“That’s the single thing I would optimize for in your career—surrounding yourself with people who will continue to challenge you and care enough to enable your growth!”
FEBRUARY 27, 2021 | BY LILY ZHU
Mili Dutta is a Product Manager at Facebook, with previous PM/TPM experience at Zillow Group (Trulia) and Google. She graduated from Duke University in 2012, majoring in Computer Science with a Markets & Management certificate. She lives in San Francisco with her husband and puppy (who sometimes "Zoom bombs" her video calls unexpectedly).
Looking back at your time at Duke, what are you most thankful for?
By far I’m most thankful for my fellow classmates—beyond making friendships of a lifetime I learned so much from those around me. Of course this happened in the formal classroom setting (class discussions, projects, etc.), but even more importantly it was inspiring to see all the passion and talent at Duke—the exposure to so many different perspectives, backgrounds, and interests.
What was your experience like as a female Computer Science major at Duke navigating the tech space?
I’ll caveat that this was just my personal experience. The Computer Science department was much smaller at the time, with around 80 people graduating and less than 20% women. One thing that really struck me was how far behind I was from other classmates when I took my first intro to CS class where it was clear that a lot of my classmates had been coding for years (mostly males) and I felt like an outsider (I had never even heard of World of Warcraft!). Even though I felt behind from the start, I was determined that my passion and goal to work in tech would get me through—luckily I had amazing classmates who I learned so much from along the way (lots of late nights in The Link) and great professors (like Professor Susan Rodger and Owen Astrachan). In retrospect, I wish that the department had more proactively realized that at least in the US there were fewer women entering Computer Science and helped try to reduce that initial gap (with more tutoring options, career navigation, etc.). That said, when chatting with recent CS grads it sounds like the increase in people interested in the major has led to so many more resources, which is great!
How did you decide that you wanted to go into product management as opposed to software engineering or other roles in tech? How do you leverage your technical background as a product manager?
My favorite question when hiring Product Managers is learning about their background, because everyone has such unique paths to get to their current role. When I was graduating from Duke, the fact that “Product Management” was a career path wasn’t even on my radar (there were far less programs for new grads). In my head, I wanted to solve problems through technology and the end goal was to be an entrepreneur, or work at a startup. I knew that coding on a daily basis was not a good fit for me, but that I wanted a role that was an intersection between the two and applied to a new grad program at Google. At Google, I learned about Product Management (PM) and knew it was a great fit for me and the type of work that I enjoyed. I’ve found my technical background to be incredibly helpful, in some roles more than others. It has helped me better understand how things work and the possibilities for building something, helped translate as needed between various functions (e.g. Design and Engineering), etc. That said, it’s definitely not a requirement—I highly recommend reading Deborah Liu’s “What Happened to Women in Product”, that goes into the background of how computer science became a requirement at some companies, and the impact on the number of women in the role.
What beginner-friendly projects do you recommend to gain experience in product management? Honestly, the simplest exercise you can do to practice your “product sense” is to look at a product you love or use often, and go through the full exercise of how you would improve it. Maybe you’ll even end up building it! As an aside, for products you love, find the Product Managers who built them and look up articles they’ve written or podcasts they’ve interviewed for to learn from them and how they think about building a product.
What led you to transition from Google to Trulia to your current role at Facebook? How have your experiences at these different companies helped you grow as a product manager?
I could spend a whole hour on this topic since I’m so incredibly grateful to have had each experience, and learned so much at each company. At the end of the day each of my transitions optimized for 1) mission-driven company and product I cared about and 2) learning and growth from the people surrounding me. Google taught me the rigor of creating excellent products, Trulia taught me the breadth and love for working on products end-to-end (I loved working at a small company), and Facebook is teaching me the importance of flexible innovation and the art of strategy (and being a manager). I’m constantly in awe and inspired by those that I work with. That’s the single thing I would optimize for in your career—surrounding yourself with people who will continue to challenge you and care enough to enable your growth!
What are your favorite things to do or places to visit in the San Francisco Bay Area?
I’ve lived in San Francisco for almost 10 years now—which is crazy how fast time flies. I love that in a single day you can go from your favorite restaurant (in walking distance) to the beach to the mountains. There’s so much to offer, and I really love my community here. Some favorites:
Day trips to Sonoma/Napa Valley, Point Reyes, Tamalpais National Park, Stinson Beach, and so many more
Park days at the numerous beautiful parks in San Francisco and East Bay
Saturday or Sunday mornings walking around the neighborhood and grabbing a pastry (from BlackJet, Stonemill Matcha, Tartine, etc.)
Cellarmaker Pizza and Outer Orbit pinball nights with friends! (pre-pandemic)