Interview

How I Landed My Dream Product Job

Nikhil Tibrewal
Product Manager at Spotify
Nikhil Tibrewal is the Product Manager at Spotify. He started off as a Software Engineer, working on projects like the Discover Weekly and the Release Radar playlists. Now he manages the product strategy in the revenue space. During our chat, he talked us through the challenges that came with his role transition, and why he thinks Spotify has a good company culture.


1. So what is your role at Spotify and what are you currently working on?

I’m a Product Manager at Spotify in the revenue space. In line with Spotify’s mission of enabling millions of artists to live off their art, and billions of fans to enjoy and be inspired by it, my team is creating a state of the art monetization infrastructure aimed at unlocking the revenue potential that billions of fans will bring to Spotify under the freemium model.

As a Product Manager, my job is to devise product strategies aligned with the company’s mission that my team and I, in collaboration with applicable partner teams, can execute in the short and long run.

So imagine for example, if my company’s mission is to provide shelter for people, my job is to lay out the development strategies (e.g., providing tents and building houses). I have to use available resources (e.g., land space, building materials, time) and move closer to the goal one step at a time (measuring progress by tracking the percentage of people with shelter over time for example). I also have to learn from successes and failures, and improve the development as I go along (e.g., improving the structure of the next building after an earthquake). That’s pretty much what a Product Manager does.

2. How did you end up landing a job at Spotify?

Spotify launched in the USA in the summer of 2011. At the time, you needed an invite to try the app and Spotify set up a waitlist on their website. I rushed to enter my email address for an app that would let me stream any music I want for free. On July 20, 2011, I finally got off the waitlist, and fell in love with the app before the first song I played even ended!

The first email I ever received from Spotify, inviting me to try the app.

“I rushed to enter my email address for an app that would let me stream any music I want for free.”

That day I added Spotify to the list of my dream companies. The following summers I dropped my application on their website for internship positions but never heard back.

Coming into my senior year at Carnegie Mellon (Fall 2013), I got interested in Machine Learning through a couple of graduate level courses and decided I’d find a full-time job in the ML space. Spotify had already become a huge competitor to Pandora around then and was gaining popularity in the recommendations space through its Discover feed (analogous to Facebook’s news feed at the time, except with music). Expecting not to hear back again, I dropped my application at Spotify anyways. Couldn’t hurt right? To my surprise, I heard back from a recruiter within a week, went to New York for the onsite interview, and got an offer a few days later—all within 2 months! So it took a bit of perseverance, a bit of good timing, and a bit of a mutual fit.

“...it took a bit of perseverance, a bit of good timing, and a bit of a mutual fit.”

3. What was it like transitioning from Software Engineer to Product Manager?

Nearing graduation, I didn’t even think about going into the industry in a role other than Software Engineering. I loved coding, had gone through an intense four-year curriculum and was ready to take on new engineering challenges in the industry. As a Software Engineer at Spotify, I worked on some very impactful projects in music recommendations. It was really satisfying knowing that I was helping millions of users discover new music they’d love. Discover Weekly, Release Radar, and a personalized Home experience were some of my team’s biggest successes.

“As a Software Engineer at Spotify, I worked on some very impactful projects in music recommendations. It was really satisfying knowing that I was helping millions of users discover new music they’d love.”

However, a few years in I realized I didn’t want to excel at just software engineering. I did a double major in Computer Science and Economics in college, so I’ve always had a keen interest in solving problems in the business and economics space as well. By working alongside very talented Product Managers, I saw an opportunity to blend my engineering and economics background in that role. It was exactly what I envisioned myself doing down the road.

The blend of Business and Technology (and the Customer) in Product Management was the most attractive to me. As a Software Engineer, I was only in the intersection of Technology and Customer. Image Source


I spoke to many Product Managers about their day-to-day job and their long-term goals to understand what being a PM really entailed. There were a couple of other Product Managers who were ex-engineers who helped me understand more about the transition. But it was hard to distance myself from coding impactful features.

“I spoke to many Product Managers about their day-to-day job and their long-term goals to understand what being a PM really entailed.”

It was only when I looked at the big picture that I realized I owed it to myself to give Product Management a shot. It is exactly the right position to get me closer to the place I want to be. Spotify’s supportive culture made me feel extremely valuable as a PM due to my impact as an engineer, my network of engineers across global Spotify offices, and my knowledge of the precise process of implementing a product at Spotify. The transition was (and still is) a huge challenge, but I am glad I did it because I know it’s a step towards becoming my ideal self.

“The transition was (and still is) a huge challenge, but I am glad I did it because I know it’s a step towards becoming my ideal self.”

4. Speaking of challenges...what has been your biggest one so far?

As a Software Engineer, I spent most of my time figuring out how to build technology that will solve a given business problem: the architecture, latency requirements, memory constraints, technology platforms, etc. Product Managers, on the other hand, focus on what problems to tackle and why those problems versus others. Shifting my daily routine to think like a Product Manager instead of a Software Engineer about Spotify’s business, i.e., continuously developing and examining product strategies that create value for users of Spotify, has been the biggest challenge for me so far.

“Shifting my daily routine to think like a Product Manager instead of a Software Engineer about Spotify’s business, i.e., continuously developing and examining product strategies that create value for users of Spotify, has been the biggest challenge for me so far.”

I still document designs and join whiteboard discussions about highly technical topics (and I always will), but I have to make sure I am focusing the majority of my time and efforts towards the Product Management side of things. This includes reading about different initiatives across the company, connecting and staying in regular syncs with Product Managers in other areas, and always maintaining a clear roadmap for my team for the next four quarters (adjusting it as we progress), just to name a few.

As a Software Engineer, I always took these things for granted. To now be responsible for them is a whole other task. I have gotten a lot better at putting my time towards the right focus areas, but maintaining a strong link to my Software Engineering background while also becoming an exceptional PM will always be a challenge.

“I still document designs and join whiteboard discussions about highly technical topics (and I always will), but I have to make sure I am focusing the majority of my time and efforts towards the Product Management side of things.”

5. Tell us about Spotify squads. How do they work in practice, and what do you think works and doesn’t work?

The key driving principle behind the Squad structure at Spotify is autonomy. Squads, as explained in a culture blog post from early 2014, are small, cross-functional, self-organizing teams of usually less than eight people.

Members of a squad sit together and are responsible end-to-end for the products they build: design, development, insights, deployment, maintenance, etc. Autonomy here means that the squad decides what to build, how to build, and how they will work together while building it.

They have a long-term mission aligned with the company’s mission, and they work within the company’s product strategy. My squad, for example, is building a monetization infrastructure aligned with the company’s mission of onboarding billions of fans. We are made up of 5 backend engineers, 2 machine learning engineers and 2 Product Managers (most have 1 PM, but given the complexity of our mission, we have 2 for the moment) owning about 20-25 different little systems. My squad has all the skills in the disciplines necessary to build what we need—kind of like a mini-startup!

Squads are great for many reasons. Autonomy means squad members get to own systems end-to-end, and there’s less friction in understanding dependent systems and coordinating priorities. Squads become product experts which expedites future development. Squad members across disciplines learn from each other through pairing and code reviews. Squads also have their own budgets to achieve high squad health. For example, in the past, my squad used our budget for go-karting.

Some of my squad members ready for the go-kart.

The squad model has its challenges, too. It can test autonomy when systems become complicated. Senior members may not enjoy working on the Minimum Viable Product (MVP), while junior members may not have the best experience to scale the MVP. 

Chapter Leads help solve such problems, and we’ve usually found small reorgs and shuffles (that maintain autonomy and level of satisfaction of squad members) between tightly aligned squads to be useful at such times. A squad may also not have the expertise to work on important, short-term projects, and hiring new members may not make sense. For example, my team needed a simple, internal UI to manage parts of our systems. To solve this, a squad member interested in front-end may opt to pick it up if feasible. Alternatively, a front-end Chapter Lead may help staff the squad, with a front-end engineer whose squad is already going through a shuffle.

6. What has been your proudest moment at Spotify?

A year or two after joining Spotify, the company invested heavily in redefining its values. Spotify had grown a lot at the time, and since culture was one of its greatest strengths, they found it of utmost importance to come up with a holistic plan to redefine it. The HR department organized a global workshop that ran for many months called The Passion Tour.

Members of HR visited each of our offices around the world (27 or so at the time) to hold workshops where employees identified values that resonated with them at Spotify. Employees in remote offices (even less than five employees), as well as larger offices in Stockholm and New York, had equal opportunities to participate.

A ticket to the Passion Tour workshop gave the employee an entry into a raffle to attend 2015 SXSW in Austin, Texas.

This was one of my proudest moments at Spotify. There was so much emphasis on the “we” that it made me feel like a significant part of the company. I sat at a table with employees working in different parts of the company (Marketing, Business Development, Accounting), and we collectively reflected on what it meant to be at Spotify. Spotify gave its employees a chance to define the kind of workplace they would value and be proud of. It’s an amazing feeling of inclusion and impact. The company has grown a lot since, and I’m excited to see how we will strive to keep culture one of our biggest strengths.

“Spotify gave its employees a chance to define the kind of workplace they would value and be proud of. It’s an amazing feeling of inclusion and impact.”

These were the five values Spotify came up with at the end of The Passion Tour. Read more.

7. What do you hope to accomplish next as a PM?

My Product Management career is still extremely new. I have learned and grown an incredible amount since the transition, and I am very proud of that. But there are still many skills and characteristics I am working on daily to improve myself in my job and personal life.

In the near future, my goal is to excel as a Product Manager for my peers. I want to continue releasing impactful products that make a difference to our customers, and adapt what we build to the changing world of technology. Spotify has revolutionized music consumption. To succeed in the next revolution, we need to continue to understand our customers the best way we can and create value for them every day.

Much of the product development framework applies to personal lives as well: coming up with long-term goals and hypotheses, finding step-by-step tactics that will get us there, and measuring our progress through reasonable metrics. I would also like to accomplish personal goals using such a value-based and principled approach. And along the way, I hope I’m able to inspire others to become effective as they work through challenges in their lives.

8. You just attended JAM 2018 with your team, what was the highlight of the event for you?

I was most inspired by Gibson Biddle’s talk on the first day and his workshop on the second day titled “Hacking Your Product Leader Career.” As someone fairly new to Product Management, it was eye-opening to hear such a confident and well-designed presentation by a seasoned Product Leader. His presentation skills and quality of content were amazing and helped me understand some of the things I need to learn and work on. I have had the chance to learn some of those things from talented Product Managers at Spotify through regular conversations in the context of my daily work, but never in an organized lecture or class format. His learnings at Netflix and Chegg leveled out the basics of great Product Management that can help any company succeed.

“As someone fairly new to Product Management, it was eye-opening to hear such a confident and well-designed presentation by a seasoned Product Leader.”

Another highlight of the event was the Attendees Lounge. Most conferences I’ve attended in the past made an effort in some way to enable conversations between attendees, either through more breaks or breakout sessions or through assigned seating. JAM’s Attendees Lounge allowed me to quickly look through a list of people and find the ones I wanted to connect with the most. It was almost like a small LinkedIn network. Conversations were quick and useful without the need for an ice-breaker, all I had to do was send a note through the Lounge!

“JAM’s Attendees Lounge allowed me to quickly look through a list of people and find the ones I wanted to connect with the most. It was almost like a small LinkedIn network.”

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