Embracing the Power of Teams: an Interview with Google Flights PM Nabil Naghdy

Written by Published in Conference, Interviews, Product Management

Google Product Manager Nabil Naghdy is a speaker for Product Management Festival 2017. From DJ to PM lead for Google Flights, Nabil has had to work with many types of personalities and teams in his career. He shares with us his journey from DJ to founding 2 startups, and why it’s so important for product managers to not underestimate the power of effective team decision making.

You ran Google Maps Monetization and now lead Google Flights. Previously you founded 2 startups. Could you tell us a bit about your professional journey? Do you think you’ll form another startup?

I have always loved having my own business. When I was younger, I had a DJ-ing business, imported a variety of goods from China and sold them online, and started an eBay drop-off store with close friends. However, the first profitable business came after an internship at eBay. I realised how lucrative online advertising was, and thought I could easily build my own ad network. So in my final year of university, I started an ad network called Triana Global.

This led to an acquisition by ShopIt (now part of Atrinsic), an ecommerce service based out of Los Angeles, but unfortunately it coincided with the 2008 global financial crisis. After a short stint as a high frequency forex trader, I started another online ad network for Asia based in Singapore. After 6 months, an opportunity with Google had opened up and we were expecting our first child, so decided to move back to Australia if I got the job at Google. Things worked out, and we ended up moving to Sydney.

With my background in online advertising, I found a suitable role working as a PM in the Google Maps monetization team based in Sydney.

Building an ad product at Google is an eye opening experience. A feature that generates $100 million is a rounding error in comparison to the $100 billion in annual ad revenue! This means you have to be focused on only the most impactful and scalable ideas.

After 5 years in Sydney, our family wanted a change of scenery and decided to move to Zurich, and I became the PM for Google Flights, which was a product I already loved to use.

As for starting another company, I’m always on the lookout for opportunities to start something new. It may not happen in the next few years, but I definitely see myself eventually going back into the startup environment.

Like many Google products, Flights has such a simple, clean UI but I know there must be a lot going on under the hood. What is something unexpectedly difficult about the product that you had to handle that users might take for granted?

Google Flights users can be bucketed into two distinct categories. [1] Regular travellers who go on holiday approximately once a year, and [2] power users who book complicated itineraries every week. The former get nervous, anxious, and generally find the flight booking process the most stressful part of travel planning, while the latter love trawling through huge amounts of data to find just the right flight.

A difficult challenge our team faces is designing for the regular user, while still providing entry points to our more powerful tools. We are constantly tinkering to make our tools accessible to a wider user base without diminishing the functionality for power users.

You led the transition when your company, Triana Global, was acquired by Shopit.com a few years ago. How was the transition for you and the team?

Triana Global was a small team of 8 people, distributed across APAC. My co-founder and I were based out of my living room in Wollongong, Australia. ShopIt.com was our largest advertiser, and thought rather than continue to purchase advertising, they would just buy the entire ad network. We saw the acquisition as the magic bullet to 100x our business.

The acquisition process took longer than anticipated (>6 months). I had no formal business background, so while going through due diligence, I found myself Googling phrases like ‘EBITDA’ to help finalise the required documents. During due diligence, we made the mistake of putting some fundamental aspects of our business into a holding pattern (e.g. hiring, growth, etc.). This holding pattern led us to miss out on important opportunities with key partners (e.g. Zynga).

Once the acquisition closed, my co-founder and I moved to LA and joined ShopIt.com. After the first few weeks, we realised the magic bullet to grow the network didn’t exist, and that it was still in our court to push the company forward.

You will be speaking at PMF on effective team decision making. It’s something PMs always need to facilitate/lead, but you actually speak on the topic. How did this become an area of passion for you?

Decision making is an important part of what a PM does, and quite often, how you make decisions is as important as the decision itself. For example, a dictatorial decision making process can result in isolation of various functions, which results in a reduction in morale, which leads to disunity, and ends up deteriorating the entire product.

The premise of the presentation is that it’s easier to revert a bad decision from a united team, than it is to re-connect or motivate a divided team. This then leads into a framework of 5 steps of inclusive decision making.

I’ve found that an inclusive decision making process creates a team of people that trust each other and overall enjoy working together, which then results in a productive environment where great products are made.

How often do you get feature requests on Maps and Flights from friends and family? 🙂

It’s a mixed bag. My brother is an investment banker who flies around 200 times per year. He tends to give me very specific and niche Google Flights feature requests, which involve some sort of travelling salesman optimization, combined with advanced filtering for lie flat beds, while maximising frequent flyer points.

With Google Maps, I often had friends (and friends of friends) reach out and ask “how can I get my business on the Google.” Luckily, this process has become much simpler in recent years.

Meet Nabil at this year’s Product Management Festival in November. He will be speaking on the fundamentals of effective team decision making, which will enable Product Managers to empower and lead high-performing cross-functional teams. For more information on this and other topics at PMF ‘17, see our event schedule.

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