Name: Kunaal Khilnani | Designation: Product Manager | Company: Microsoft | Place: Atlanta, Georgia
(September 12, 2023) Kunaal Khilnani has a penchant for building innovative solutions that bridge technology and user needs. Although he was born and raised in the vibrant city of Chennai, his journey has taken him halfway across the globe to Atlanta, Georgia.
After finishing his undergraduate studies in Information Technology, Kunaal worked for about five years as a Program Manager at Amazon, followed by a year at Deloitte. These roles allowed him to refine his product management skills. At Amazon, he contributed to expanding and diversifying the product catalogue, while at Deloitte, he was involved in launching a cyber-security product for automobile manufacturers. These experiences, all in India, prepared him for his future endeavours.
Flight of career advancement
In 2021, to advance his career, Kunaal went on to pursue a master’s degree in product management from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The rigorous programme equipped him with the tools, methodologies, and frameworks essential for understanding user needs, market dynamics, and the art of launching successful products.
“Currently, I work as a Product Manager at Microsoft in Atlanta, Georgia. Here, I lead the design and development of next-gen Artificial Intelligence (AI) feedback systems, ensuring we are not just creating products but refining and evolving them based on genuine customer feedback. This role has allowed me to work at the intersection of technology and user experience, ensuring that our products resonate deeply with our audience,” Kunaal shares.
Happy to be a mentor
Reflecting on his career, Kunaal finds that he encountered a significant challenge, and that was the absence of mentors in his family or friend network to guide him in his journey. “I understand others are facing a similar situation to what I once did,” he shares, “so I’ve been mentoring those aspiring to enter the tech industry as program or product managers.”
Recently, Kunaal gained recognition as an industry expert through Criya, a Y-combinator-funded platform. He has now partnered with them to offer his mentorship services for free. “I’m eager to contribute to the community, and anyone seeking guidance is welcome to reach out,” he says with a smile.
Kunaal has played a vital role in ideating, developing, and launching various tools and services in every organisation that he’s been a part of, receiving consistent recognition.
He holds a special fondness for a significant milestone. “During my tenure at Proofpoint, a leading SaaS company in Sunnyvale, California, before joining Microsoft, I spearheaded the development of an AI-driven email threat response product. This played a pivotal role in protecting companies from annual financial losses exceeding USD 200 million,” he reveals. “I hold this project dear, considering that according to the FBI, Business Email Compromise (BEC) attacks, an email-based cyber-attack has resulted in losses surpassing USD 50 billion from 2013 to 2022, with USD 2.7 billion lost in 2022 alone.”
Adapting to work culture in the US
When Kunaal relocated to the US, he faced the challenge of adapting to a new work environment, diverse communication styles, and building trust with a varied team, all part of his cultural transition. The rapid tech advancements in his field brought challenges, leading to self-doubt about keeping up. Yet, through determination and continuous learning, he not only stayed current but also pioneered industry-standard projects.
Reflecting on challenges, Kunaal finds a deep sense of accomplishment. He believes they’ve propelled his career, enriched his professional journey, and instilled resilience, adaptability, and self-awareness in him and his colleagues. In the constantly changing work and life landscape, success often favours those adept at managing change, not just the strongest or most intelligent,” he remarks, underscoring how evolving perspectives have enriched his life.
Elevating life through behavioural change
One of the personal challenges Kunaal faced early in his career was his introverted nature. “As someone who naturally gravitated towards solitude and introspection, stepping into a Product Manager role posed a unique challenge. The position demanded forging strong relationships with diverse teams, leading discussions, and advocating for product visions,” he tells. He overcame this challenge through a ‘conscious effort of stepping out of his comfort zone and working on self-awareness’.
With time, he learned to harness the strengths of his introverted nature, such as deep listening and thoughtful analysis, while also building the interpersonal skills that were crucial to his job role.
Goals for future
With a passion for entrepreneurship, Kunaal mentions: “Having watched my father run his business from a young age, the seed of entrepreneurship was sown in me early on. I’m deeply passionate about the potential of artificial intelligence and its transformative power in reshaping industries and solving previously intractable problems – from enhancing food production and combating climate change to advancing medical solutions for ailments like cancer. Driven by an entrepreneurial spirit, I ultimately aim to establish my own AI startup.”
A right balance
The product manager benefits from a three-hour time difference between the east and west coasts since a significant part of his team is based in Seattle. He works in a flexible, hybrid environment, spending two days at the office for collaboration and bonding. For the remaining three days, he works from home, leveraging the focused environment. His workday usually starts at 10 AM, addressing priorities, including product reviews, team meetings, and focused individual work, while also preparing for the next day before signing off.
Drawing nourishment from me-time
“Post-work, you’d find me cooking meals for dinner and also for the following afternoon. Beyond cooking, I cherish my time. Whether it’s unwinding with a workout session, walks, catching up on a show, or engaging in heartfelt conversations with my family and friends in India – these moments help me strike a balance between my professional and personal worlds,” he says.
Of late, he has also been dedicating time to writing articles or blogs, sharing insights and reflections on new learnings with people in his network.
“In a post-COVID world where professional and personal boundaries can blur, especially in tech roles, achieving balance is vital for mental well-being and sustained professional productivity,” says Kunaal, who actively strives for this equilibrium. “Work, with its constant demands, will persist. However, moments with family and friends are fleeting,” he remarks, stressing on the importance of prioritising family and friends, as their moments and memories are irreplaceable.
With a love for hiking and nature, the Chennai boy in Atlanta frequently escapes the urban hustle for serene getaways. He dedicates weekends and vacation days to immerse himself in nature’s tranquillity. “With Fall season coming up, I eagerly look forward to the vibrant weather that transforms the landscape into a tapestry of oranges, yellows, and reds, making it my favorite time of the year for hiking,” he signs off.
- Connect with Kunaal Khilnani on LinkedIn