Manik Gupta: Starting a journey, building a team

Manik Gupta

There are some people you come across in life who have an intrinsic enthusiasm for what they do. Ask them a question, and you could charge your cell phone with the energy that suddenly fills the room. Manik Gupta, who is corporate vice president for Microsoft’s Consumer Communications & Communities organization—and leads the consumer versions of Microsoft Teams, Skype and GroupMe products—is one such person. We recently caught up with the passionate industry vet, and when he talks about Microsoft’s future, it’s hard to not get equally excited.

“I’ve been in the industry for 20 years, mostly at the intersection of product engineering and design,” explains Manik, who previously worked for companies like HP, Google, and Uber.

“What brought me to Microsoft was a combination of the opportunity I’d been asked to lead and the people I met during my interview process. Everyone I talked to here was A+. They were very humble and focused on wanting help to win in this space. They were getting folks who have an external perspective to come in, teach a few things, and help with what the company has been working on. Both the opportunity and the people, at this stage in my life, were very important criteria for me.”

These days Manik is based in the Bay Area and hard at work, eager to further the vision of Satya Nadella and other executive leaders. “I see a great opportunity in Teams to build upon Microsoft’s mission ‘to empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more,’” he tweeted when he took the position. “We are a scrappy, hungry, and fast-moving team going after new, big problems and I can’t wait to get started!”

Finding the right talent

Manik likes to describe himself as having two jobs. First, it is his duty to set the strategy and provide leadership direction for Teams Consumer, Skype, and GroupMe. Second, he is tasked with activating consumer-oriented thinking across the globe, so he takes great pride in existing in a headspace where he’s constantly asking himself: What does the consumer want?

“One of the key strategic bets from Satya and the senior leadership team is to focus more on the consumer business,” he says of this mission. “As part of that, I’m hoping my past experience as chief product officer at Uber, and prior to that as senior director of product on Google Maps, can help activate consumer thinking within this company.”

A big part of such endeavors, Manik knows, is surrounding himself with the right talent. He has spent the past several months working to locate, recruit and surround himself with the best and brightest. Fortunately, 20 years in tech gives you a pretty decent Rolodex.

“I’m in the process of bringing in the right talent from my networks throughout the Bay Area, Redmond, and other places around the world,” he says. “I’m reaching out to folks who have built consumer products and bringing them to Microsoft, because this is an amazing opportunity to do that.”

Based on his experience, Manik says he has formed three hiring principles. Taken as a whole, they help ensure that he’s properly filling needs at a time like this.

“If you’re operating in the world of consumer products, there are a few things you must keep in mind. It’s a lot about experimentation, and it is almost impossible to know up front what is going to work. So instead, you try and form a strong hypothesis, because without that you wouldn’t know where to start, and then you experiment and build around that and see if it resonates,” he explains. “The leadership principle that flows from that is, I want my team to move fast and not be afraid to take risks.”

Another thing he looks for in potential hires is a mastery of the tenets of desirability, innovation, and word of mouth.

“You need to have an empathy for users, because no one is ever forced to use your product in the consumer world; they choose to use it. Think about the products you use on a regular basis. You do so because your friend told you about it, you found something on the app store or the internet and downloaded it because you wanted it,” Manik says.

“What I want my team to think about is, how do we build products that earn consumer love, so people seek them out? My leadership priority is to prioritize people who have this creativity and empathy, then empower them to come up with new user experiences that can flourish and ultimately delight consumers.”

He also strives for diversity as he’s building his team. Not only because it is ethically correct — but also because it’s good business sense.

“We are a global company that wants to build global products. That’s why having a diverse team is important, and why I’ve always advocated for diversity in my career,” he says. “I want to make sure I have a very diverse team looking at different aspects of how we build products for our users. If you don’t have that capability, you’re ignoring sets of users. That is not the right approach.”

A global perspective through a Bay Area lens

Manik is a global leader who takes pride in thinking beyond borders. In these pandemic-dependent times, an argument could be made that a person’s geographic location has never been more irrelevant, particularly in the tech space. Nevertheless, when he was having talks with Satya and the senior leadership team about how best to put his team in a position to succeed, he knew a Bay Area presence would be essential.

Currently, Manik’s team is spread across Vancouver, Redmond, and Prague, and he appreciates its global perspective. “I don’t have a strong point of view yet on how large a team I’d like to set up here in the Bay Area, but I’m going to be based here for a while, and over time I do expect us to grow locally,” he says.

And when you look closer at Manik’s LinkedIn page, you’ll see its peppered with just as many Bay Area start-ups as global company career stops. He has been a prolific angel investor and advisor, co-founded companies like the non-profit CVKey (which helps communities reopen responsibly in the age of COVID-19) and has an extensive history navigating Silicon Valley.

“All my network is here; I have so many start-ups that I’ve worked with. I have all these deep connections with operators, who have been embraced in leadership levels at different companies,” he explains. “So, I keep a close ear to the ground on what’s happening, and that makes me successful as an individual — because I can then take some of those ideas and insights and see how we as a company can use them to inform what we need to do.”

The journey of a lifetime

As we all know, it hasn’t often felt like there are blessings to be counted during the COVID-19 pandemic. But Manik just happened to be leaving Uber as lockdowns and social distancing became an everyday reality. As a result, he’s had time to take stock of what’s important to him — and is excited at the possibilities as the workforce comes roaring back.

“I left Uber because I wanted to take a break and figure out what was next for me. I couldn’t have timed my break either better or worse, depending on your perspective, because it coincided with COVID-19,” he explains. “I took the opportunity to take a step back and explore a bunch of opportunities to see what I wanted to do next in terms of investing and advising. I even started a nonprofit! During all that, I rediscovered my roots.”

“Sometimes the answer in life is staring you in the face, but you have to take a circuitous route to get there,” he says of his epiphany. “I’ve had really good success with building Google Maps, which more than a billion people use; I built a large part of Uber. So, I thought, why not give it a try a third time around? Perhaps I can create something else that hundreds of millions of people come to use. That is my calling.”

Nowadays, Manik is ready to pursue that calling, and further the mission of Microsoft and surround himself with the right people to get there.

“I wouldn’t have had such a moment of clarity if I hadn’t gone on my journey,” he says. “I want to work on a hard problem with amazing people and the potential for high impact. That’s what makes me happy.”

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