Vidya Srinivasan has many strings to her bow. She’s a senior product manager, public speaker, patent holder, a diversity and inclusion advocate and a classically trained Indian singer who has spent her career to date working for big tech companies. She went from a master’s in computer science to an internship at Microsoft where she then stayed for the best part of nine years, before moving to Meta in 2021.
Unusually for someone with a computer science background Vidya has spent her entire career as a product manager – “I’m probably one of the few people who started their career as a product manager,” she says. “When I started my career, product management wasn’t a sought-after role. Software engineering and QA were.” She’s worked on about eight different new, zero-to-one products so far, and loves the ambiguity and the chaos that comes with building them. “I love going from nothing to something and seeing it take off,” she says, “I love the process, I love the mind gymnastics. I love seeing the dots connect in my head and translating that to 50 or 70, however many people I’m working with, so that they see the vision and then I can take them along with me.”
Vidya is glad to have started her career working for big tech companies. She says that while there are guardrails, the attraction of a big tech company is that you get to build a product that can potentially serve hundreds of millions of people. “I wanted to build that muscle early in my career,” she says.
The benefits of working for big tech
Vidya says that there are always so many opportunities to move to different products within a big company and it’s often like moving to a different company. “I worked in virtual reality for three years within Microsoft. Everything I did in those three years was completely different from what I did in the previous two years when I worked on an enterprise product. Then I worked on Microsoft Teams for about two years and that was completely different. Each time it felt like I was moving to another company because the culture, customers, and the tech was very different.”
It has also given Vidya the opportunity to patent some of her work. She has 21 patents in her name to date, mainly for her work in virtual reality. She was inspired by a colleague at Microsoft who had 49 patents, and a wall of black patent cubes in his office. “When I saw that I thought, ‘damn, I want to have one, just one’,” she laughs. It helped that she was working on zero-to-one products, because they have “a lot of uncharted space for you to explore”.
On Semiconductor Drive
In 2021 Vidya moved to Meta, where she leads safety and integrity for Meta’s newest messaging experience: Community Chats and Channels, because she wanted to work on big consumer and social media products. After the move to Meta came a relocation to Silicon Valley – a place she calls “a bubble” that she’s still getting to grips with: “What I love about it – beyond the weather – is that it’s probably the only place in the world where you have roads called Semiconductor Drive or Hacker Way,” she jokes. “Everybody works in tech. The vibe is very different, I’ve yet to meet someone who is laid back. Everybody is always chasing the next thing and they’re full of ideas. Even at a social get-together in the evening you’ll talk about ChatGPT.”
What about finding a work-life balance? Lots of people in tech, women especially, find this difficult, and you don’t have to look far to find horror stories about workaholic lifestyles in Silicon Valley. Working mothers feel a guilt that can come from “even the smallest things, like sending your kids to extended care so that you can wrap up work”, Vidya feels. “It’s a delicate balance between work – where I am very ambitious – and making sure that you’re present for your children.” She consciously makes herself not feel guilty and, like other women in the same situation, talks to her children about why she’s good at what she does and how important it is to her.
Vidya is vocal about the pressures of being a woman in tech, and specifically about being a working mother in tech. “It’s very hard to be a working mother in a cutthroat industry like tech,” she says. She relates that she recently spoke to a mother who had been laid off and who had been told that it was an ideal opportunity for her to take a step back and focus on her children for a while. “She was almost in tears,” Vidya says, “because she felt no one understood her ambitions might be different and that being a working mother might actually make her a better mother.”
Advocating for women in tech
Vidya also publicly advocates for women in tech. For example, she’s long been involved with the Grace Hopper Conference and was its general chair for three years until 2021. She’s a frequent public speaker too, and recalls a discussion she took part in last year, “The buddy vs the iron lady” that examined the dilemma women have between being seen as likeable or competent. It looked at how women can be perceived as negatively aggressive when they’re trying to get work done, or too friendly and invested in their colleagues’ lives to be a successful manager.
“I try to overcome this by grounding myself in relationships that are based on trust,” she says. While accepting that it takes time to build trust, she says that “once it’s established, even if I am being ‘aggressive’, you understand where I’m coming from”. “It takes time and energy to build trust, and you can’t do it with everybody so you have to find the people with whom you can have this transparency,” she says, adding: “Even to this day when I type something a part of me will think ‘I hope this doesn’t come across as too aggressive’.”
Vidya is committed to contributing and giving back to the product community as well as supporting women in tech. She writes and posts regularly on LinkedIn as well as speaking about issues that are close to her heart. She’s involved with Women in Product and is part of the content selection committee where she works with product leaders to shape this year’s WIP conference in May.
Some sound advice
Finally, in the spirit of giving something back, Vidya has some sound advice for anyone looking to move into product management. She says you should try to really understand what product management is, and dig beneath the surface. “It’s not just talking to customers, it’s not just writing briefs. Product management is not just pitching, it’s not just experimenting.”
You can also try out being a product manager for something. Find a product that you don’t like or a product where you see some problems and run through the process of how you might improve it. “Identify a problem and see how you can solve it,” Vidya says. “Product managers, for the most part, solve complex ambiguous problems. If you like doing it, that’s a sign that you will excel in this role.”