Meet the Product Management Rock Star: Aveneel Waadhwa

Microsoft’s Product Manager Aveneel Waadhwa. | Photo from Waadhwa’s personal archive.

In today’s bustling tech landscape, Aveneel Waadhwa, a Product Manager at Microsoft on the Azure Optimization team, stands out with his future-forward, innovative, entrepreneurial spirit and global perspective.

Born and raised in New Delhi, India, Waadhwa embarked on a journey that spanned continents and diverse educational and professional terrains. His path, shaped by a deep-rooted passion for technology and a commitment to fostering community, epitomizes the modern product manager: adaptive, forward-thinking, and driven by a vision to impact the world through innovation.

Waadhwa earned his bachelor’s in Data Science & Economics from UC Berkeley and gained experience at multiple startups before joining Microsoft. At Microsoft, his impact has been significant, helping the company save millions of dollars to accelerate innovation and launching a custom GPT and plugin for Microsoft Copilot from the ground up.

Beyond his corporate role, Waadhwa is deeply committed to making a difference. He won the “Hack for Good” category at the 2021 Microsoft Hackathon, benefiting Amrita-Seattle, a charity supporting at-risk children worldwide. His team built a robust website that expanded the charity’s reach and positively impacted children’s lives. Additionally, he co-founded Aspiring Product Manager, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping aspiring product managers break into the tech industry through mentorship, guidance, and job application feedback.

In an exclusive interview, The Urban Watch sat down with Aveneel Waadhwa to delve into his career journey, the transformative impact of AI in product management, and his vision for the future of tech entrepreneurship.

Tell me a little bit about your background and where you grew up.

I grew up in New Delhi, India, and moved to the US at 18 to attend the University of California, Berkeley. I double majored in Data Science and Economics, graduating in 2021. I’ve worked at Microsoft for three years and interned as a product manager at three different startups during college. 

Were you always drawn to numbers and interested in working in this field?

My interest in numbers and data science developed over time. Initially, my interests were all over the place—I enjoyed art and history, studied Spanish for a year in college, and even took some film classes. However, my data science class became my favorite, and I also enjoyed the psychology aspect of economics—understanding how people think and make decisions.

Tell me about your life in New Delhi. Were your parents entrepreneurs?

Growing up in New Delhi was a unique experience. I was diagnosed with leukemia at age 2 and battled it until I was 7. Fortunately, my parents and grandparents, who are all doctors, identified it early. My older brother also pursued an engineering degree, which had a significant influence on me. While my parents weren’t entrepreneurs, their dedication and work ethic inspired me to start something of my own one day.

What has been the most significant personal challenge you’ve ever faced? 

Navigating the United States with uncertainty and anxiety as an immigrant has been my biggest personal challenge. Moving to a new country as a teenager and being an international student meant starting my network from scratch. Entering the job market for the first time as an immigrant was also a significant hurdle.

You’ve lived in the U.S., UK, India, Portugal. How has this multicultural experience influenced who you are today and how you approach professionalism?

Living in diverse cultures has made me open-minded, inclusive, and understanding of different work styles. It has helped me embrace various professional approaches and ways of thinking from people around the world. Empathy and good communication are essential skills for product managers, and my multicultural experiences have enabled me to develop these skills.

I interned in the UK one summer, where I reconnected with family and worked for a startup. I also completed a rigorous startup training program at the European Innovation Academy in Lisbon, Portugal, where I met professionals from various fields, including marketing and design. In this program, we formed teams of five and started a company in three weeks. It was an exciting experience as I had always wanted to create my own company and build something from the ground up.

At the Academy, we worked from 8 a.m. until late at night, culminating in pitching our projects to investors. My team created a travel app that generates real-time itineraries based on user preferences, such as soccer, jazz, or Spanish food. The app optimizes these preferences to provide sample itineraries.

This experience improved my communication skills and made me a better product manager by combining people skills with technical expertise. It also sparked my love for travel; I’ve now visited 43 countries.

Based on this experience, I was hired while still in college to work on another travel app called Welcome, which was acquired last year.

Aveneel Waadhwa in Indonesia. | Photo from Waadhwa’s personal archive.

How did your career path lead you to become a product manager at Microsoft?

I have always been passionate about innovation and entrepreneurship. I asked my professors how I could become an entrepreneur and founder. I learned that being a product manager was the perfect role for this. As a product manager, you create a roadmap, work with engineers, design products, and oversee their launch. You also collaborate with marketing and advertising teams. The opportunity to wear many hats excited me, and I knew it would prepare me for success as a founder.

During my senior year of college in 2020, I applied to and interviewed with many big tech companies. The job market was very challenging due to COVID-19, but I networked extensively to get referrals, participated in mock interviews, and prepared thoroughly for my applications. In Fall 2020, one semester before graduation, I was able to land a job offer from Microsoft.

Could you elaborate on the importance of launching a custom GPT and plugin for Microsoft Copilot?

I’m most proud of developing the custom GPT and FinOps (financial operations) plugin that I launched for Copilot, Microsoft’s AI companion. I led this product from ideation to execution, guiding it from concept to launch. Integrating with Azure enabled users to efficiently access and edit financial data directly within Microsoft Teams, eliminating the learning curve associated with navigating new financial portals and saving considerable time for internal users.

What are the advantages of Copilot? How does it differ from ChatGPT?

Copilot serves as an AI assistant embedded in various Microsoft products such as Windows, Office 365, Teams, and Excel. Unlike ChatGPT, which primarily responds to queries, Copilot acts as a proactive assistant. It can analyze documents, draft emails, and even create PowerPoint presentations. This integration into daily workflow tools enhances productivity by automating routine tasks and providing contextual assistance beyond simple question-answer interactions.

What was the process like for launching a custom plugin?

The project began during the hackathon week in September 2023 and took approximately eight months to complete from ideation to general availability launch. Microsoft’s annual hackathon provides employees with the opportunity to work on innovative projects of their choice for a week. Inspired by the success of large language models like ChatGPT, I proposed the idea during the hackathon, received approval, and successfully implemented it by the end of the semester.

What are some of the biggest challenges you face as a product manager?

As a product manager, one of the biggest challenges I face is navigating ambiguity and uncertainty while planning for the future and developing products. Often, there’s a significant information gap when entering new markets or exploring unfamiliar territories. Effectively estimating impact and resource allocation is crucial in this role, alongside the need to quickly adapt to shifting priorities and market dynamics.

Tell me about some of your most significant accomplishments.

Besides launching the Copilot plugin, my most significant accomplishment is helping my organization at Microsoft save millions of dollars. My focus has been on optimizing Azure resources through app development and product launches that facilitate cost savings for our customers. Identifying and implementing these cost-saving initiatives across various areas within a large company can have a profound impact. It not only justifies our efforts but also frees up resources that can fund innovative projects, particularly in AI, which may need more initial funding at the start of the fiscal year. This funding accelerates innovation and product development.

Another accomplishment I’m really proud of is winning the Microsoft Global Hackathon in the “Hack for Good” category back in 2021. Our project supported Amrita-Seattle, a charity that serves at-risk children and youth globally, providing nutrition, education, healthcare, and clean water solutions in the U.S., India, and Nepal. Within a week, we developed a comprehensive website for the charity to facilitate donations. I maintained ongoing communication with the charity and later presented our work to Microsoft’s leadership team, showcasing the impact of our efforts.

You’re also a co-founder of Aspiring Product Manager, helping aspiring product managers break into tech. Tell me more about the organization, your role there, and some key advice for aspiring product managers.

I co-founded Aspiring Product Manager with two friends who are PMs at Coinbase, aiming to support aspiring product managers, especially college students, in breaking into the tech industry. Securing a product management role straight out of college can be challenging, mainly since, historically, many startups only hired PMs once they reached a team size of 35 or 40 employees. However, smaller companies are now beginning to hire PMs earlier in their growth stages as well.

Our organization serves as a valuable resource, focusing on helping aspiring PMs understand the product management interview process. The most common question we receive is what students should study in college to become a product manager. We recommend focusing on computer science and data science, with additional coursework in entrepreneurship and psychology to understand user behavior and enhance technical skills.

As a non-profit volunteer initiative, we started on LinkedIn and have since expanded to include a newsletter. We primarily cater to college students, offering resources and community support. While we have previously held in-person meetings, our resources are now primarily accessible online. Our initiative welcomes anyone interested in product management, and membership is free of charge as we focus on giving back to the community and supporting aspiring product managers in their career journeys.

What trends do you think will most impact the technology industry in the next five years?

For any new tech company, investing in technologies such as AI is essential. Most companies want to work on anything new as fast as possible. It’s a race for innovation. Soon, we will see AI everywhere in our daily lives. For the next few years, it will only help innovation. The government is also investing in AI, underscoring its growing importance. For product managers and young ambitious people in tech, we always want to be working with cutting-edge tech. The goal is to make our lives better and more efficient. Every product manager wants to make their products better. AI tools are making our lives easier, helping us focus on big decision-making rather than menial tasks. 

How is AI changing the field for product managers?

As outlined in my op-ed, AI is revolutionizing the day-to-day tasks of product managers, making their jobs easier and allowing them to focus on critical priorities. This new wave of AI will make product managers more crucial than ever. PMs are accountable for making responsible decisions regardless of the product they own, but they also hold the power to shape the future of AI products and, in turn, the future of our world. With great power comes great responsibility, which should make Product Managers feel critical, influential, and responsible for the ethical use of AI in their work. As PMs don’t spend hours writing product requirement documents (PRDs) and can automatically generate analytics dashboards with suggested metrics, they can devote more time to understanding customer needs, developing product vision and strategy, building customer empathy, and leading cross-functional teams.

What’s your ultimate career goal? 

My ultimate career goal is to start my own company and lead a team, drawing from my experiences at Microsoft and startups. I aim to continue working in AI, focusing on cutting-edge technologies. I have a strong interest in the travel space and the coffee industry and a passion for healthcare. These areas align with my ambitions to innovate and make a meaningful impact in diverse sectors.

Aveneel Waadhwa in Guatemala. | Photo from Waadhwa’s personal archive.

What do you like to do for fun in your spare time?

I enjoy traveling whenever possible, trekking, and playing and watching soccer. I’m also a massive cinema buff. On Saturdays, I frequently host coffee events in New York City called “Customs,” where I bring friends and network with others to build community. I hope to expand these events into public gatherings in the future.

You can follow Aveneel Waadhwa on LinkedIn. 

Sign up for his Aspiring PM Newsletter. 

Read his op-ed on how AI will reshape product management. 

Demi Vitkute

Co-Founder & Editor

Demi Vitkute is a New York-based journalist and editor who’s passionate about reporting on the fashion industry, its problems, and its changemakers. She’s a founder of The Urban Watch Magazine and has written for The Washington Post, Inside Hook, and Promo Magazine, among others. She is a graduate of Columbia Journalism School and Emerson College.

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