Paul: Tanmay Goel is a Tokyo-based product manager and organiser in the product management community here, with a background as an international student & entrepreneur, and interests including tech, the arts and writing. I reached out to Tanmay after attending a ProductTank Tokyo online event that he hosted last month, interested to learn more about his background and experience, both before and after he moved to Japan, and how he fits in everything he’s up to.
Hi Tanmay. Thanks for joining me today. Please tell me a little about yourself.
Tanmay: Sure! I was born and brought up in New Delhi, India, after which I moved to Hong Kong to study engineering and entrepreneurship. All throughout my university life, I struggled a bit to find what I really wanted to do. I wasn’t passionate about coding, but I still wanted to be in tech. I tried many different kinds of internships, eventually deciding to try starting my own company. After experiencing that as well as taking some courses like Human-Computer Interaction. I realised my interest lay in Product Development and UX, post which I started looking for jobs in Product Management. I applied to Rakuten as a Product Manager program and was very lucky to be hired as a PM right out of university. After that, I moved to Tokyo in 2019 and have been learning and building products every day!
Last year I decided to reach out to mymizu (a Japan-based social innovator) since I wanted to have the startup experience as well as create high impact, and socially relevant products. So now I have been working with them as their Pro-Bono product lead.
I am also super involved with the tech and arts community in Tokyo, and love travelling, music production and reading and writing in my free time! Wow, I tried keeping it short (haha).
Wow indeed! You’ve got a lot going on. Let’s take a step back and start at your university days. You’re born and raised in India and India has some fantastic technical education. How did you end up taking a different path and going to Hong Kong for your bachelor’s degree in computer science & entrepreneurship in 2015?
Although India is well known to create some of the best engineering talent in the world (especially for CSE), actually being able to study CSE in the universities is not so easy. One of the flaws in our education system is that we cannot choose our own field of study, it is given to us based on our rank and score in a National Examination. I didn’t want to risk such an important decision to be made for me.
I was preparing for this exam for almost 3 years when one of my friends told me about his experience studying abroad. I was not entirely sure what I wanted to study at that time, and having the flexibility to choose was very important. Also eventually I realised the global exposure from an international university would be very handy.
I applied to Asian universities (since US applications were already finished). I got accepted into HKUST (The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology), which was ranked #8 for CSE at the time, so I decided to take that plunge. I would say it really worked out well for me.
You also spent a Fall semester exchange at the University of Southern California. Did your experiences in Hong Kong and California change your outlook on life, and if so, in what ways?
Going to USC was very important for my personality development. People in the States are very open-minded and extroverted and that really made me feel more confident about expressing myself. Also, studying in Asia can be very stressful, but seeing the American students have a great study-life balance helped me focus on more extracurricular activities once I came back to Asia. Staying in California was really great too, and being near Silicon Valley was inspiring.
After a couple of internships, you went to Guangzhou, China, and co-founded Speccasa, a B2B eyewear company. How did this happen and why jump straight into building a start-up?
I was always interested in entrepreneurship and wanted to experience it first-hand after interning in some startups. The problem statement came when a family friend told me about the monopoly of wholesalers who buy in bulk from China and sell it in developing countries for a very high markup, eventually raising the price of important commodities like spectacles and lenses. I realised I was quite close to Guangzhou and e-Commerce was booming in India, so I decided to source the materials myself and then sell them through our platform. At that time I wasn’t thinking much about the future of this company, I was just interested to go through the process and build our platform. That was also when I fell in love with Product Development. Eventually, I realised I needed to take some time off from it so that I could re-focus on graduating. But I think it was a very important experience that defined my future career path.
What do you think you learned by starting a company so early in your career? What would you have done differently if you could do it again?
I think I learned two main things. One was that I realised how inexperienced I was in understanding how things worked, and I needed to have some full-time work experience and learn how companies function, how products are made, and how people are managed. These are skills that can only come by experience and that was something I lacked, so no one took me very seriously.
The second thing I learnt was I wanted to be a Product Manager. Among all the stuff I did in the company, I loved the part about defining good User Experiences for our platform and communicating with the developers.
If I had to do things differently, knowing what I know now, I would spend more time interviewing our customer segment to see if there was a product-market fit. We rushed into creating the company without doing much background research and that eventually led to the company failing in the end.
Your next stop was Japan, with you joining Rakuten in 2019 as a Product Manager at Rakuten Travel. Why and how did you come to Japan?
Once I realised I needed more work experience, I started looking around to find a job. Most Product Manager roles required either 2-3 years of work experience as a software engineer, or an MBA. Fortunately, Rakuten was interested in hiring some Junior level Product Managers and was willing to give me a shot at an interview. My previous experiences, as well as communication skills, helped a lot because I was given the offer within 20 minutes of my interview. I was the youngest PM to be hired that day, and still am the youngest in my team. Until the 2022 new grads join next year 😉
Was Japan on your radar before this as a place to live and work or did you just come across Rakuten’s role and think, ‘Why not?’
I had been to Japan as a tourist when I was in uni, and I had really fallen in love with the culture as well as convenience. I remember it very distinctly that I was walking in Shibuya and thinking to myself, “how cool would it be to live here one day?”. At that time, it was just a random thought in my mind, but I never thought I would actually end up moving here. When I got the Rakuten opportunity 2 years later, I knew I had to take it. Visiting Tokyo had made this decision very easy.
Great that you could turn that random thought into reality. Could you tell us a little about your day-to-day work at Rakuten? What’s the life of a Product Manager like there?
A PM at Rakuten is responsible for everything that needs to be done to ship the product.
Day to day life of a Product Manager is really hard to be mapped since it changes every day. But to summarize it, we spend about 60% of our time in meetings with different kinds of stakeholders, ranging from other Product Managers, Designers, Developers, QA, BU or even external teams, and preparing our products for release. 30% of the time is spent in deep work writing product specifications, or thinking about user experiences or future business decisions. The remaining 10% for me is spent on personal skill-building, networking and personal branding.
You’ve also become active in the Tokyo tech community, taking on roles this year both as a community organizer for ProductTank Tokyo and a volunteer product lead for mymizu. Could you tell us about both of these?
I decided to join mymizu to give back my skills to make some high positive impact for a social cause and sustainability is something I really care about. I really loved their mission and wanted an outlet to practice some high-level product skills that I was not able to at my job at Rakuten. Once I spoke with the team, I knew it was a good fit and I joined in as the only Product Manager volunteer. Over the past year, we have released some new features, created some great vision for our future products, and also the processes to build them. I also enjoy seeing the immense success of mymizu in Japan as a company as well as a pioneer of the tech-sustainability movement here and look forward to more great work with them.
Last year I virtually attended one of the biggest Product Conferences in the world – Mind The Product – London. It was the first time I had the opportunity to interact with other PMs in the world and I really enjoyed it. I wished to find a similar community in Tokyo. ProductTank is a subsidiary of the Mind The Product and the Tokyo chapter was established a few years ago, but it was dead after COVID happened. I wanted to see if I could revive it, so I reached out to the relevant people and basically injected myself into the organizing committee. Since then we revived the community, created a Slack group and will start hosting regular events.
Last month I hosted a very insightful panel with UX designers, where we spoke about the collaboration between designers and PMs. This month we have the Head of Product of one of the fastest-growing insurance startups in Asia giving a keynote. The variety of people I get to meet through this community is very worthwhile. I have built a great network through this.
What are your impressions of tech in Japan and the tech community here so far?
One of the most unique things about Japan and Tokyo is that if you have an interest, you can easily find a community of people who are equally as into it as you. I was very happy to see the passion people have for tech here. The people I have interacted with, all had great ambitions and skills to enhance the Japan tech scene forward.
However, I have only been able to interact with the English speaking community here. I feel that if we can bridge the English and Japanese speaking communities, we could be a great globally relevant community building world-class products.
If you weren’t already busy enough, you also write about product management, music & pop culture. When did you start to write and why?
Writing is therapeutic. And I love writing about things I like or sharing my experiences. Reading other people’s writing is also a great way to gain really valuable knowledge. I think one of the things I want to do is create evergreen content which is relevant for many years. Once it’s published it’s available for everyone forever. I hope to keep writing regularly and creating interesting content for people to read.
What does your typical day look like?
It usually depends if I’m working from home or from the office, but on average if it’s a ‘work from office’ day:
8 AM: Wake up and start getting ready for work
8:45AM: Leave for work (I have a 10-minute bus to my office), I usually listen to a news podcast on the way, or read some tech news
9AM – 11AM: Reach work (grabbed breakfast on the way), check emails, calendar, any important messages to reply to, any core work that needs to be done before my meetings start
11AM – 12PM: Lunch at the office, usually I’ll have it with my co-workers, or other friends in Rakuten (one great perk of Rakuten is free lunch from the cafeteria)
12PM – 5PM: Usually I schedule all my meetings in this time frame, and crack them out one after the other
5PM – 5:30 PM: Wind down, any admin stuff and prepare for the next day. I really appreciate that my team put importance on our work-life balance, and is able to be efficient in the allotted working times.
I’ll reach home by 6 PM.
Some evenings I go boxing/gym, other evenings I usually work on mymizu, ProductTank, or other side projects.
I’ll try to grab dinner sometime and end my day by 11 PM, usually reading or watching some Netflix.
What are some of your goals for the future? Personally and/or professionally?
In the short term, I am interested in releasing the project that we have been working on at Rakuten for the past year. I hope to keep skilling up through these experiences, hoping to eventually be a senior-level PM. I also want to improve my network in the Tokyo tech community.
In the long term, I am considering a few different options around further education or another stint at entrepreneurship. But I think there’s still a way to go so hoping that a few years down the line, things get clearer!
– what advice would you have for someone overseas looking to move to Japan in the tech industry?
Japan can be slow to adopt new ideas, but once it starts, it really accelerates to the max.
I think Japan has a lot of potential to become a great tech hub, and now is the best time to be part of that movement since many young Japanese are starting to understand the potential of tech. But other than that, Tokyo is one of the best cities I have lived in (I have experienced New Delhi, Hong Kong, Los Angeles). The cities, people and culture make up for anything that you may find missing in your work life.
– what do you wish you’d known about living in Japan before you moved here?
How important the language is to be able to have a good quality of life here.
– how do you learn new skills?
A lot of it is through online courses, and reading a lot of books to get clues as to where to start.
Currently, I am learning more about data analysis and how we can leverage data to create good user insights.
– tell me a few of your favourite or most recently read books, movies, podcasts, games?
Book: Atomic Habits: An easy & proven way to build good habits and break bad ones – James Clear – a life changer. [Amazon JP] [Paul: You’re the second person to recommend this book to me this week!]
TV Shows: Ted Lasso and Squid Game.
Podcasts: Robinhood Snacks – a daily 20-minute tech/finance podcast to keep you updated on all things tech and business.
Games: no time for games, but I am doing boxing in real life.
– what’s your favourite place to visit in Japan?
The one place I always love to keep going back to is Kyoto.
Nice. One of my favourites too. Finally, what’s the best thing you’ve ever spent 10,000 JPY on in Japan?
A bicycle. For a year I thought I didn’t need one, now I ride it to work every day and it’s such a great way to experience the city too.
I agree. Definitely a great way to get out and explore the city!
Thank you very much for taking the time to speak with me, Tanmay, and best of continued success to you in your life in Japan.
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