Product at the Intersection of Climate and HardTech

By Gabriella Garcia on March 1, 2023

Product is having a moment. In this new series, The Product Moment, I chat with product managers who are leveraging the latest advancements in AI and data science, about their product philosophy and approach to building for markets that don’t necessarily exist yet.

For our first episode, I interview Google Nest’s Renew Product Lead, Bhavish Gummadi, whose hybrid hardware-software team is building new solutions in the climate and energy space. The full interview can be viewed below.

Bhavish is a computer scientist and Product Leader currently working as the Product Lead on Nest Renew at Google’s Nest. Previously, Bhavish was a Product Manager on Google’s YouTube and Photos teams, and in 2018 he was the founder of a startup called Sizzl. As a University of Michigan alumni and product leader, he is passionate about complex spaces like climate and healthcare.

Bhavish joins us in today’s episode to shed light on the complexities of building products at the intersection of climate and hard tech. He shares his insights on fine-tuning user education in traditional industries like climate, and why as a Product Manager he prioritizes building intuitive product experiences that empower their users. We also discuss the future of the energy grid and how to instill great product philosophies in growing organizations. Finally, Bhavish also shares what a Product Manager can learn from cross-country runners!

Watch Episode 1 now on YouTube.

Read the transcript below:

Question 1: Background

Gabriella Garcia: Bhavish, I would love to get a little bit of an intro about your background, your product journey, and some context on your current role.

Bhavish: Yeah, for sure. First of all, it’s great to be here. Thanks for having me here, Gaby. I grew up in New Jersey and went to school at the University of Michigan. I studied computer science with a minor in business and bioinformatics. I’ve also been really passionate about healthcare for a long time. I  tried my hand at being a founder, a developer, working at startups, and working at larger companies. I was really blessed with all these different kinds of roles and levels of ownership and eventually realized what I want to do is eventually be a founder. However, the biggest set of skills that I’m missing right now is product skills. I felt pretty competent in building something on my own, pretty competent in being able to like hack things together or even put together something that’s more production ready. But not so confident in my abilities to actually bring something to market that people are gonna feel is really useful and is gonna be able to scale. I realized that most acutely when I tried to start my own startup in college.

Gabriella Garcia: Amazing, what was it called?

Bhavish: It’s called Sizzl, the student discount program.

Gabriella Garcia: Oh, fun!

Bhavish: Yeah, super fun! I started with another APM friend of mine and learned a ton, but definitely learned that I didn’t have the fundamentals in terms of product. That’s why I leaned into these product roles. Since then I have worked on Google Photos, and YouTube and now I work on Google Nest.

Gabriella Garcia: Amazing amazing and thank you for that background.

Question 2: Product across different spaces

Gabriella Garcia: One thing that I find really exciting is that you’ve worked across

a variety of different consumer-facing brands, everything from renewables and climate to consumer media with YouTube as well as Google Photos. How would you characterize a product role, whether that’s in terms of responsibilities, KPIs, or even philosophies themselves, differing across the spaces you’ve worked?

Bhavish: Yeah, obviously it’s very different. Any product manager will tell you that no role, even at the same company is the same. Gaby and I were both APMs and we had very different experiences! There are a couple of axes by which things are different. First is culture, culture creates a huge difference. What do people index on? What do people care about? What motivates people to take on a project? What is the culture of the team in general, I think is a huge change to

how you are as a PM. For example, if you have a very analytics-driven organization, you require metrics to convince anyone to do anything. In contrast to a project that is social-good, then it’s more impact-driven. Your narrative changes and as a PM you are a storyteller and the stories you’re gonna tell are gonna change.

Another axis is what industry you’re working in. Working at Google Photos, the company is a software-driven product, tech-forward. Now, I work in a climate tech, energy role. This industry is completely different –  different regulations, different consumers, and all that.

Next, is the age of the product itself – is it a mature product or something 0 to 1? Working on mature products requires you to be in the weeds looking for incremental improvements. In contrast, with earlier-stage products, you can take these massive risks and you’re always thinking more big picture, strategic thinking.

Question 3: How would you want to build product culture?

Gabriella Garcia: I would love to understand how you think about building up a product culture. Especially thinking about your future journey, as a founder, what are some things that you would love to pass down to folks?

Bhavish: Yeah, it’s such a good question. I’ve come to the conclusion over the last roles that it really depends on what the product you’re building is in terms of fundamentals. You want people to be working, very motivated with a drive to create a positive impact on the world. In addition, people need to be consistently reflecting on why they are building something. Why is this the right thing to do? Also very rigorous in not being afraid to try new things, and not too risk averse. Right.

So I think those are like general big bucket things that you want to instill in any organization. How you do that is primarily through goal setting and feedback mechanisms. There’s also very organization and product-specific stuff that you wanna set. In mature products you wanna build a really strong culture of metrics and analytics, where you need to, you need to squeeze out your competitive advantages. When you’re working on very zero-to-one products that are dealing with more high-level strategic questions, your team should be ready to operate in ambiguity. Therefore the culture depends on what you’re trying to achieve and, and what your product is really trying to do.

Gabriella Garcia: Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. Building a product is truly a  balancing act, between shipping it out and getting it into the hands of people but also ensuring the product is robust and delightful.

Question 4: Product is having a moment

Gabriella Garcia:  I like to say that product is having a moment. So many product managers like yourself are now bringing cutting-edge technology and data science, often creating markets that necessarily exist yet. Within Nest renew, you’re working on some pretty exciting data and optimization problems as you work on balancing energy sources and price fluctuations. In addition, there are really exciting tailwinds around energy as well. So, how do you think about this

unique product moment and what advice would you give to other product managers that are also operating on the edge of innovation?

Bhavish: Yeah, there’s a lot there to digest. This is a really exciting time for climate work, there’s thankful, a lot of capital being allocated. People’s heads are starting to turn in the right direction. In traditional industries like energy, the difficult thing is always going to be education. How do you educate the user? And I think that might not be as obvious. For example, if you want to educate someone on why they should buy renewable energy credits for their home, there’s a ton of education that needs to happen on what even is an energy credit. Why does it matter? Why would I buy one? And how does that help the environment? Right. That entire narrative is actually really hard to explain to people. There are many people that work in energy that probably don’t really understand it that well. What I would encourage people to do and especially product managers, is to actually not anchor so hard on getting everyone educated. Instead, just give them the solution.

I am also really passionate about healthcare and people often try to take that approach in healthcare too. People just need to know why it’s valuable and then they’ll buy it. But people don’t want to know and don’t want to deal with their healthcare. People don’t wanna deal with their energy. They don’t wanna know about this stuff that deeply. So what it becomes about, is how much can you abstract away the details. And provide a really delightful, elegant experience. This is really what it becomes about. Tesla’s done that really effectively, and they’ve been great at making it just delightful and cool to see your energy flow throughout your house.

Gabriella Garcia: Yeah.

Bhavish: They just make it seem cool.

Gabriella Garcia: Yeah.

Bhavish: Right. Does anyone understand what’s going on? No, no one understands actually happening, like maybe like energy nerds do. Most people are buying a Tesla, and getting this solar panel, but they don’t understand the underpinnings of what’s going on from a utility standpoint and that’s okay. Going back to what our objective is as product managers, our objective is not necessarily to educate every single person on solving the problem, it’s solving it for them.

Gabriella Garcia: That is beautifully said, Bhavish. For example, sometimes PMing is like putting medicine in ice cream. As long as people are taking that medicine, then it’s great! And you work on abstracting away the complexities for them to just have an amazing product.

Question 5: Specifics to climate?

Gabriella Garcia:  I’m curious, working within climate and energy spaces, what are some unique product or customer risks that are specific to this industry?

Bhavish: There are probably two big risks. One is over-indexing on education which will get in the path of you trying to scale the product and get adoption. Let’s talk about a typical startup, they want to educate folks and get them to understand the product. But along the way, the users may not receive the message exactly how you want them to. There are going to be misinterpretations that happen along the way, messages that aren’t well communicated.

Gabriella Garcia: Do you think that’s even more dangerous? They misconstrued education in comparison to knowing nothing.

Bhavish: I think it could be dangerous for your product, right? It’s all about expectation setting, right? That’s why people wanna do education but it’s a complicated thing, especially when you are unable to communicate it properly. Your users will expect one thing and something else will happen. There are a number of solutions to tackle that, from abstracting away details or being really upfront about the experience.

The second big risk, especially in any traditional industry, is having to play with other existing players. That is not always easy to execute as a PM. If you solely put yourself in the mindset of the end customer, then you are likely to alienate other important and critical partners along the way that is necessary for you to deliver the solution. There are probably a million examples of this. For example, healthcare startups that try to go very direct-to-consumer, but then really struggle to scale as they don’t have enough insurance alignment or insurance partners.

Gabriella Garcia: What are some of your learnings working with different parties and how do you think about alignment?

Bhavish: It’s a good question. I think the way I’ve structured my thinking as a PM is as a matrix. There are going to be five different players, all working together to achieve one objective of either  delivering healthcare to someone, delivering TV entertainment or even delivering energy to an end consumer. What’s really important for you as a PM to identify who’s the one with the decision-making authority in this ecosystem? And what is the most challenging thing for this group to do? What is really hard for them to do, even if they all came together right now, even if they all ended up on the same page, what would they not be able to do? Once you find that, you focus your efforts on that really powerful player and what’s really collectively difficult for them to do. You need to build something that is just genuinely difficult for any of these people to do. And then the dominoes will fall accordingly.


Question 6: Product Values

Gabriella Garcia: Within the sphere of leadership,  you’ve worked on a variety of different consumer-facing products. Everything from Photos, YouTube, and now Nest. What have you learned overall about values that you prioritize as a product manager for these end consumers and how do you share those values with the broader teams?

Bhavish: Yeah, it’s a good question. When I saw this question, I was really glad because I wanted to think through it a bit. What do I value for the consumer? There are two things that I value the most working within impact-driven organizations and traditional industries and that is giving the users a sense of control and power. Technology is something that’s supposed to make something easier for people, but as a result, they generally take manual control away from people. You should be making the users feel empowered rather than making them feel like they give up control. That’s a big distinction that people often miss. For example, if you are going to automate someone’s temperatures within your home like Nest, you need to allow the users to understand that they are still in charge and that they can still have an impact.

The second big principle that I value when trying to deliver consumer products, learned from my nightmares from when I built Sizzle, is that the product needs to feel intuitive. This is something that I think is easy to say, but actually somewhat hard to do. Especially if you’re at a startup, you are so in the weeds of your product, that you forget what it’s like to be someone that’s seeing this screen for the first time in their life. And they just have no idea what button to click on! With good design principles, the world has gotten to a place where all apps and websites almost look the same because they have a standard for what’s decent. However, as you build a more innovative product, things become more complicated, especially in traditional industries like energy. You need to figure out the fundamentals, how to make something intuitive, and invent your own design principles. It’s fundamental in consumer products for people to just be able to pick it up and understand really really quickly what to do. And once again, do not over-educate people.

Question 7: What does energy/climate look like in 20 years

Gabriella Garcia: We hear a lot about the “electrify everything” movement and there’s a lot of energy, especially within the climate and energy spaces. Companies like Nest are building amazing products for today’s users. If we take a step back and imagine your product and technology in the next 20 years, what does that look like?

Bhavish: I can only speak about the space and where I think the future is. This will be obvious for people that are within the industry, but I think in the execution details it’s pretty non-obvious right now. There’s the high-level “electrify everything” movement but what is exciting is actually the grid. The grid needs to have the capacity to support rises in electricity consumption, as well as the capacity to support clean energy. If you think about electricity, there is supply on the left, the grid in the middle, and demand on the right. All of these things need to be coordinated, in order for us to successfully electricity everything in a clean way, the beam needs to be balanced. Supply needs to be generated at times when there’s demand, or it needs to be stored and readily available during times of demand. In addition, demand needs to be shifted when there’s supply. On the supply side, there are batteries to help smoothen out demand but it’s also shifting user behavior. I’m excited about ways to balance the two mechanisms to smoothen out the curve to create the grid of the future. There are a million open questions, like how are we gonna store that much energy, where are we gonna store it? How are we gonna store it? Where are we sourcing the energy? How do you shift demand and who shifts it? All of these issues are being figured out right now. One awesome part of Nest is that I’ve realized a lot of people are working on these problems. From the outside of the energy industry, folks are freaking out that not enough people are working on it. But from the inside, you know it is being prioritized.

Gabriella Garcia: True! And now we know Bhavish is one of those many folks who are passionate and working within the energy space.

Question 8: Empowered product teams

Gabriella Garcia: In most companies, the technology teams are not empowered product teams, they are feature teams – all about implementing features and projects (output), and as such are not empowered or held accountable to results. In contrast, in strong product companies, teams are instead given problems to solve, rather than features to build, and most importantly, they are empowered to solve those problems in the best way they see fit. How would you recommend product managers who are looking for their next thing to identify companies with empowered product teams rather than feature teams?

Bhavish: A lot of it anchors on prioritization. You need to figure out how does this organization operate and how do they prioritize things? For example, is it from the bottom up, so if I have pushback on a certain idea, will that voice be heard or not? When looking for my next team, I always prioritized organizations that take bottom-up feedback really well. I would also ask teams how new products or features are created. What metrics do you try to drive? And finally, how is engineering time allocated? You’re never gonna actually get anything done as a PM unless you have really dedicated engineers. So you need to get clarity about how teams prioritize and allocate their resources to projects.

Question 9: What can a PM learn from a cross-country runner?

Gabriella Garcia: You pride yourself on being a cross-country runner and overall see yourself as an athlete. What can a product manager learn from other cross country runners?

Bhavish: Running for me was something I’ve been doing for almost 10 years now. And I absolutely love it. There are three things that PMs can learn from runners. One is that the details matter a lot and you have to survive the process. When you’re a big runner–I was running 8 to 12 miles a day before–it’s all about loving and getting into the rhythm. You’re training really hard, icing and rolling out muscles every day, and doing genuinely terrible things like taking an ice bath. I don’t know if you’ve ever gotten into one Gaby, but it’s painful.

Gabriella Garcia: I hate it. I can’t do it.

Bhavish: Yeah, it’s terrible. And so, there’s gonna be a lot of things like that, that you need to deal with as a PM. Whether that’s people being unmotivated, processes getting in your way, and things that you just have to do. Whether that’s bugs or flags that can be really annoying at the moment but are critical for you to enjoy the end process, and for you to be successful. The second point, in every race you need to just dump out your energy in the last 500 meters to 1000 meters even when you’re exhausted. It’s the same way that product launches work, you’ve been working on something for like eight months and you just want to get it out of the door. But that’s setting yourself up for failure, your mindset has to be that the last mile needs to be perfect. It needs to be as perfect as the first mile, the fifth mile and that’s the only way to really build a good end-to-end experience. Therefore, when you’re at the end of your race or product launch you have to remain detail-oriented and ensure that everything is elegant, perfect, and seamless.

The third thing is that running is inherently you being on your own and that sucks. I have found that with experience, running hundreds or thousands of miles, it now feels meditative and I’ve learned to love it. Therefore, as a product manager, you also learn what the product, what you are doing, and what you’re developing on your own is only ever going to be part of the equation. And it can be painful at times, fun at times, rewarding, and sometimes all over the place. As a result, I have become very indexed in finding a team that I love. I just love the people on the Nest team so much and that’s what I have become attached to now. The team is here when the product and times are good, or bad, when things are hard, and when things are easy. That’s what has helped me through it all, a  great team.

Gabriella Garcia: That is beautifully, beautifully said, Bhavish. Thank you so much for chatting with me, it was such a pleasure to learn about your story and your product journey, and product philosophies overall.

Bhavish: Yes, of course. Thank you for having me and you know, anyone that’s watching, feel free to reach out if you ever need any help or would like any advice–happy to be here and give you that.

Gabriella Garcia: Amazing! Thank you!

If you want to talk about all things product, you can find Gaby on LinkedIn.

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