Nino Tasca: "Sometimes, you have to fight your instincts to go and do what you think is best." | ELVTR

Nino Tasca: "Sometimes, you have to fight your instincts to go and do what you think is best."

Lead Product Manager of Google Speech uncovers his career path, defines Product Manager role, and shares the right questions to ask.
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Nino Tasca is a Google Speech bigwig and Teacher at ELVTR. His career focus is applied technology and innovation. Tasca, throughout his career, has lent his mind to the tech industry to solve problems in the fields of Cloud Computing and SaaS, the emerging world of online publications, and digital speech recognition, among other User-centric qualms. But today, he comments on his:

...I learned to combine my natural technical chops and thinking about technology as a business problem.

How did your Product Management career start?

My road to Product Management was via Engineering. I studied Industrial Engineering at Lehigh University, and immediately after graduation went into software development. [Although] I didn’t study Software Engineering, I had a knack for it.

My career began at PricewaterhouseCoopers, [back in the] early 2000’s They created a dot com called Urban Fetch. And then, I worked for Ziff Davis, which was a media company, [they published] some of the most popular technology magazines throughout the last 40 years, things like PC mag, and E-week.

I joined [Ziff Davis] as a Developer, but it turned out [that] this decades-old business model of pushing print magazines to readers and getting advertisers to pay top dollars was being turned on its head by the internet. And [so], I spent most of my time focused on how to make [Ziff Davis] a sustainable business [again], rather than just producing websites. While I worked there, I went to NYU part-time, at night, [earning] an MBA. Working at Ziff Davis, I learned to combine my natural technical chops and thinking about technology as a business problem.

From there, I worked as Chief Technical Officer for a few companies. The [most recent] was Penton media, It was a 100-year old publisher. [They] went bankrupt a month before I joined. A few years later, they sold for $1.6 billion dollars, all because of the digital revolution.

[when Penton was sold], I was leading Engineering, Product Management, Project Management, design and Quality Assurance, [but] realized my passion was still with Product Management. [And so], I reached out to Google, ending up moving to California and joining the team.

What is your role at Google?

I'm the Product Manager for Speech at Google. Whenever you say “ok google” and Google listens, or when Google Assistant speaks back to you — that technology runs through my team. So, my aim is that when you speak to Google, you can have a great experience.

In short, I help ensure that Google understands [your] words — the content behind what you're saying and that Google can speak back to you. I work with Google Maps, YouTube captions, and Google Assistant. Nowadays, Google speaks over 100 languages, [these languages include Thai, Norwegian, Russian, Latvian, and Mandarin]. We hope to bring natural interaction to Users, so they can get more done throughout their day.

Product Manager is the voice of the User

Who a Product Manager is?

A Product Manager is the voice of the User, first and foremost. We ensure that companies build products that Users love and have a deep connection to.

In fact, a product only exists if Users are passionate about it. And so, a Product Manager’s primary job is to deliver a great product. It sounds funny saying it out loud, because it's in the name, and it [seems] obvious. But, when you break it down, it's not so apparent.

Product Managers wear many other hats too. For example, we ensure that Engineering delivers on their promises, making sure there’s a roadmap, [ensuring] that the right business infrastructure is in place. Basically, we build product and framework internally, to make sure [the team] can successfully deliver the product.

One of the most important attributes of a Product Manager is storytelling. [A Product Manager must be] a storyteller, using the art of telling the product’s story, Product Managers get people around them excited about the product.

The role of the Product Manager, in essence, [ensures that] technology comes together, as a whole. At Google, for example, we make sure that technology works within the larger product that Google is building, this involves a great deal of back and forth and collaboration with partner teams. At smaller companies, like startups, there might not be so much collaboration. And, the Product Manager may wear even more hats [than they do in a large company], to force the product’s entire life-cycle into one job.

There are pros and cons to working at both large and small enterprises.

I love working at a big company because I feel [that] I get smarter by working with smarter people who challenge my assumptions, teach me new things, and just come at [tasks] from a different angle. Through such encounters, I get smarter.

[There's] also been times in my career [that] I really loved working at a startup, I felt more control and ownership of the end product.

What makes a great Product Manager?

There are two qualities I look for in a Product Manager: curiosity and the ability to work within a framework.

In fact, whenever I interview potential Product Managers, I want to see how curious they are. [I want to know] their hobbies and the questions they ask. As for working within a framework, I like to see Product Managers that can actually apply a discipline to a product.

Most of all, I don't want PMs [to] think "I have a great idea, the end product will arrive in a bolt of lightning." That [may] happen once, but it isn’t repeatable. So, when I hire Product Managers, I'm looking for [those who] have a framework, and that can deliver repeatable results by going back to that framework over and over again.

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Can you learn to be a great Product Manager?

Product Management can be learned, it’s a discipline. At the end of the day, it's a series of tasks. Think about these tasks as problem statements. And in fact, sometimes you have to fight your instincts to go [and] do what you think is best.

I've learned (through both hard and easy means) that instincts aren't always what makes a great product. Discipline is what makes a great product. Correct methodologies, disciplines, frameworks, all of those put together, whatever term you want to use — can be learned and when applied, they forge great Product Managers.

Product Managers can come from any background. I've seen great Product Managers that were startup founders, former Engineers, and those without any technical background.

Product Managers who are interested in tech, even if their tech roots are not as strong, have a different angle of going at it, and can provide value.

Thinking about it, startup founders make great Product Managers because they had to solve every problem in their organization, and so they understand the role of Product Management. Former Engineers, like myself, are fit for this role because they are curious, always asking “why, why, why?”

If you're debating between Product Management and Project Management, I feel it comes down to one thing: how curious are you? 

Are some languages harder to work with?

There are languages that present unique challenges, for sure. In languages like Hindi, speakers often use English-borrowed words, we call it “Hinglish.” Or, the User may speak in a combination of or Punjabi, Hindi, and English. In languages like Korean, the concept of words are much more fluid than they are in English.

Each language has its own little twist that needs to be solved. To compensate for these twists, Google’s quality metrics are based on word-error rate: if you said 100 words, how many words did Google understand?

There're two sides to Google Speech: on one hand — there’s TTS or Text To Speech, and on the other hand — there’s speech to text, called ASR (Automatic Speech Recognition). During ASR, audio files are translated to words that a computer can understand.

But, if a computer wants to respond to you, it must synthesize text into an audio file that can be played back, and this process is somewhat complex.

For example, there's speech to text and then there’s text to meaning, something we call Natural Language Understanding (NLU). Natural language Understanding is a different team. The Fulfillment Team is also involved in with Speech, they pull information from different databases [to answer the questions from User to Google].

What’s the difference between Product Manager and Project Manager?

The names are similar, they're often associated with each other [and] people get them confused. But they are two different roles.

When I think of Product Management — I'm thinking of the what:

  • what we should build?
  • what do we need to do it?
  • what we should bring to market?

When I think of Project Management — I'm thinking of the how:

  • how does everything come together to make a successful product?

I've worked with some great Project Managers that I absolutely value, but the role greatly differs from Product Management.

If you're debating between [getting involved in] Product Management and Project Management, I feel it comes down to one thing: how curious are you?

Do you want to solve problems that haven’t been solved before? Do you want to get deep into the heart of what a User needs in their daily life? That's Product Management.

If you're someone that really wants to figure out how to optimize a solution, build things the correct way — that is Project Management.

What do you look for in a Product Manager?

I will, without a second thought, hire a Product Manager who has a technical background, along with other skills to bring to the table. But a technical background is not required [to be a Product Manager].

Sometimes, I find Product Managers that are too technical, they belong to the side of Engineering.

[In practice], I seek out Project Managers that move forward in the areas where the product needs help. The problematic area is not often Engineering, it's the other areas: Marketing, Distribution, Legal Compliance, Privacy and ETC. Those are all tough areas. And that's where I need the Product Manager to be focused, not the technical aspects.

What I really want in a Product Manager is to focus on is the “pure product” aspect: going to market and understanding the roadmap. Overall, I'm looking for someone who understands Users' problems and can come up with creative ways to solve them.

I expect that my company has great Engineers. Engineers drive the technical requirements, and they can coach the Product Manager in areas where they're weak.

...today is an excellent time to be a Product Manager

We'll spend part of the course discussing theory, but more time will be devoted to case studies. For example, we will talk about Peloton and Stripe. We'll speak of the storytelling nature of Product Management.

We’ll discuss the nature of the problems that Product Managers face, called “the opportunity hypothesis,” placing frameworks and disciplines to break down the problems, so that you can then deliver a product. And, class assignments will help you build your product pitch-deck.

There are many factors that perpetuate the need for Product Managers. For example, a number of companies see the success of Google, Facebook and Apple and are attempting to replicate that success program.

Product Managers have been an important aspect of those companies' success for the past two decades. [As result], I see more and more organizations, all around the world, looking for people with Product Management skills.

[All things considered], today is an excellent time to be a Product Manager. Companies all over the world are looking for PMs, not only in Silicon Valley. [In fact], there's a great demand for talented Product Managers that can lead this new revolution of technology, especially [in light of] Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning coming to the forefront.