if needed he can be authoritative if the situation is out of control, or if the discussions are going south, or if he needs to achieve something and folks are not aligned. [11:32]
- To Dharma, the most important qualities for a program manager on his team to bring to the table is to have extreme comfort in ambiguity and ask the right questions to steer the team in the right direction. [16:56]
“As long as you can ask the right questions and take one step at a time, that will help you succeed.” — Dharma Mehta
- Another requirement or a good quality would be leading cross-functional teams and part of that is not being scared of titles. [17:47]
“Leading cross-functional teams with people who are subject matter experts in their areas is important, and part of that is not to be scared of titles.” — Dharma Mehta
- Another important skill is proactive risk management. The program teams are focused on what’s going on right now or the next step, but program managers should be two steps ahead. They should be constantly thinking about the end goal and figuring out things which are risky. [18:48]
- Methodology may or may not be consistent depending on the program that Dharma and his team are working on and the problem they are solving. [21:53]
- There are three different things that Dharma expects from someone whose role is to deliver a corporate initiative. Number one is he or she should be forward looking. As a successful program manager you need to be two steps ahead thinking about the end goal. [24:50]
- Second is communication. Someone who constantly stays in touch with different domain leads and knows what’s going on in their area. They should know how to ask the right questions to understand their concerns. [25:19]
“Being able to communicate the right thing to the right audience at the right time is the key to success.” — Dharma Mehta
- Third is someone who can play a leadership role wherever required – if there are areas which no one owns, we become the default owners until we find one. [26:29]
- The reputation of Dharma’s team is definitely loved and respected. People know where they bring value to the organization. They love calling themselves as the “thin layer of awesome performers” across the board. [30:55]
- The most common challenges that Dharma’s team is facing when it comes to working with various levels of the organization are communication, dealing with extremely complex and interrelated problems, getting cross-functional alignment, and corrective risk management. [37:54]
- Every two months, Dharma and his team have program management specific sync-ups where they share best practices from the last two months. That helps them understand things that may or may not be relevant to them at that moment in time. [45:15]
- Dharma’s advice on handling frank feedback is to try to distinguish between situation vs. person-specific feedback and to keep your ego aside. [54:04]
“You should be willing to constantly have an improvised version of yourself down the line.” — Dharma Mehta
- Dharma’s approach to grabbing the reins back on a meeting with senior leaders that he needs to bring under control is first, pre-work. The majority of the work should happen before the meeting. Second is developing trust and the third one is don’t be scared of the titles, because it’s your meeting. [58:43]
- On a corporate initiative, the program manager could have a direct or indirect impact on saving cost, increasing revenue, defining the future strategy 3 to 5-year roadmap of the company, influencing critical decisions, or the future direction of the company itself. [1:02:06]
- If someone is interested in growing as a TPM (Technical Program Manager), technical knowledge matters. Not coding, but understanding the system design and being able to have technical discussions with the right audience is important. [1:05:21]
“In general, from a program management standpoint, having the apt business and soft skills tied with leadership skills is important.” — Dharma Mehta
- Dharma has written an article on the DPM website titled, “Do You Have What It Takes To Be A Technical Program Manager?” [1:05:50]
Dharma Mehta, Director of Program Management at Roku, has more than 10 years of professional experience at prestigious companies including Amazon, PayPal, and Accenture, solving complex processes and technology problems with simplified solutions. His expertise includes technology portfolio/program/project management, driving software product development, advertising technology, and platform business, strategic planning, building high-performance teams, and transforming software experience for developers and end customers. He is particularly effective at optimizing the performance of people, processes, and technology to deliver improved business outcomes.
“We believe in what we do and we believe that our work will speak volumes, and that’s how we succeed and we grow our teams as well.”
— Dharma Mehta
Resources from this episode:
Related articles and podcasts:
- About the podcast
- Article explaining how to create a risk management plan + template & examples
- Article explaining building a proposal team: roles and responsibilities
- Podcast about managing stakeholder dynamics: why meeting strategy matters
We’re trying out transcribing our podcasts using a software program. Please forgive any typos as the bot isn’t correct 100% of the time.
Read the Transcript:
So you’re sat there in the room with the engineering lead, the product owner, and three senior VPs. You’ve only got 40 minutes to perfect the pre-read for your meeting with the CEO next week.
She’s going to want to know how the publicity risk is being managed for this highly-visible corporate initiative you’re leading. You’re going to want her to make a go / no-go decision on the launch date.
Everything has to go like clockwork or it’ll be another 3 weeks before you can get back on her calendar.
This is not the time to be intimidated by the titles in the room. This is the time to own your meeting objectives, drive alignment, and achieve clarity so that your program enables the right change at the right time to keep the business ahead of the curve.
As much as this sounds like a scene from Suits, it’s all in a day’s work for an enterprise program manager who truly understands the value they bring to the table.
Wondering if you’ve got what it takes to be part of a highly-effective enterprise program management team? Keep listening.
We’re going to be digging deep into how a solid team of program managers can rise above their stereotypical pencil-pusher reputation and become the widely-respected SWAT team known for catalyzing strategic business transformations.
Thanks for tuning in, my name is Galen Low with the Digital Project Manager. We are a community of digital professionals on a mission to help each other get skilled, get confident, and get connected so that we can deliver our projects with purpose and impact. If you want to hear more about that, head over to thedigitalprojectmanager.com.
Hey everyone — thanks for hanging out with us on the DPM podcast.
My guest today has over a decade of experience managing complex technical programs for some of the digital world’s most prominent organizations including Amazon, Accenture, and PayPal. Today he is a Director of Program Management at Roku where he leverages his technology and business background to run high-visibility corporate and platform business initiatives at all levels of the organization.
Outside of work, he’s married to his partner of many years, stays in and around the Bay Area, plays cricket, and also volunteers at BAPS Charities, a socio-spiritual organization focused on early child development initiatives.
Folks, please welcome Dharma Mehta. Hello, Dharma!
Hey Galen. How’s it going?
How’s things going with you?
I’m doing good. COVID restrictions are opening up, so making a few outdoor trips since last few weekends and I’m enjoying it.
Are you’ve been getting good weather?
Yeah. The weather is awesome today. It’s bright and sunny outside. So, yeah.
Awesome, I love that. And in addition to sort of getting back out there, is there anything in your world that’s been inspiring you lately?
Good question. Two days across I came across this quote by Charles Swindoll. It says, “Life is 10% of what happens to me and 90% of how I react to it.”
And professionally speaking, it completely resonates on what we do. Program managers are supposed to not only focus on 10% of what happens, but a lot of our time also goes into 90% of how we react to the situation.
I love that. And actually it reminds me of a conversation I was having, actually our last podcast episode, where we’re talking about reactions and how important it is to manage those reactions especially in your project when you’re under pressure, or in the room when you’re in a meeting, you know?
Yes, 10% of it is what’s happening to you. 90% of it is being thoughtful about how you react to it and maybe your knee-jerk instinct might not be the right thing for the project or the right thing for the people in the room for sure.
I really liked that.
Very cool. Awesome.
Alright, let’s get into it. Let’s dig into what really makes the value of an enterprise program manager hyper-visible in a large digital organization and also what it takes to play at the level of the game that you and your team play at.
But to start, I wondered if you could tell us a bit about the professional version of you. How long have you been a technical program manager and what are some of the organizations you’ve worked for in the past?
Good question. I have been a TPM for over five years now. Historically, I worked for consulting and tech firms including Accenture, PayPal, Amazon before which I was with a startup.
And as you know, currently I am working with Roku in program management space.
Awesome, very cool. And do you think you could tell us a bit about your role at Roku and what you do?
Sure. So, so I am part of centralized program management organization, and we do program management for two types of initiatives. One are the corporate-wide initiatives which comes from the office of the CEO and the other types the other type is that of platform business initiatives. Things related to revenue falls under this bucket.
And then we typically, we, we, we, we don’t do traditional program management. We typically get involved with either the business problems are extremely unique, or teams have to work under tight timelines.
There is a requirement for cross-functional collaboration beyond specific organizations or at times the path forward is uncertain. So we selectively do program management for very special or specific programs within the organization.
That’s really cool. So you’re kind of like EPMO but like the SWAT team. You come in when there’s like a really special mission.
Right, right. And we, we purposely don’t call ourselves PMOs because we consider us as being internal consultants who are specialized in solving unique problems. And we love to call ourselves team layer of awesomeness in the organization.
I love that. I just love that framing, I’m probably going to steal that. But like how different is that compared to like enterprise PMO?
Like, I think there’s a really good reason why you don’t call it a PMO because you are that layer of awesome, you are consultants, you are empowered, and you’re driving these initiatives forward, like from the C-suite or really complex platforms, like already to me that’s like, ‘Wow, that sounds different than just being a project manager or even a program manager.’
So that’s, that’s super cool. I wonder if you could maybe like dive a little deeper and just tell us about like the types of projects that you know, your teams manage.
Sure. So, so as I said we, we bucket our programs in two different parts. So the ones that, that are corporate initiatives include things like mergers and acquisitions, or strategic partner integrations with external partners or dealing with unique situations.
For example, now we are planning for the post-COVID return to office world, which, which requires a lot of thinking. A lot things have to be done across the company to enable employees to come back safely to work. We program manage those type of initiatives as well. And in the platform business side we, we work on strategic or was operational projects or programs for advertising sales organizations or product organization or we support the Roku pay platform.
So again, depending on the situation and they ask we could be dealing with one or more of such initiatives within the platform business.
It’s actually interesting because you described what a lot of people would think are two very different things, right? Platform seems very technical and then like the corporate initiatives side doesn’t sound like it would be that technical. But when you start talking through it, you’re like, actually it is, right? Mergers and acquisitions, partner integrations returned to office like, yes, these are corporate initiatives, but I think that there’s a lot of, there’s a lot of technical moving parts.
There’s a lot of technology involved. Would you say that’s true?
Depending on the program, yes. For example, strategic partner initiatives, I recently worked on integrating a music provider into Roku’s ecosystem and one important skill which is required in this job is being able to deal with technical and non-technical conversation.
So whenever you are discussing more with leadership, typical conversations were remain at a higher technical or non-technical level, but there are always situations where you need to understand the underlying technology to have a same conversation with someone on the technical team because you need those details to move your program forward.
So yes, while they don’t sound technical at the highest level typically you would get involved in some parts of technology while running one of these programs.
That makes sense. And it makes sense that your role is to kind of simplify the technology into sort of business objectives and the business understanding for certain audiences.
But then you’re still also kind of in the weeds with the team having those technical conversations where they need to happen, if that’s what’s part of your project.
That’s very cool. Speaking of that how, how would you describe your management style as a, as a technical program manager?
It’s a good question.
So it really depends. It’s, it’s hybrid. It’s typically not a one size fits all situation. Being a TPM, you typically want to be loved and have trustful relationships across the organization because an important skill that will help you succeed is influencing without authority which comes with trust.
And in that situation you will typically want to have a democratic management style because you people, you want people to be part of your initiative and not be against it. So, usually I’m democratic, but every now and then the situation demands us to be authoritative where, where the situation is going out of control.
For example, in a meeting full with senior leaders or in a meeting with like 15 to 20 people conversations are going in south direction are some folks are just not aligned and you need immediate alignment because timelines are critical in this situation. You would have to be authoritative and be okay to have tough conversations either one-on-one or while others are there depending on the situation.
So I would say it’s a hybrid approach. My preferred style is democratic, but if needed I authoritative style is also something that helps people like me succeed.
I like that. I like that dynamic range, it’s like kind of collaborative and democratic, and sometimes just to get the job done, to get things moving, to get things out of a rut you need to sometimes have that other gear as well that might take you into something that feels more authoritative, but really in the best interests of the project. And, you know, the best use of everyone’s time.
Exactly. As long as, as long as you, you have the understanding of this is what these need, what this is it, this is what was needed for the customer, and this is the right thing to do for the business. Being authoritative is not a bad thing. And then if you have good trust or good relationships with your, with your part project teams, then eventually they will understand it. Maybe in that spot of moment they wouldn’t like it, but once everything is done you can always go and have a conversation.
And if needed, apologize and say, ‘This is the reason why I had to be authoritative,’ and people understand. So having that trust is important, otherwise things could backfire as well.
I like that. Yeah, it, it, it works because you have that foundation of trust and because you’ve been reasonable and democratic in most scenarios, and sometimes you just need to, you just need to, you know, get, get the job done and maybe, maybe apologize later.
No, but I think that trust is so important. I love that.
And, and, and you, you genuinely have to do it. You can’t just apologize for the sake of it because no one likes being authoritative. At least, folks in my role typically wouldn’t and so, it’s, it’s okay to do that as long as you are genuinely doing it. The other person will definitely understand your perspective as well.
No, no, I think that’s just, it’s such an interesting lens because, you know, as you talk to more people who’ve had experiences with project managers, program managers, you know, not all great experiences sometimes because people in these roles are kind of just playing that one gear, right? The authoritative gear. I’m, you know, I’m the boss, it’s, you know, it’s my neck on the line, do what I say.
And as a result, you know, they’re not building the stress and they’re not really moving the project forward in a productive way. It’s just, it’s just moving ahead, you know, like kind of blindly and not with the team rallying behind it. It doesn’t have that strength and momentum. So yeah, I love that.
And, and as DPMs, you will typically be managing projects wherein you don’t have direct authority over those organizations. It’s cross-functional, so it’s not like people are reporting into your hierarchy. So you definitely have to understand that dynamic as well while working on projects and programs.
Absolutely. That’s a huge part of it, for sure. Which I, I think it maybe is a good segue.
So I just wanted to, let me just level set for our listeners first. So Dharma and I — we’ve been pulling on this thread about like the value that an enterprise program manager delivers and how the expectations of the role within a leading technology organization is a lot more than just minding the iron triangle of scope, timeline, and budget, and it’s not doing it from the sidelines either.
And actually because digital solutions are woven into every level of a digital enterprise, these programs are all so often imbued with like the pressure and urgency that comes along with any high visibility, high visibility project that is directly tied to how revenue and profitability is reported within a public company.
So, yes, there is immense value in making sure that programs are on schedule within costs, but in a lot of ways, that’s the baseline expectation, right? Like where the true value lies is in someone’s ability to bring together these various layers of the organization, or from like engineering and the product teams to the senior leadership level and the C-suite — to take decisive action towards delivering business outcomes effectively and strategically.
So anyways, that’s my, that’s my overall framing and rant, but to rate over, but yes, things that you’ve been talking about since we started this conversation, right? Where it’s bringing a lot of different types of people together, you’re dealing and you’re, you’re, you’re changing your communication and management style for different audiences. From senior leaders to folks who are, you know, just like working on the actual technical product, writing the code, doing the testing.
And it’s bringing all of these groups together to take action. And the stakes are high in a technology organization because you know, this isn’t just a side project. This is like business. This is business evolution and it, and it, and it comes from the top.
So for our listeners, I thought I’d just start out simply by asking, What in your eyes are the most important qualities for a program manager on your team to bring to the table?
So it’s a good question and I know we briefly touched on this in our previous conversation as well.
There are a few qualities that we look for and yes, what you said — iron triangle is just 20% of the job, because those are the basics. We could call those as prerequisites to be successful and not only in our team, but just in general in my experience over the last few years. I have observed that yes, that those are table stakes requirements.
But beyond that folks in this role require a few other things. One of those is extreme comfort in ambiguity. We face situations where none of the project team members or, or cross-functional leaders know what has to, what should be done next. And as a, as a program manager, obviously you may or may not have the subject matter expertise, but you should be able to be first of all, comfortable in that ambiguity.
And second, ask the right questions to steer the direction, to steer the team in the right direction. It’s okay not to know what has to happen next, but as long as you know that, Okay, this is the goal. This is where we are at while people don’t know that journey as long as you can ask the right questions and take one step at a time that will help you succeed.
Another requirement or a good quality would be leading cross-functional teams and not, and part of that is not being scared of titles. This was a very good, good lesson. One of the executives gave me a few years ago.
He’s, he said that when you are organizing a program meeting and when it’s coming from your calendar, you own it. And owning it means you could do things needed to make that a success, which includes where, like, for example, there are two senior leaders in the, in that meeting who are strong headed and they are having a conversation which you as a program manager know is derailing what you want to achieve in that meeting.
You should be empowered to go and say, Hey, can we please hold off on this conversation until next time? Or let’s take this offline. So, leading cross-functional teams with with the people who are subject matter experts in their areas is important, and part of that is not to be scared of titles.
And I covered this, which is asking questions and a lot of right questions is also important. Another important skill is proactive risk management. Program man, like when typically the project the program teams are focused on what’s going on right now or the next step, but program managers should be two steps ahead.
They should be thinking, constantly thinking about the end goal and figuring out things which are risky or which could increase the risk of your deliverable and start triaging those things, or at least have a plan to triage those in case it goes in that direction. So, so that’s an important skill.
Having a disciplined approach within our company or our folks in my role are known for having a reputable, consistent approach of doing things, and something that is consistent to the company culture because that is important as well.
If you go against the culture or deviate from that, you need to have very, very strong reason, otherwise it’s going to be difficult to sustain and people will probably start losing trust because they are seeing certain things in your program which are against the culture. And then eventually they will probably be checked off.
So you need to be consistent with the culture. And then there are many, like when it comes to enterprise program management things are not black and white. There are some gray areas and in those gray areas, the, the owners are not defined. And the way we operate is, if an action item or if a question does not ever own it, we act as the owner until we find one. And that is kind of a motivation for us, first of all, to find the right owner. And second, to make sure that our programs are going in the right direction.
And as you said, this is real business. So, so the bottom line delivery of the goal in the in the right timeframe with the right quality is important. And so we need to do whatever is needed to be able to achieve that goal. And, and finally, since we, we focus on unique problems with business or technology, we need to establish playbooks.
Program management is slightly different, not slightly, it’s different than operational work. So we, we come in those unique situations, but if we are going to come back again and redo the whole thing, then we are not adding real value.
So we come in a unique situation, we solve for it. We establish a playbook so that teams can solve for themselves going forward, and then we move on to the next problem. So these are some of the qualities that help people in our role succeed.
I really liked that. I wanted to swing back on something that you said, because you said, ‘Approach. A disciplined approach.’ You didn’t say methodology and you said it should be consistent with company culture. And so, I mean, I think some people in their head, they might think approach and methodology is the same thing, but I don’t think you do. And like you said, you’re solving unique problems.
Can you talk to me a bit about how that approach, like, is that approach consistent in terms of how you execute it or is it consistent in terms of it’s always the same sort of methodology that you adopt?
Right. So, so good question. Methodology may or may not be consistent depending on the program we are working on and the problem we are solving, but that approach is. So whenever, whenever people ask us to get involved in something, there is some tables take expectations, first of all from those stakeholders.
So they know that once one of our program managers will be involved, they need to do these five things to be able to support us succeed. So, so that is something for me, which is part of the approach.
Another thing is whenever we dive deep into something, we have a standard framework of how we approach that problem. So we, we define R&R, we define what’s the plan of record, what are the open items? What could be potential risks, and things like that, and like tentative or key milestones. And then we focus on hitting each of those sections a week, over week, over week until we achieve the end goal. And so that’s what I mean by approach when I’m talking in this field.
I really like it and actually that, that played into my next question, which was just, you know, you talk about establishing playbooks and something that as you were going through it, what really struck me as somebody who was mostly a project manager on agency side, you know, we weren’t necessarily seen as these internal consultants, but what you described, what you just described sounded to me like, Okay, like this team’s coming in, there’s these five pillars that they expect of us.
We got to get our, we got to get our, our, our, our affairs in order. And we need to kind of like shape up because they’re gonna, they’re going to drive this train forward and we need to keep up. And it’s kind of that sort of reputation. And then also the fact that, and then when they’re done, we’re going to have to own this from there on out.
So like let’s, let’s let’s, it seems like a very respected role. It seems like, you know, and a very empowered role, I guess I would say. And I think I like what you said about, like, it’s the consistency of the pillars, the things that you’re looking at and how you operate you kind of come in and apply this approach, which might be a little bit different for every type of unique problem that you’re solving, but consistent enough that people know what to expect and know what they need to do to own their part and make sure it goes well.
Because generally speaking, it sounds like all of these things are, are quite high-visibility high stake.
That’s super cool. I really like that.
I wonder if we can maybe dive a little bit deeper and I wonder if you can just walk me through what your expectations are of someone whose role is to deliver a corporate initiative? Like what kinds of things should they be thinking about or communicating? What should they be making happen? And like, what should they be preventing?
Good. Good question. So, so we, we answered part of this question in the qualities that we look for people in this role and on top of it, there are two, three different things we would expect a person in this role to do.
Number one is he or she should be forward looking. As I said, the team is typically going to be focused in their specific areas in the execution phase but as a successful program manager you need to be two steps ahead thinking about the end goal, think about what could be a potential risk, what needs to be done from now until the end. When does it need to be done? Who needs to know about it? So constantly thinking about the end goal and how we can reach there from now until then is important.
Second is communication. That’s and we might dive deeper into it later on, but being able to communicate the right thing to the right audience at the right time is the key to success. And it’s an art. I, myself struggle sometimes but I’m still learning. And that is needed to be able to first of all, be respectful of everyone’s time because in this role, we, for example, organized weekly meetings where senior leaders across different domains. For example one of the project teams I lead includes leaders from marketing, finance, engineering product and sales.
So those are cross-functional leaders who are extremely busy. And if you’re going to, if you’re going to take for example, 30 to 50 minutes of their time per week, then it’s, you better be ready for it and make it make it the best use of their time. So, being able to communicate is important and being mindful of people’s time who are participating in your program or project is important.
And finally, this is not only about tracking milestones or budget or scope. We also have to play leadership roles wherever needed. As I said, wherever there is a gray area there is lack of ownership or no one knows who is responsible for answering an important question, the program manager is the default owner until he or she either resolves it or finds the right person who is supposed to solve for it. So that’s also an important skill of leadership which is needed to succeed in this role.
What I really like about that overall description is that you kind of like, I feel like you not shift up a level. I mean, there’s like these skills, right? That we think about when we talk about like program and project management.
And then I think what you described is this layer on top, right? It’s the function of owning, you know, the path ahead. It’s about owning the communications and like filtering the communications and delivering the communications at the right time to the right people in the right way. And all of that for me, like wraps up in that leadership role, right?
Of like being the person who owns this, who owns how, you know, the captaining the ship for lack of a better metaphor to just make sure that everyone knows what to do, what’s at stake when something is important, you know. What’s urgent versus what can wait and, and really just navigating that overall process.
Right. Right. And, and navigating is, is the key here as well, like I remember a situation where it was Friday afternoon. We were deciding between launching and not launching a product and it’s not an internal product. So once we decide to launch within an hour we had to do public announcement. We had this whole GTM team working on it.
And within a fraction of 30 minutes, the decision was taken with the core core leadership team, which, which included like five people. There were 40 people in this project. Five people decided from ‘No, we are not launching’ to ‘Yes, we need to launch. We had our reasons to do that.’ But those five people were then focused on product launch.
And my responsibility became to make sure that the remaining 40 are onboard with this because even they had to play their roles for this launch. And within a span of two hours, we announced it publicly. So, that was a different sort of a leadership role where I had to make sure that while those five critical resources made a decision, the remaining 35 are aware of it and they were playing their roles otherwise they wouldn’t have succeeded.
I like that of that the whole sort of driving that decision to be made, which sounds very high stress. And then owning what happens next, right? Because then that team of 40 including the 35 people who weren’t necessarily in the room making that decision until, you know, to, to, to launch the product, have to get onside and, you know, walk down that path of, of actually launching something to the world you know, under, under a big brand name.
Right. And then, and then owning is definitely one part of it but the other part of it is knowing what needs to be done. Like you need to be extremely reactive in this situation. And as I said, 90% of it is how I react to it because what you do in the next two hours is going to be critical for the success.
Like you might have worked really hard for last 5, 6, 7 months, but if you fail in those two hours then the whole effort may not be that successful. So, owning and knowing what needs to be done is also important in this situation.
That’s very cool. That sounds exhilarating and yeah, very high pressure.
Part, part and parcel of what we do.
All right. Let’s let’s dive into some of the juicy stuff. So I mean, we’ve talked about the, the role of your team as, you know, internal consultants, that awesome of layer but I want us to dive a little bit deeper about the reputation of your team. And I’m just wondering, you know, where you’re working right now, or even where you have worked previously, like how has program management been perceived within the organization?
You mentioned you were like trying to be loved and trying to be democratic. Sometimes, you know, you need to, to lay down the law. Would you say that you’re loved and respected? Or would you say that you’re feared? Would you say maybe both? Because I hear a bit of both.
I would say it depends on the situation, but, but in general, my experience has been over the last few years, 9 out of 10 times we are loved and respected.
And for me that’s huge, that’s being successful. And people know where we bring in value to the organization, which is also important. My observation is once you’re like for a very small startup, this role may not be seen as that important because you have lesser coordination requirements, lesser people, but once you hit that specific mark of let’s say more than 150 to 200 employees, the importance of program management just keeps on growing, growing, growing.
And until this big organizations the, the, the role has become very standardized these days including in all the Fang and non-fan companies. So, yes, we are loved and respected usually, but it comes with a set of expectations and prerequisites. Whenever people ask for help we are very explicit about ‘Sure, we will be more than happy to help you, but here are the fightings we need from you as prerequisites. And these are the five commitments that we need from you during the tenure of this program. Are you willing to commit or not?’
Now typically the answer may be ‘yes or maybe’, and whenever there is a maybe we have a deeper discussion on why that’s a maybe. There are very, very rare situations where they’re reluctant, but we still inject ourselves into those programs because as I said, we know that’s the right thing to be done for the business.
There are others who, who see issues with the specific problem which that specific person may or may not see. In that situation, we don’t only have to make sure the program is going in the right direction, but we also have to, again, prove our words to that specific person and it’s difficult. But it like some situations demand that and we are able to do that as well, as and when needed.
I really liked that. And I kind of like in my head, the metaphor that I’m like picturing is kind of like, you know, you, you get your sort of like fitness coach, right? And they’re going to whip you into shape, but you gotta be ready. You know, you gotta be ready to wake up at 5:00 AM. You gotta be ready to, you know, eat well, you know, you’re gonna have like cook with good ingredients, you know, not eat out.
You have to be ready in order to transform. But then also the other side of the coin, which is like, you are transformation consultants in a way, right? Your results speak for themselves and like, as you’re talking about it, it’s like, yeah, loved and respected. A little bit feared by some but I think that that love and respect comes from the fact that they’ve seen it happen in other parts of the organization where your team steps in.
They’re like, listen, we need these, you know, we need these, like these five things from you. But then they get it done and you see it become a success and you see it get celebrated and it’s not that sort of ambiguous car wreck that it might’ve been if it wasn’t for your team stepping in. So it’s almost like this, like, you know, like not, not to puff your team up too much, but you know, it’s just like the superhero team.
It’s like, okay, regular law enforcement couldn’t get it done. Let’s bring in the superheroes, let’s bringing the Avengers and, you know, watch that all happen. It’s going to be intense, but the whole idea is that it’s going to work efficiently. It’s going to be clear. It’s going to be well communicated. And people are going to understand where it’s going.
We’re going to navigate the waters and then we’re going to get to our destination. And I, I think that’s, that’s, that’s something that I don’t know if a lot of people think about when they’re like, just looking at a role like this on paper, right? It’s like, Okay, program manager role, right? Just like any other program management role, but not always, right? Sometimes that’s a very high value, high-visibility role.
I definitely agree. I love your examples and analogy, especially the fitness coach. It completely resonates with what we do.
So yes, we, we call ourselves I love the way you call us ‘transformation consultants’ as well. And we don’t do, do any official or formal publicity of what our team does. It’s all word of mouth publicity in my existing previous roles.
And the reason people want us is because they have seen success. As you said, they’ve seen us do something successfully with a specific business or technology problem, and then they want us to help them with something similar or completely different. But yeah, so it’s all word of mouth publicity. We do not go out there and market ourselves.
We believe in what we do and we believe that our work will speak volumes and that’s how we we succeed and we grow our teams as well.
That’s such a cool place to be because, you know, like you and I, we’ve both done a stint at a large management consultancy where there’s a lot of different departments and a lot of different teams.
And I’ve seen that, right? I’ve seen that team that’s like pound and pavement all the time trying to like frankly, justify their own existence and like make sure that people don’t forget about them, whatever service they provide internally. Whereas this is kind of like, okay, you know, you know, for lack of a better word, almost like marketed by being legendary.
Right? And that’s like this team that comes in it, their services are going to be needed. Your services are effective. People think of you when, you know, a job needs to get done. Like that is, it’s such a, it’s such a great position to be in, in a, in any size organization, but especially a large organization or even an organization that’s like, you know, growing as fast as like, for example, Roku, right?
Like where, you know, they, they know they’re at that point where, yeah, program management is serious and it’s only gonna get more and more serious. So it’s really cool to see like this team come in with a brand that’s about, like an identity that’s about transformation internally.
That’s very cool. I think we could probably do a whole different podcast episode on what you mentioned about playbooks, but we’ll, we’ll, we’ll leave that later.
I think people who are listening going like, ‘Yeah, but what about what he said about playbooks? I’m really interested in that.’ we will return to that conversation. I really do like that.
I thought maybe we could just turn to some of the challenges though, right? Yes, I know that the team is well loved and respected. You don’t even need to market yourselves. People come to you. You know, you’re, you’re top of mind for some of these situations that are complex and challenging, but what are some of the most common challenges that you see your team facing when it comes to working with all these various levels of the organization?
We talked about working with folks from engineering all the way up to the C-suite sometimes together in the same room, like what are some of the challenges that, that come along with that?
So again, the, since we work on unique problems, challenges are unique in different programs, but yet there are some recurring themes.
The first challenge is communication. It’s I’ve been working on it since last few years and I’m still working on it. Being able to communicate the right message to the right audience at the right time and in the right format is, is challenging. And this is something yes, you can, you could learn by taking courses and stuff, but it comes through experience and, and real time situations. So, so that’s, that’s an important challenge.
Another one is dealing with extremely complex and interrelated problems. And while doing that, being able to simplify the next steps for the program team members to be able to focus on is also difficult. So while you may or may not have all the answers or while you are completely confused, you should still be able to ask the specific right questions so that it’s simplified enough for people in your team to move in some direction that may or may not be right, but in some direction. So that’s challenging.
Third one is getting cross-functional alignment. It’s not always black and white as, as in when this companies grow the roles and responsibilities may not be that straightforward or clear enough, or there are some areas where there is lack of ownership and overcoming those are not easy.
And the way we solve for it, as I said, is we own it until we either, until we either fix it or find the owner. So we make it easy on others, but on us, that’s challenging because we many times find ourselves in a situation where we have zero knowledge of that specific situation or problem or domain, but we still end up owning it because no one else does.
So now we have to learn something from scratch, which is a good challenge, but we have to learn from scratch while the time is limited and figure out how to solve for those problems. The, doing that is also so difficult.
And, and finally I’ll say corrective risk management. It’s fun to solve unique problems, but it’s difficult to proactively identify risks because you have not been in that situation previously.
A classic example would be COVID. When COVID started, we did program management for working from home and there were so many unknowns. And my manager actually led that project across the company and it was difficult because he had to correctively identify this in a, in a situation where no one knew what’s going to happen next.
And I still remember when we first announced a work from home. In Bay Area at least it was said that, Oh, this will take three to four weeks and we’ll be back in office. And here we are not yet back in office. So how would you have proactively figured this thing out? Probably not, but being able to uncover those situations is also difficult and challenging.
And then there are some situations where we require a cultural shifts within the companies. And that is challenging because change in general is difficult. And when you ask people to do things differently it gets more difficult and dealing with those situations is all so tricky.
I’m really glad you mentioned that because I think like I’ve seen that happen a lot in organizations where there is change, either a change in leadership or departments are like, you know, combining or, you know, intertwining and it creates this grayness, right?
That you have to navigate, like it’s like organizational ambiguity where, you know, there might be people who are like, yes, I know that this person’s my new boss, but I still really follow this person who used to be my boss. And you have these factions that you need to deal with that are like, like, like you said it at the beginning, right?
Like nobody trains you for this. No one’s like, okay, here, when things get political, like we didn’t get trained in like politics. I don’t even, I don’t even know if that that training necessarily exists, but it is such a core part of what we have to learn on the job to kind of figure out those nuances.
And I think one nice but also challenging thing about being like in an internal team is that, well, this is it. This is what you get to deal with, but you also get to learn the depth of the organization. And you’re building these relationships with all these various different people. And you kind of, it becomes part of your data set.
I would imagine, right? It’d be like, okay, I know that this team and this team don’t get along, so I need to change my strategy for this. And I know that this person just has no idea how to solve the problem. They don’t have the technical chops to but this person does and I need to put them, the two of them in a room, and they’re very different people.
And then even just what you said just about like, just problem solving, problem solving, it’s one of those words that I think we say but we don’t always understand what it means, right? Like, Hey, you need problem solving skills. Yeah. I solve problems. But like what, how you described it?
It’s like, okay, no one, it might be the case that no one knows the answer and we don’t have a solution, but we need to get closer to our solution or at least test a theory. And those are our next steps to kind of like work through that. Not necessarily getting everybody into the room and saying, what should we do?
It’s about kind of going okay, well, if we test this, if we try this first, and if that doesn’t work, then does that write it off? And we kind of go to plan B and just kind of making those steps simple for people so that you know, the bright brains in the room including yourself can actually get to some kind of progress, even if it’s not the right outcome for the first time, it’s progress.
And I think that’s what people don’t really get about problem solving. They’re like, yeah, I know how to do that thing. But again, it’s one of those things that I don’t know if there’s, you know, formal training for, to kind of iterate through that process. The problem solving framework, and then the sort of the people management that comes along with it, because, you know, it’s rare for us as project and program managers to have all the answers. We need to be able to like step people through it and get them there as a team.
Right. Right. And, and in almost all the situations we may not have the answers, but if we frequently use this terminology of hypothesis, we say and then you, you, you, I think told it in a very nice way where this is the hypothesis. If this doesn’t work out, then maybe this is the hypothesis and continuing until you get to a solution is something that helps.
And then, and the, the, the previous point that you focused on, which is we do develop the dataset and we have our internal network of program managers across the company and we do solve, we do, we do share those data sets as well. So that’s, that’s like knowledge sharing within, within our community because if I have gone through something with, in a specific situation with a specific team, and I have learned something about that team, then yes, I definitely want my team members, my partners to know about it because they might be dealing with the same situation in a slightly different setup.
And if I’m able to help them, it’s a win-win situation. And we actually, it’s a good point you raised. We every two weeks sorry, not every two weeks, every two months we have this program management specific sync ups where we share best practices from last two months. And that, that helps us understand things which may, which may or may not be relevant to us at that moment of time.
But that bit, that addition to our data set helps us succeed down the line as well.
And I like that it’s not so structured. It almost is like storytelling in a way, like sharing and it doesn’t have to be a report that says, okay, you know, this team, here’s the characteristics. And like, you know, here’s what they do in their coffee, but it’s kinda more like, Hey, here’s, here’s the experience that I had with this.
And it, and it becomes part of like the tool set that you can use. It’s not, you know, I don’t know that anyone, I dunno. Keeps a file on every team, but it’s in here, right? It’s about having enough data in your head to sort of make decisions about how you want to run your program. I really like that.
Right. Right. And, and, and what I have experienced typically is almost all the folks have the right attitude. Everyone wants the business to succeed. Everyone wants to do the right thing for the customer. They may or may not be aligned with you in certain situations and as program managers, it’s important to understand the root cause.
Like the simple five Why analysis. ‘Why? Why? Why? Why? Why?’ You keep on asking the question and then you realize, oh, this is the reason why. Okay, now I can tackle this problem with this specific individual or a team. So people are usually reasonable and want to do the right thing. It’s just that they are set of restrictions.
They are priorities or they are goals or they are resources are slightly differently structured than the way you would want it to be for your program to succeed. So, so I always try to have this win-win situation whenever there is conflict, and that helps me succeed in such scenarios. So what can I do to help the other teams so that that person or that team can help me succeed in my program? Having that attitude helps take the programs in the right direction.
I like that sort of motivated communication. And actually I feel like, and maybe this is common for any conversation about project or program management, but we keep coming back to like communication skills. And I thought, I thought I’d just maybe just ask the question, which is that, like, what is the most valuable communication skill that you’ve developed as a program manager in these like leading technology organizations? Tell us your secrets.
There are no secrets. And as I said, I’m still learning but my experience has been the higher you go in the hierarchy less is super attractive and useful. There was a very specific situation where we required our senior leadership to get an alignment on an extremely complex problem.
We scheduled the meeting for 50 minutes and I was the program manager leading that program. And I’m not kidding that the presentation which I created went through 150 plus iterations before that meeting. In a period of, I’ll say three to four weeks, we, I traded it for more than 150 times.
Obviously we didn’t literally go and change each and every slide for 150 times. But overall, when there are those features on those cloud apps where you can see how many times certain things have been added and we are 150 versions of this. So, that is the amount of time we spent because we wanted to communicate the right thing to the very critical audience at the right time.
But the reason I say we succeeded in that situation is because we scheduled 50 minutes, we wrapped it up in 25 minutes with an alignment with senior leadership. And as a program manager, nothing could be more satisfying there more than that, because I was able to say more than 20 minutes of my leader’s time.
And, and if I were to measure myself across any metrics, this would be one of those.
I like that. I like it’s, it’s, it’s not like the most common way to look at like a success metric, but actually it’s a really, really important one. And yeah, I mean, it’s similar experience on, on my side where yeah, like that process of like distilling it down so that it has impact in a shorter timeframe.
And, you know, it doesn’t get that person to get to that point where they’re impatient or, you know, they, you run out of time and they have to go somewhere and the decision’s been made or not all the information is there like that’s such a risk, right? Like it’s, it’s such a high impact risk that, Okay, maybe we won’t get through all the slides in the deck and then like good luck. You know, you’re, you’re, you’re back on the calendar three months from now, four months from now. Right?
Exactly. So, so there are two sides to this. That’s one side of the risk where you want to give all the required information for the leadership team to make the decision. The other side of this is losing their attention with too much information. And finding that right balance is extremely difficult.
Now, in this example I don’t remember the exact count, but we started with, I would say 45-ish slides in the presentation and we ended up with 18, which was a super distilled version.
And when you reduce the count by this drastic number, each word in each slide matters. And I had to literally go through the slide, the guy, a couple of times I got it in my dreams. Am I doing the right thing or not? Because, because I literally went through this exercise of going through each word in each slide I can say, Is this something which that person wants to look at or not? And then justify those words in those lines.
And that’s how we came up with this count, but it was a good learning curve and I’m still, still learning. So the higher up you go typically less is super attractive, unless there are reasons for things to be more descriptive.
What about the other side of the coin? You had like talked about, you know, being in a meeting and you sometimes need to just take the reins and you might have to be authoritative, but it’s because you’re the owner of the meeting. But sometimes it’s a meeting room filled with senior leaders and you need to make sure that you arrive at the right outcome.
What is your approach to driving that conversation? And like you said, you know, not necessarily caring about titles, respecting those titles, but not being so, not caring so much about titles that you couldn’t sort of step in. What is your approach to kind of grabbing the reins back on a meeting with senior leaders that you need to kind of bring under control?
So, so the first and most important thing is pre-work. It’s extremely, extremely critical in these situations. You don’t want to go into a meeting with a senior leader half prep. Like you might rather cancel the meeting and reschedule it, but a lot of work needs to happen before the meeting. You need to ideally send pre-read materials so that people know what to expect and what decision has to be made and what they are supposed to do in that meeting.
So, so, so that’s important prepping for the meeting and it’s time-consuming, but it’s the right thing to do because you are going to save a lot of time and a lot of energy with the right folks in that, in that setup.
Second is having a trust and it does not come overnight. It comes with experience. It comes with your expertise in program management field, but having, if you are a trusted partner in that meeting and people look up to you as let’s say program management specialists, then they’ll listen to you.
And then third one is don’t be scared of, and I’m saying it now. It was difficult for me in my early days. Don’t be scared of the titles because it’s your meeting. I’m not saying to be authoritative. All I’m saying is don’t be scared just because someone is a subject matter expert and extremely senior leader in the company. Do if you think that that discussion is either not relevant to what’s going on or it’s going into weeds or you don’t have time for the discussion.
It’s okay to take the reins and call it out politely in that setup and move things forward. People eventually will understand that.
I really liked that. And yeah, no, it doesn’t sound easy. I’m like in my head I’m picturing, you know, I’m sure I’ve had these moments in meetings where I’m like, okay, well that person’s the, you know, senior VP of this or president of this.
I’m just going to let them keep talking until they’re done. I’ll wait for a pause and then I’ll, and then I’ll get back in which isn’t necessarily the right thing to do, especially if, you know, but it’s the personalities that will just fill the air because maybe they weren’t, again, maybe they weren’t sure of like what their role was in that meeting, you know. Maybe that pre-work hadn’t been done for them to understand so they’re gonna, you know, talk about something that they think they’re supposed to talk about, but maybe it isn’t the right thing.
Right, right. And there are different ways of dealing with it. You don’t, you don’t have to be abrupt and say, Hey, can you please stop talking? You can say, how about wrapping this up in next two minutes so that we can focus on something else? Or I have a humble request, can we please take this conversation offline? Because I have these two things to be covered to get to this decision.
Like, if you are being polite and you’re having the right intentions, people will eventually listen to you.
I like that, the humble request. I’m going to steal that one.
There are times it won’t work, but that’s probably the, that’s a good starting point.
A little polite intrusion. I like that. Oh, let’s, let’s, let’s zoom it back out. I know we kinda got into, you know, the thick of things and like the day to day which is, was what I wanted to do. But maybe just to kind of zoom it back out to our theme on like value.
I’m just wondering about impact. Like, what is the impact that a good program manager can have on a corporate initiative?
We, I think on a corporate initiative, the program manager could have a direct or indirect impact on saving cost, increasing revenue, defining the future strategy, 3 to 5 year roadmap of the company, influencing critical decisions, or the future direction of the company itself.
It sounds a lot, it might seem as if I’m exaggerating a few things, but I have seen in a lot of situations where folks in these roles are directly influenced a lot of critical things for a company. And I personally believe in it. And that’s why this role is in my opinion extremely special because people in this role are able to do so many critical things that, that help the company succeed, not only to the external world in the market, but also within the company across all the employees.
No, I like that lens that you’ve put on it as well and just like your experience, because, you know, I’m sure everyone has worked on that tiny project that nobody cares about. And yeah, that’s going to be the case sometimes, but when you’re talking about programs at big corporate initiative level, we’re talking about how an organization is staying competitive.
You know, how everyone is getting paid, how the organization is growing period and staying relevant period in the marketplace. And yes, it is about, you know, delivering things on time and on budget and with the right scope, but then, you know, again, that right scope, that efficiency, the cost savings, the right revenue models you know, enabling and empowering the future of the organization, you know, kind of a big deal.
Right. And, and when, when we are involved in the day-to-day activities of a, of a job, it’s, it’s difficult to have this perspective. But it’s very important to periodically introspect on how we are doing one of these things. For example, when we were able to save 20 minutes of our senior leadership team’s time, that’s actually cost saving.
Those are highly compensated people and if I were to spend 20 more minutes with them, then it would have been an offensive meeting. So, like no one is going to come and tell you that, oh, this was your impact. But you need to understand that and be proud of yourself because you did it.
So, being introspective periodically, maybe once a quarter, once every six months also also helps stay motivated in your role in the situations and also, and, and then understand where you are adding value and also find out more situations where you might be able to add value down the line.
I love that. And maybe a closing question from me. What is your best advice for someone looking to build a career in program management in an enterprise environment like the one that you’re working in?
What kind of, what kind of skills should somebody be focusing on to do the job?
It’s a mix of all what we spoke in today’s, today’s conversation, but at the very highest level. If someone is interested to grow as a TPM – Technical Program Manager technical knowledge matters not coding, but understanding the system design and being able to have technical discussions with the right audience is important.
And in general from a program management standpoint, having the apt business and soft skills tied with leadership skills is important. I’ve actually written a couple of articles, which I can share later on with this audience on ‘What Does it Mean to be a TPM?’ I actually wrote it with with the Digital Project Manager teams so we can share those as well.
Awesome. Yeah, I’ll definitely put that in the show notes. And like, I think the thing that kind of wraps all of that around that wraps all around that is what you said about like these moments of introspection. And you know, the focus being on moments, right? Not always necessarily introspecting and not seeing the forest for the trees and not living in the moment, but taking the time to think about, Okay, what are the skills that, you know, I know that I can improve and how can I go about closing that gap?
It’s not, the answer is not always going to be formal training, like you said, right? Sometimes there’s not formal training for all of these things but it’s about understanding the balance of skills and, you know, the mix of art and soft skills that you’re bringing to the table. And, and, and putting yourself in front of experiences that will develop your people skills.
And they might not always be the most comfortable things, but they are, you know, the, the ways to kind of learn these things and sort of, you know, get, get this training under your belt. “Training” you know, from, from your real world experiences from your life on the job that will help you develop day over day.
Nice. You, you perfectly summarized this. I loved it.
Dharma, thank you so much for joining us today. I really appreciate you sharing some time with us. The insights that you shared are I think really rich. You know, again, some of us are in a role that’s similar, some of us are not. I think you’ve painted a really clear picture of how one might be able to succeed in this role and also the impact that this role has.
And it can’t be understated in terms of, this is how great leaps are made in organizations to keep them relevant and, you know, just like, in front of the marketplace. So I just think that it’s, it’s, it’s been really insightful again, just the value that your, that your team delivers, that you deliver. And yeah, I just want to say, thanks for sharing some of your experiences and your knowledge with us.
Awesome. I totally enjoyed our conversation. Thanks for having me. And hopefully we could have a few more conversations down the line.
It sounds like a plan.
Okay. Thank you.
So what do you think?
Is this standard fare for the technical program manager role or is this another layer of politics on top of an already difficult job?
Tell us a story: what’s the harshest feedback you’ve ever received from a senior stakeholder and was it helpful?
And if you want to learn more and get ahead in your work, consider becoming a DPM member. Head over to thedigitalprojectmanager.com/membership to get access to our experts forum, templates library, mastermind groups, monthly workshops, Live Mentorship sessions, Ask Me Anything sessions, eBooks, and more!
And if you like what you heard today, please subscribe and stay in touch at thedigitalprojectmanager.com.
Until next time, thanks for listening.