“As a PM, it is important to have the end goal clearly in mind and relay it effectively to the team.”
Tamanna Kottwani, WG’17, recaps the lessons she used from product management in her role as Marketing and Panels co-chair for the 21st Wharton Technology Conference on Nov. 11, 2016.

As a co-chair for the student-led Wharton Tech Conference, I was able to draw considerably from my experience as a product manager. I had the opportunity to bring people together for a common purpose — to create and release something that users enjoy. The sheer joy and satisfaction of creating something had inspired me to assume this role in the first place and kept me motivated throughout the process.

Getting this role was also a milestone in my Wharton journey — it was one of the goals I wrote about in my Wharton application essay in December 2014. It gave me a sense of accomplishment and also a valuable learning opportunity.

Tech Conference team, including Tamanna Kottwani, third from rightTech Conference team, including Tamanna Kottwani, third from right

As I went through the conference planning and organizing process, I tried to apply many of my PM learnings from coursework, my internship, and the numerous product leader blogs I follow (especially that of Wharton alum Punit Soni, WG’07). Here are the seven I found most useful:

1. Start with the customer.

A good PM starts with a customer-first approach. Our primary customer for this conference was the Wharton first-year MBA class. To understand our target segment needs, I tried to answer these questions:

  • How does the Wharton Tech Conference fit into the recruiting and learning goals of a first-year MBA student?
  • Should we prioritize networking or sheer learning?
  • What content would be most engaging to this target segment?
  • What companies and speakers would the audience be most interested in?
  • How willing would they be to pay for this conference?

Because I had attended the conference last year and other co-chairs had been involved in last year’s planning team, we could empathize with our user. Having first-year board members also meant direct customer inputs.

2. Take a data-driven approach.

Just as a product manager’s role depends on the type of product being managed, my approach differed because this was the 21st version of the Annual Tech Conference. I wanted to incorporate feedback and learnings from the previous conferences to make this one the best. I looked into these data points:

  • Past conference co-chair conversations
  • MBA Career Management Net Promoter Score for the 2015 Tech Conference (Yes, we do have a conference NPS at Wharton!)
  • 2015 conference feedback survey results

Additionally, I also tried to learn from the best practices of other conferences at Wharton, other MBA student-run tech conferences, and TechCrunch Disrupt.

3. Define goals and metrics.

As a PM, it is important to have the end goal clearly in mind and relay it effectively to the team. Our end goal was a successful conference. These are the metrics we used:

  • Quantitative — Sponsorship amount raised, number of attendees, number of companies featured, NPS score
  • Qualitative — Positive reviews by first-year students during and after the conference and by Wharton MBA Career Management

4. Lead by influence.

The need to lead by influence is perhaps the biggest reason why this experience is similar to that of a PM. Our co-chair team started the recruitment drive for a conference board comprised of first-year MBA students. At Wharton, first-year students have multiple leadership opportunities, so we had to sell the experience of a Tech Conference board member. I remember thinking about Simon Sinek’s TEDx talk How Great Leaders Inspire Action. His questions — “Why does it matter?” “Why is it worth doing?” — shaped my introduction slides for the recruitment drive. The record number of applicants we received was a measure of our success in inspiring first-years to apply.

As we progressed through the conference, it was crucial to keep the team motivated. Priorities change quickly for first-year Wharton MBA students balancing academics, social, career, and extracurricular activities. More so, none of the first-year board members were directly accountable to the co-chairs — here were no monetary or other direct rewards attached. We had to inspire the first-years to contribute more, push them to utilize their networks to source speakers, diplomatically manage low performers on the team, and make difficult decisions when the situation demanded.

5. Align all stakeholders.

Just as product, engineering, and business are married to each other in the corporate world, Panels, Marketing, Sponsorships, and Finance & Operations co-chairs are joint stakeholders in the conference realm.

The Panels and Marketing budgets depended on the amount raised by Sponsorships. The challenge was that both these workstreams started in parallel, and hence decision-making was crucial at each step. While wearing the Marketing hat, I had close alignment with the Operations team to ensure all marketing collateral was printed and distributed. Just as a PM gets priority allocated for the product, my role also involved pushing the other co-chairs at times to deliver a quality product.

We also had a number of indirect stakeholders — the Wharton brand, the company sponsors we had acquired, The Mack Institute for Innovation Management, and the Wharton Customer Analytics Initiative. All had invested in the success of this conference.

6. Map out the entire process.

A PM is often effectively a program manager. I took initiative to keep all the four teams on track — Panels, Marketing, Sponsorship, and Finance & Operations — by charting out a timeline of what needed to happen, when it needed to happen, and who was responsible for making it happen. This kept everyone aligned. During the last couple of weeks before the conference, this planning ensured that tasks and priorities did not fall by the wayside.

I also made sure to have a solid plan B! Planning for any potential setbacks helped the team tackle tough situations that included a previous sponsor backing out, a speaker who was unable to make it at the last minute, and operational hassles during the event.

7. Prioritize, prioritize, prioritize.

When making decisions on who to invite for panels, we had to keep in mind the user needs and end goals — company X vs. company Y, East Coast vs. West Coast firm, ease of getting a speaker vs. predicted audience engagement level. Planning was a constant prioritization exercise in getting the minimum number of speakers in a category, then adding popular speakers to the list to make it more engaging. Next, we had to allocate the marketing budget and resources to appropriate channels to attract more students to the conference.

As I added the last few touches to the opening and welcome speech the night before the conference, I had that familiar jittery feeling a PM has before a product release. But it was time to don my game face and keep the team excited and motivated to ensure we had a smooth conference. At the end, it was about doing whatever it took to deliver a quality output that users loved, even if it meant staying up until 4 a.m. to complete the tasks on time.

Looking back would I do it again? Most definitely. This was a great self-discovery experience. I have a better understanding of my strengths and the areas where I need more development as a PM, not only from those who I was indirectly managing but also my peers. As I take on my next product management role, the lessons I gained from this experience will help me accelerate the journey of launching my next product.

PS: Special thanks to my co-chairs Pushpak Pujari, Navya Reddy, and Kyul Ko and the amazing first-year Tech Conference Board, who were instrumental in making the Wharton Tech Conference 2016 a big success.

Posted: December 15, 2016

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