A Decade of Work, Management & Product

Aatir Abdul Rauf
26 min readJan 2, 2022

As I wrap up my 10th year at the vFairs group, I can’t help but look back & fondly reminisce on the road travelled.

10 years. They seem a blur to me. A lifetime of memories that went by all too quickly. It’s only when I look back at where I started, that I realize the transformational weight these years carried.

I joined the organization as a budding Product Manager with vibrant but raw, unfiltered energy. I was coming fresh off the heels of my time at Pakwheels — my Gotham so to speak — where my origin story took place. Along with taking the reins of a new product, I had also just begun a new life in Dubai which was exciting and intimidating at the same time. I was young, naïve and like many of my contemporaries, incredibly uncertain about what the future held for me.

Product Management, at the time, wasn’t a booming career track in the region as it is now. There were a few of my breed. It was eerily lonely out there. But just like how the barren, desert land of Dubai morphed into a steely jungle-like metropolitan in a few years, I had high hopes for the discipline to take flight.

Products were stirring up sand on the horizon. Careem was just about to enter the market. Dubizzle was spreading its wings. Souq ruled the e-commerce kingdom. But yes, it was a quieter time.

I looked at some of my photos from the past. I’ve grown visibly older. The micro-wrinkles etched under my eyes remind me of the long hours in front of a laptop screen. The gray in my hair and beard are telling signs of how the clock of life keeps ticking without one noticing it. My kids remind me of generational progression — I’m unable to relate to the esoteric terms they casually use in conversation in relation to the world of games, streaming & Youtube content creators. That reality signals how I’ve now finally joined the ranks of middle-aged uncles who I used to find shockingly ignorant of pop culture when I was a teen. Sigh. I’m one of them now?

What have these years taught me?

After witnessing triumphs & failures, experiencing lows & highs, riding troughs & crests, I’ve realized that life keeps teaching me the same lesson:

You still have a lot to learn. And unlearn.

Throughout this journey, I was asked several times why I chose to stay at the same company when people around me constantly pursued new opportunities. Was I afraid? Was I getting too comfortable? Was I just lazy?

The answer was consistently the same:

Every day I check in at work, I am viscously schooled on something I didn’t know. Whenever I thought I knew enough, humility would pay a visit.

I took some time off recently to travel. I was trying to compile some of my personal lessons and as those ideas were swimming in my head, I fished out the ones that stood out to me the most.

Some might seem all too obvious & common-sensical. I’m not going to claim originality points there. Others might raise an eyebrow or two and might seem unconventional. Either way, I’m just putting it out there.

The disclaimer I’d throw here is that these lessons worked for me and my individual career path. Some of these may not necessarily translate well for other product professionals, so I’d suggest readers to exercise discretion.

I put these ideas under 4 different buckets to organize my thoughts a bit better:

Lessons as an Individual Contributor

1. You are what you capture.

Personal task management was the centerpiece of how I got work done. My productivity soared when I learned how to incorporate Asana & Trello effectively in my personal work for my office tasks.

The key was in creating a natural reflex action — whenever there was work to do, I would immediately log it in on my board. Whether I heard something in a hallway, read it over an email, got a distraction-ping on Slack, had a eureka moment on the train, I’d capture it before the thought dissipated.

Then, I’d groom that list every single hour. Till this day, that task list defines my work day.

In fact, one of my managers got to know about my trusty “board” and knew that if a task was on there, it would eventually get done. So, in my 1:1s, he would explicitly ask me to put a certain task on my “Asana list”.

Thus, mastering what you need to do at any specific moment of time is essential for an individual contributor who wishes to be a value-maximizer.

2. Advertise what you do at work.

Initially, I was taught good work ethics meant putting your head down and letting people see your work for themselves. Going around flaunting what you’re doing was frowned upon and equivalent to tooting one’s own horn.

However, I realized that people, especially leadership, are busy, inundated with information and would rarely proactively appreciate great work * silently * happening around them .

Thus, internally marketing and evangelizing my work with the primary purpose of sharing how that helps others (not randomly showing off) was an important activity that:

  • empowered others to benefit from my work e.g. If I created an Excel template or product presentation, they could inherit it and save time.
  • sent a message to my manager that my work was creating impact making them look good too.
  • kept me top of mind for internal opportunities.

3. To arrive at great solutions, you need to ask great questions.

With my traditional schooling where rote learning and the application of cookie-cutter formula was ruthlessly promoted, I came into the professional world hardwired to jump to solutions when a problem was presented.

Over time, I realized that this approach would almost lead to a lot more rework down the road.

Thus, with any task, feature, activity or process in hand, I now ask questions to inject some clarity into the matter.

Yes, I asked a lot of dumb questions & ones that would risk making me feel stupid in front of a crowd.

For example, what is a web hook, what does SSO stand for, what the heck is an OTP are actual questions I’ve asked which — granted — were easily Google-able.

However, by asking those, I not only got clarity for myself but also did a service to others who were equally confused but shy to ask those questions.

Learn to ask the right questions right. Framing a question in a manner that is not leading or isn’t inflated with rhetoric is critical. It can change the course of action and ultimately, lead to better solutions than those based on pre-conceived notions.

4. Newsletters are a great way to learn.

I would often unsubscribe from newsletters after creating a test account for various products. To me, they were like those pizza flyers that were slipped under the door.

However, my perspective on them changed after reading a newsletter from Jotform which contained a product update that solved a problem I was trying to solve in one of my product lines.

That made me realize something.

Newsletters could well be my inbound learning model. Thus, I rearchitected my subscriptions from scratch. I signed up for the likes of ContentMarketingInstitute, Asana, UXCollective, TLDR, Ken Norton’s Bring the Donuts, Mailchimp and then in recent years, various Medium and Substack accounts. This opened up a whole new world to me.

I now skim through newsletters when I have a little downtime. And when something catches my eye, it gets converted into a board item.

Understanding how other products are evolving can give you amazing ideas around how you should progress with your product too.

5. Practice writing relentlessly.

My job had a lot of writing involved — from coordination emails, slack announcements, presentations, proposals and specs — thus I needed to be prolific at that.

However, I realized writing more was not a noble aspiration. Writing effectively, even it meant using simpler, jargon-free sentences, was the right way to go about it.

And writing, as an art form, virtually has no ceiling.

Thus, I wrote a lot in my spare time. I poured my heart out on Quora and LinkedIn, shared my learnings and got better at it.

If I compare my written work in 2011 and now, the difference is astonishing. It’s not that the vocabulary has grown. It’s the storytelling behind it that has become better.

The best way to write better is to:

  • read stellar content often,
  • write on your own often and
  • read what you write later to realize what you could have done better.

6. Send your angry email to yourself first.

Email can be viciously tone-deaf. When someone sends in an email, they might convey their message with a certain intention but the recipient fills in the “tone” with their own made-up assumptions and notions.

I’ve regretted sending some harsh emails in the past. I wish I could take some of them back because they didn’t help much with the relationship. I over-reacted at times and could have dealt with those situations much better.

Thus, when I get an email that causes a trigger inside me, I still type up my sarcastic, acerbic email to vent out but I don’t keep a recipient. I, then, leave it to marinate for a bit in my drafts before sending it to myself first to see how it would read.

Somebody told me that if you’re really angry on the phone, look at yourself in the mirror. You’ll instantly become conscious about your facial expressions. I feel sending an angry email to yourself has the same effect.

Without fail, when I read my angry message, I start editing lines and pruning negative sentiments out. Eventually, I crop it down to a point that it sounds far more civil while getting my point across.

7. Compete with yourself.

When I look at a presentation I developed in my early years and compare it to what I create now, I see a massive difference.

I kept myself honest by constantly looking at what the best in the business were doing. I knew that if I settled on my work quality, I’d be closing myself off to growth.

I had an intense desire to improve my presentation skills, designs and my copywriting. And the only way I knew I could improve was to look at other exceptional work.

I devoured several pitch decks, would spend time checking out Envato for design inspiration, would go through Betalist/Product Hunt regularly to fetch product ideas and followed sales copywriters like Josh Braun to understand how to write better.

An acquired skill can go stale pretty quickly. Don’t treat it as a checklist item. You have to protect it, refresh it, refine it. But it doesn’t have to be a drag. Build upon it. Have fun with it.

Lessons as a Manager

Some people don’t realize that Product Managers don’t necessarily have reports. The “Manager” title applies to the product but not the team and that’s why the “influence without authority” axiom is so widely adopted.

However, after years of working as an Individual Contributor, the transition to people management didn’t come naturally to me.

I still struggle to realize why number of years of experience is seen as a positive indicator for success at managerial roles. There is an intimidating chasm that one needs to jump over & it requires conscious adaptation.

1. Listen with your eyes & see with your ears.

When a problem presents itself, I tend to attack it and attempt to solve it. That’s what all engineering minds are trained to do I guess.

But there is a breed of problems — particularly related to people — that don’t need “solving”. At least not in the manner we expect to solve them.

In my years managing people, I came across several occasions where team members would come up to me to talk in private. There would be a grievance towards something, or a discussion regarding a problem they had, or they’d share a challenge they were facing.

My natural instinct was to cut them short and present a way out. In my head, I was easing their pain.

However, after many years of management, I realized that sometimes all your report wants is for you to listen to him/her. They want to be heard. They want you to acknowledge that what they are going through is significant and it’s hard. They want to you to understand that their failure to cope is not a sign of weakness, rather a testimony to the fact that they are human. They want you to support them, cut them some slack & say a few encouraging words.

You won’t know this unless you learn to pick up emotions, listen to inflexions in the voice and read their body language.

Sometimes the best service you can afford to a person is to listen intently and nod.

2. Onboard new hires like a mission.

Every time I slacked on onboarding a resource properly in the first few weeks, everyone suffered. The company. The new recruit. And me.

I tried multiple ways. I tried delegating the responsibility to my existing reports. I tried letting them find their own way by throwing them into the deep end. However, not only were those methods unfair and cruel, they failed to generate any motivational firepower in the new joiner. And the results were always abysmal.

Thus, I changed my ways in recent years. Now, I always prepare an onboarding deck for each direct report listing out the team goal, their personal KPIs, a bit about the product, my vision for it, the process we follow, the people they need to work with and a suggested checklist for the upcoming days which they had liberty to amend as they saw fit.

That was a gamechanger.

3. Delegating without training is like calling for a train wreck.

I used to think that delegation was all about chalking up an email and asking someone else to do a job you were asked to complete.

Whenever I’d try “black-boxing” delegation such that I was sending off work and just expecting it to be completed by a certain time, I was simply setting up everyone for failure.

I’m not implying the people who I delegated to were incompetent. Rather, without the necessary process, I was just creating a difficult situation for them to produce results in.

I realized that for effective delegation you need to:

  • Understand the capability of the resource & measure their skill deficit.
  • Cover that deficit with personal training & resources.
  • Give them a personal simulation of how you would do that task (could be a Loom video).
  • Hand it off with a clear timeline.
  • Check-in regularly to inspect progress & answer questions.
  • Give feedback quickly & precisely.
  • Appreciate work done & give generous credit.

4. Empowering others =empowering yourself

Often, I’d have to work on a repetitive, mundane task thinking that there wasn’t anyone else I could trust it with.

I’d often complain to my manager how I had to work on a particular task because “no one else could do it like me” or “it would take ages for me to explain it to someone and the deadline is too near”.

However, I realized that I was just deceiving myself.

Unless I delegated and empowered another to make the same mistakes I was afforded to make when I was starting out, I’d never be able to progress & expand my horizons.

I had to develop “trust” to allow sub-teams to work on a problem, rather than micro-manage a task by empowering them to make decisions. That didn’t mean I wasn’t giving them feedback. It was that I was on the sidelines, knowing that they’d figure it out, rather than biting my nails all the time.

5. Don’t become a “No” wall.

Saying “No” is considered a skill in this day and age.

Yes, it’s important to uphold a direction at work and ensure you prioritize the most valuable opportunities. This might mean declining requests that aren’t going to yield significant results or don’t align with the product strategy.

However, it’s also very easy to slip into a mode where your ego starts blocking ideas that don’t resonate with you or worse, don’t emanate from your efforts.

It requires patience to hear out someone with a proposal that didn’t click with you at first & then conduct due diligence to objectively evaluate its merit. There were many times that I was caught short-sighted on certain fronts because I had become over-confident on my knowledge of a certain industry.

I had to stop instinctively blocking ideas. I had to remind myself to hear people out. And then I started taking chances on people around me — some of which paid big.

If you establish yourself as the ceiling of the team’s capability & knowledge, you’ll end up failing to realize its true potential.

6. 1:1 time is motivational currency.

I see a lot of talk on LinkedIn about how people leave their managers, and not companies.

I don’t agree with that. People also leave great managers for reasons outside their control: geographic relocation, better monetary opportunities, a dream brand that they wanted to work for.

That doesn’t mean a manager’s role is any less important.

Companies use incentive structures to motivate employees to work harder. Salary compensation, bonuses, benefits. All these are thought to be motivational drivers.

However, one high-impact motivational driver is often left forgotten: 1:1 uninterrupted time with the manager. I’m not talking about a status meeting, an appraisal or a de-briefing.

In my career, I got 1:1 time with my managers where we had a combination of personal and professional discussions. We’d talk about strategy, floated wishful ideas, commented on competitive plays and noticed industry trends. We also talked about life, personal goals, family, our time at school, fond memories, funny anecdotes, regional sports & more. Yes, we consciously steered away from things that were probably going to drive personal conflict.

Those conversations humanized our bond. And every time I did the same with my reports, I realized it refreshed them. It made them open up, realize their potential and become a little less fearful to try new ideas.

Spend time with your reports as human beings. That’s slightly different from befriending them in a manner that makes accountability difficult. You don’t have to compromise on being able to demand quality work or weakening professionalism with some candid interaction. Those two things aren’t really antithetical to each other.

7. Cascade OKRs & be a follow up fox.

Objective-Key-Results (OKRs) look daunting at the start of the year.

Leads. Sales. NPS. Renewals. All those numbers in totality look formidable.

The best strategy is to break them down. Figure out what you need to achieve on a weekly basis, what initiatives will drive those results & how you plan to expand/grow those efforts over time.

However, owning an OKR as a manager is like trying to put down a picnic blanket on a windy day. As soon as you lay down one end, the wind ruthlessly blows away the other and you’re constantly struggling to keep things under wrap.

What do you do then? You start placing weights on each corner to anchor the blanket down.

Similarly, you don’t want to stop at just breaking down your KPIs into smaller components. You want to assign an accountable owner for each.

Accountable owners can be single individuals or committees who are tasked to track & obsess about a singular metric. These metrics then add up into your departmental managerial goal.

Once the ownership matrix is established, then you can lean on the cliche adage: “what gets measured, gets managed”. Follow up religiously and consistently.

Assist and collaborate with every metric owner on a daily/weekly basis. Empower them to make decisions to move the needle but be the over-arching watch tower to ensure it doesn’t conflict with other sub-teams or initiatives in play.

As you review feedback from these metric owners, you’ll know which initiatives are succeeding and which are failing allowing you to adapt & shuffle focus.

Lessons as a Product Manager

1. Get good at finding “good enough” .

Product Management is a discipline of constraints. You will never have infinite resources like human capital, money or time.

I wouldn’t say I ever had perfectionism vibes, so I had the opposite problem to tackle: I had to learn how to ship a product increment only when it gets to a point that it can hold its own.

At the same time, I had to get better at when to green-signal a build even when it had flaws.

This didn’t mean compromised quality. In fact, poor attention to details and missed edge cases can do more damage.

Instead, this meant knowing that certain rough edges weren’t worth delaying the build for.

Moreover, analysis paralysis can lead to needless inaction. Sometimes you need to put your best foot forward, see how customers react and then play off that feedback rather than air-guessing in a silo for far too long.

2. Micro-decisions on product add up.

Till this day, I’m asked to make several decisions an hour as a Product Manager. I get roped in for things like feedback on site copy, suggestions for an internal process or a customer grievance. I constantly have to call the shots.

Some of these decisions weren’t essentially fate-changers. The impact they delivered was minuscule in isolation. However, when taken in aggregation, they made a compounded difference.

For example, the decision to track a certain metric for a legacy feature over time can mean an opportunity to uncover challenges in feature discovery or usage in a year’s time from now. That micro-decision has impact in the longer run.

Thus, approaching each decision fork in the road with both a long-term and short-term mindset helped me add more value to the products I worked with.

3. Copying requires skill.

As a Product Manager, I was often asked to turn to a competitor and shamelessly “steal” a feature they released.

However, I learned the hard way that copying is harder than it sounds.

There are real challenges deeply embedded with copying:

  • reverse-engineering what they developed isn’t easy. You can’t just ask engineers to figure it out.
  • tailoring it to work for your product and audience isn’t a given. There are several ifs and buts you have to modify.
  • improving or building upon its flaws and aiming for better execution isn’t trivial.
  • your product may not be architected in a manner to organically absorb the feature you’re trying to copy (e.g. injecting a report builder into your product when the underlying data points simply don’t have the granularity or fidelity to support it)

Copying a feature requires tremendous skill. It’s not easy to just poach an idea and deploy it. Ideas aren’t plug n play.

4. Firefighting will always be louder than strategy.

One of the worst mistakes I’ve made as a PM is to get caught in the deep end of day-to-day issue resolution without giving myself space to step back and look at the larger picture.

Ex: When developing recruitment solutions like Afterhire and Talentera, I got so caught into just building and delivering them that I missed how crucial it was to build an interoperability layer so that the two systems talked to each other seamlessly.

“Firefighting” problems seem heroic. It pulls you in, are action-packed and noisy as they have someone voicing their concern. They have urgency attached to them. Thus, it’s easy to jump into that rabbit hole and sideline strategy.

But strategy needs to be on the table. Everyday. It’s the guiding light of where you’re headed. Turn that off and you might end up in a dark alley leading to a dead end.

5. Short term Roadmaps + Long term visions

I’m not a big fan of long-term 12-month roadmaps simply because I have witnessed, time and time again, that they never get executed that way and the actual ship cycle is usually different.

However, a 3 year long-term vision IS important because if that target keeps moving, you’ll end up with a hodgepodge of a product. There was a certain classifieds product (that I shall keep unnamed) that I botched badly because the vision was non-existent.

I’ve found internal-facing short-term roadmaps based on a 60–90 day sliding window in the context of a larger vision make more sense. They help ground conversations with development, sales & marketing as well.

Yes, I still do realize how longer term external-facing roadmaps remain important to keep loyal customers apprised of what problems we plan to tackle, but I prefer placing disclaimers on timelines as they could change drastically.

6. Diversify your range.

In the past decade at the company, I worked on a number of product lines. I built an automobile marketplace, an app for kids, extended a native CRM, shipped an internal sales gamification platform, led SaaS-based recruitment solutions and now, I work on virtual events.

While I don’t recommend oscillating from one product to another too quickly (you won’t be able to serve sufficient value that way), I’d definitely say exposure to different product paradigms helps in overall growth. You start cross-pollinating ideas and work on a variety of challenges.

Ex: B2C is a different beast from B2B. And sales-led requires a different approach to product-led. Internal products have their own exotic flavor. Marketplaces pose challenges you don’t see in the arena of SaaS.

I was lucky enough to experience all of this under one company banner. Diversity in product helps.

7. Wireframing is prime communication.

There’s simply no better way to communicate a user flow than wireframing or prototyping it. I was an Axure guy from the start and loved leveraging it to create product flows for specs and customer consideration.

The amount of time saved when talking over a wireframe vs a presentation has been incredible. I’ve seen clients change their mind in real-time after seeing a prototype of a much more elegant solution. People generally love to consume ideas visually and wireframing it serves as a perfect starting point.

You don’t need to be Picasso to wireframe. You just need to be able to stitch together blocks to reflect what’s in your mind. It does take practice to get better at but that cost is peanuts compared to what you’ll gain out of it.

8. Prioritization is collaborative.

It took me a while to realize that prioritization is not about the next product increment. It’s actually about people.

A product is built for a customer.
The product is developed by an engineer.
The product is defined by a Product Manager.

Yes, data is important. Informed intuition helps. But regardless of how ingenuous a product feature might be, if the people that stand to benefit decide otherwise, it may not win the priority it seemingly deserves.

What does that mean?

I learned that I can affect prioritization by changing the minds of the stakeholders in play. If I can lay down a different narrative or convince them of a new strategy or direction, the prioritization choices can easily change.

Thus, prioritization isn’t just about standalone truths, user behavior analysis & data-driven theories.

It’s about what the people — customers, stakeholders, partners, leadership, engineers, designers — collaboratively decide upon.

No, not consensus. Collaboration.

The “value”, “confidence” and “impact” of a product increment are really numbers that we assign to predict & quantify a collective’s perception.

Too heavy? I won’t push your brain on this further. Let’s move on.

9. Your job is to hunt down and kill ambiguity.

When you leave a developer with a spec, there are bound to be gaps and areas that are vaguely defined or open to interpretation (even if the acceptance criteria is well-defined). Engineers and designers have a tendency to fill up that void with their own ideas and concepts which, at times, can lead to misalignment on expectations.

As a Product Manager, I felt I was delivering the most value when I was proactively finding areas that could be misconstrued and countering it by injecting definition into them.

From specifying data fields to manipulate to wireframing edge cases, the more potholes I filled up, the better the product execution came out to be.

Ambiguity is the root of all evil in product development.

Ambiguity in what to build, how to build it, why to build it can lead to inaction, confusion and loss of motivation. Kill it…before it kills you.

Lessons as a Person

1. Be human. Be humane.

Yes, I don’t think work can be equated to “family”. Why? Truth is you don’t fire your brother from being your sibling.

However, that doesn’t mean you can’t bond with the team around you and treat them with respect.

I like to joke around with my colleagues and reports. But I’ve realized that, just like our personal relations, when you give team mates the benefit of the doubt and treat them as a human being, they will remember that & will look after your priorities.

This means not double-guessing them when they say they are feeling unwell or have a “family problem”. This means not overloading them with work on a holiday or while they are on leaves. This means refraining from talking in a condescending tone. This means not humiliating them in public.

Be human. Be humane. Treat others just like how you’d like them to treat you.

2. Deflect anxiety by moving first.

A decade ago — I would get anxious going into a client meeting alone. I had immense stage fright and had to prepare demos well in advance to be able to deliver them to a large audience in a room.

Being somewhat of an introvert (INFJ), the thought of presenting to people scared the living daylights out of me.

Then, somewhat taught me the rule of firsts to counter my anxiety.

The first thing you need to understand is when you step into a room, the power dynamic is more even that you might imagine. No party controls the proceedings in the first few seconds until someone claims it.

Thus, if you are the first to:

  • extend a handshake
  • smile broadly
  • make small talk
  • make a comment on the weather, room or situation
  • greet everyone with warmth
  • introduce yourself
  • ask a question to the audience
  • stand or sit down
  • make direct eye contact
  • address someone by their name
  • lay down ground rules of the presentation (e.g. I’ll take questions at the end)

…you allow yourself to claim the reins of the room. Granted, the power shift is minor, but that is sufficient to give you momentum to proceed and your confident initiative earns you a wider margin of error.

When you make a series of firsts, you can deflate your anxiety to appear more confident and proceed with class.

3. Gossip is inevitable.

I used to be one of those people who used to care a lot about what people thought about me, especially at the workplace. I never wanted to be a feature item on the grapevine & consciously made efforts to stay away from controversy and negative hearsay.

If you’re anything like what I was, I hate to break it to you: people will talk about you behind your back. This is especially true when you move into management.

Every time you make a decision, you push back on a request, you say “No” to a stakeholder, you wrap up an appraisal cycle, you give credit (or forget to) — chances are that someone will pass along a few comments.

They don’t necessarily have to negative. People will also admire you and might circle around positive vibes too. Nevertheless, there will be some “talk” going about outside your radar.

Yes, you’ll hear rumors floating around. You’ll be tempted to make corrections and clarifications. Your actions might get misconstrued as well.

The best course of action is to focus on what you can control. Block off the noise. Don’t go actively seeking for how people perceive you outside of work. Unless that “opinion of you” is truly inbound — sourced from an appropriate channel or protocol, or a personal 1:1, or a feedback email — you’ll be simply losing sleep if you keep trying to put tabs on your personal image in the company.

My spiritual teacher once taught me an unforgettable axiom that relates to people that guides me to this day:

Most people feel justified to judge others by their actions, but desperately want others to judge them by their intentions.

4. Don’t sacrifice your values for work.

After a spiritual awakening in 2009, I adopted a different lifestyle. I switched to going from jeans & T-shirts to a traditional shalwar kurta that’s a part of Pakistani tradition. I would don the same attire at work.

After picking up the new offer in Dubai, there was a slight hesitance when I revealed to HR that I’d like to keep wearing what I was in Pakistan. Remember this was back in 2011 — “diversity” wasn’t as cool & hip as it is now.

Even though there was no official dress code at the workplace, the “norm” was to come dressed in suits, formal shirts and pants. The back-end teams like developers had license to wear casual t-shirts and jeans but someone walking in with a shalwar kurta was unheard of. For them, it sounded like a “culture breaker”.

Long story short — we found a middle ground. The first 2 weeks, I got odd looks. But through hard work and delivering with pride (and the open-mindedness of my managers), I was quickly able to move the attention from what I was wearing to what I was doing.

I knew that if I had succumbed to conforming to a value set that I didn’t subscribe to, I’d be miserable. I’d be like a fish out of water. And that helps no one — not me, not my manager, not the company.

I always wanted to respond to those who classified my choice of clothes as a departure from the “norm” but I decided to fall back. It’s astonishing how people forget that the “norm” isn’t a law of physics — it’s a synthetic structure of the mind.

I remember receiving similar friction when I first pitched the idea of working remotely 5 years ago. Why? Because “Work from office” was the norm.

One horrific pandemic later, “work from home” is a model that the world — along with those same naysayers — has gleefully embraced to ensure business continuity.

If the norm is that fragile, then why do we attempt to fortify it with subjective, flimsy logic? Drop it already.

If you stand for something — something that doesn’t affect others, doesn’t hurt them in any way, doesn’t compromise the work you do, doesn’t throw people into turmoil — stand by it. Protect it. And if people can’t swallow that, it’s best you walk away respectfully. God’s green earth is vast. There will be other opportunities. Your values count for far more than a 9 to 5.

5. Family is “work” too.

When someone asks me why I work, I would shoehorn the phrase “for my family” quite often in my response.

However, I realized that my actions don’t align with my words.

During 2020, I found myself constantly refusing my son multiple times when he wanted to play outside because I had to work. There were several occasions where I chose work over family not because it was a do-or-die situation, but because that’s how my priority is hardwired in my head now.

I found myself to be hypocritical on that front. Constantly excusing myself from friends and family because I had a mission to attend to.

It’s only when I visited a senior colleague’s place on a Sunday and saw him passionately playing cricket with his kids that it donned upon me: I was losing the most precious time of my life — a time when I have energy and my kids have time for me. And I was giving all that time to work — which was supposedly going to earn me power to serve my kids.

I realized that unless I prioritized my family with the same intensity and intention when I submit to work in a crisis situation, I’d keep slipping into missing out on memories with them. In desperation, I started putting time for my children on my calendar as well.

Make deliberate time for your family. That’s one thing your future self is sure to thank you the most for.

6. Don’t punish yourself in the name of progress.

Every now and then, influencers urge how instead of watching Netflix & Youtube, one could learn a new skill, start up a business, absorb a new language and basically, enhance themselves in some way.

That’s admirable. And if someone can pull that off, then kudos to them.

However, when you’re already working a full day at the office, burning brain cells at a rapid clip, answering questions left, right & center, then you deserve to unplug for a while and recuperate.

Just like how gym fanatics understand the importance of rest, professionals need the same. Don’t get caught into FOMO (fear of missing out) when others glamorize working 80+ hours a week, starting 10 side gigs & flaunt a lifestyle that’s just doused in constant hustle without respite.

Human beings need rest.

Thus, like anything else, adopt moderation. It’s ok if you sleep for a while. It’s ok if you fix yourself your favorite meal. It’s ok to spend goofy time with kids. It’s ok to watch something with your spouse to unwind. It’s ok to stare at the stars and just reflect.

Allow yourself to breathe.

Final word

After a journey that lasts for 10 years, there is one feeling that shines forth more than others: gratitude.

I may not be as successful as other product managers, I might not have as many accolades to boast about, I might not have the most followers — but I realize that those remain vanity metrics against the one equalizer that counts the most: contentment.

If you can learn to be content, you gain control of how your mind perceives occurrences around you.

Again, I don’t claim that these lessons I’ve put forth apply to everyone. You certainly don’t have to agree with them. However, if there’s one thing that I’d like you to take away from this, it’s that never feel you know too much. Always remain humble in your demeanor — in the pursuit of knowledge, in your relationships, in your ideas.

Here’s a a quote that took me a while to decipher but hit hard when it did:

The more a tree bears fruit, the further its branches bend down to the ground.

Here’s to another decade.




Aatir Abdul Rauf

Director of Marketing, vFairs. Product Management enthusiast, lover of marketing, LinkedIn writer & dad of 2 boys that keep me humble.