Tête-à-tête with Mr. Saurabh Mahajan: A PR Cell exclusive

 
IIM Kozhikode had the pleasure of hosting Mr. Saurabh Mahajan , Director of product Management at Ola and an alumnus from the PGP Batch of 2012,who had come down to the campus after almost 5 years to deliver a guest talk on managing IT products and services with a bird’s eye view on the cab aggregation industry.
The Public Relations Cell, IIM Kozhikode, took a trip down memory lane with Mr. Mahajan, in an edifying session to discuss the Indian IT scenario, product management, hands-on demos on interactive platforms, and the ride-sharing revolution, complete with generous sprinklings of the vicissitudes of Kampus Life!
A few excerpts:

PR: Most of our alumni are of the opinion that our campus has changed. Do you concur?

SM: Surprisingly, no! Since my graduation in 2012, I honestly don’t feel coming across any major changes in the campus, except perhaps for the increase in the number of stairways, adding to the ease of access to the academic blocks. What is heartening to note is that the classrooms have been technologically upgraded to qualify as “Smart classrooms”! Speaking of diversity and inclusion, ours was the first batch to record a whopping 33% of women in management without quota which garnered a lot of media attention and it is encouraging to know that the numbers remain similar 5 years down the line as well.

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PR: From having majored in Finance-based courses, you now handle Product management. Has the transition been smooth?

SM: Frankly speaking, Product management is more General management than an IT profile, encompassing courses on Economics, Finance, Marketing et al. Of course, my two years at Zynga as an associate product manager molded me in the intricacies of this role better than any Indian Start-up ,in those times,could ever had. Zynga was essentially data-driven and 6 months into the company, I was already looking after a $50mn business as Revenue PM for Mafia Wars. 16 months and a couple of promotions later, I decided to scout for new avenues and jumped on Adobe’s bandwagon to develop Cloud-based services in India from scratch. Having served as the worldwide PM for the Adobe InDesign application, my work revolved around managing IT products and services. So, in a nutshell, I have been fortunate enough to dabble in myriad courses under the PM umbrella!

PR: With such lucrative options at Adobe, what made you take the plunge for Ola, a domain hitherto unchartered with regards to your profile trajectory?

 SM: Adobe’s stock options, albeit tempting, were nothing more than the proverbial golden handcuffs for me. I was still on the lookout for newer and bolder challenges and Ola made all the right moves. Ride-sharing in the Indian startup universe was an appealing enterprise for me. Ever since then Ola have been investing heavily in marrying technology with customer experience, case in point-Ola Play. My team handles personalization of the application to improve our CVP and increase the customer base. Our modus operandi involves a robust feedback mechanism, where we conduct dip-stick interviews with customers for effective need analysis and partnership with content providers.

PR: We often hear of divides between technical and managerial teams. How should one approach such technical-driven roles with an MBA from a premier B-school?

 SM: Interestingly enough, this is indeed a reality. Most MBAs tend to be left-brained and designers tend to be right-brained! However, these are two a different functions. Once you are through with the campus placements, the results you yield and the ideas you bring to the boardroom matter than the college you come from. The biggest challenge one faces coming from a premier B-school is the propensity of misplaced authority, making one come off as arrogant. What really matters is how you leverage your learnings and keep the team together. Humility is an art that needs to become a habit.

PR: From gaming to designing to car aggregation, this has been quite a diverse trajectory for you. How easy is it to switch profiles?

SM: Situational factors, more often than not, play a major role in job-hops. My decisions were heavily influenced by the circumstances of the times. Having said that, I would still recommend prudence and patience in deciding career shifts, simply because it comes with its own set of challenges of learning and re-learning complex and highly esoteric products and processes. In the end, problem-solving acumen coupled with relationship building and quick thinking abilities are vital skill-sets for almost all profiles, especially PM roles.

 PR: Your take on innovation in India?

SM: For any company to survive in India’s highly competitive markets, they need to constantly innovate. Many companies have tried and failed, yet there are still many, Ola being one amongst them, that are constantly striving to make services affordable and accessible to almost all strata in society. Ola has the potential to turn profitable as we speak, however this would only reduce our consumer base by almost half. Hyperlocal presence increases penetration rates and assists in creating demand. Companies like Swiggy is even experimenting in food aggregation!

PR: With disruptions becoming the order of the day, how do you foresee Ola changing the fate of urban mobility?

 SM: Accessibility and rampant unionization remains an issue. But Ola, as a company, is looking to solve the transportation problem. There has been a noticeable change with drivers shifting from the heavy vehicle to the light vehicle and passenger transportation segments, with better opportunities and standards of living.   If given a chance, we may even venture into boats!

 PR: Any message for the upcoming batches?

SM: I think it’s important to make the most of the two years at IIMK; observe people, learn from them, build a view on things. Keep yourselves updated on what’s hot and happening .In the end, grades and assignments don’t really matter. What truly matters is being a part of cognitive and affective associations, being a better problem solver. There is no secret to doing well in life, but it’s important not to fool oneself, not to have an illusion of learning.

 

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