May 8, 2024

Dev Bala, Coursera's VP of Product — The Keys to Developing Strong Product Judgment

Key Takeaways:

Dev Bala is a seasoned product executive with over 20 years of experience at some of the world's most influential technology companies. He has led product teams at Microsoft, Google, and Facebook, and currently serves as Vice President of Product Management at Coursera. Throughout his career, Dev has honed his ability to make tough decisions in fast-paced, high-stakes environments.

In this episode of the Minimum Viable Podcast, Dev and I explored the essence of what it takes to be an effective product leader. Through candid reflections on his career journey, Dev illuminates the critical role that decision-making plays in driving product success. He shares hard-won lessons about the courage required to put users first, the strategic thinking needed to balance competing priorities, and the wisdom to know when to take calculated risks. Dev's insights underscore that great product leadership is not just about having the right answers, but about asking the right questions, learning from failure, and rallying teams around a shared vision. Whether you're navigating the challenges of a startup or the complexities of a large organization, Dev's experiences offer a roadmap for making tough calls with confidence and integrity.

Make sure to catch the full episode with Dev Bala here:

Here are 8 takeaways from our conversation:

1. Prioritize the user when making product decisions

When building the Facebook Portal, Dev faced a crucial decision about whether to require users to log in with a Facebook account. He fought for allowing login with WhatsApp instead, based on what was best for the global user base. "Focus on the user," Dev argued. "The right thing to do for this market is to let them log in with the account they want and keep moving."

2. Treat your product roadmap like an investment portfolio

Dev recommends balancing your core product thesis with satellite bets in emerging areas. "You might have a thesis that says, here's how I'm allocating my 401k or something. My sort of core investment thesis is about doing X, then I might have a bunch of satellite bets in these emerging areas." The key is to intentionally shift resources as opportunities arise.

3. Be willing to pivot strategy when the moment calls for it

With the rise of generative AI, Coursera decided to make it a core focus and bet heavily on it for upcoming quarters. "This can't be a satellite bet," Dev explained. "We can't even wait a quarter or two to decide to bring it into our core. We might need to invert our investment model entirely and bet 60, 70% of the next couple of quarters on this emerging topic."

4. There are no shortcuts to gaining good product judgment

Dev emphasizes that the ability to make smart tradeoffs comes from experience, trying things, failing, and learning over many years. "If you've gone through this and you've tried it and you failed and you've learned, and you've grown from it, then the next time it comes around, you're better off for it."

5. Meet teams where they are when driving change

When joining a new organization, Dev stresses the importance of listening to the team, understanding context and norms, and getting buy-in as you push new ideas. "Being able to take the pulse of your team and of your leadership and the state of the business and be receptive to where people are in that journey and meeting them there is so critical as a new hire."

6. Align with stakeholders by anchoring on shared principles

To settle debates and drive alignment, Dev focuses on getting stakeholders to agree on who they're serving, what they're trying to do for them, and what they believe. "Usually that works," he says, "if it's someone like Mark Zuckerberg or if it's a first-time founder or everyone in between."

7. Build vs partner depends on unique value and ability to compete

When developing voice AI for the Facebook Portal, the team realized they couldn't match competitors who were investing far more resources. "We just knew we weren't going to be able to build an Alexa competitor in 18 months," Dev recalls. "Partnering our way into the market instead of building our way into the market" became the better strategy.

8. Seize relevant moments to make bold moves

With the emergence of generative AI, Coursera's CEO led a decisive push to align the whole company to the opportunity. Dev describes it as an inflection point: "Everyone here is hungry to grow and evolve and turn this company into a bigger, better, more impactful version of itself. And when you have a whole team full of people who have that growth mindset, you can do amazing things."

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