Valeriia Verkhovykh: Leading the Way in Product Development and Overcoming Challenges

Valeriia Verkhovykh

Valeriia Verkhovykh, a passionate and experienced product leader, has emerged as a strong player in the tech industry with a remarkable story to tell. For over 10 years, she has been involved in international deep tech startups and a leading international IT company—Yandex. As a product manager, she has made important contributions to cutting-edge industries such as robotics, quantum physics, and wearable electronics. At her last job as Head of Product for robotic delivery at Yandex Self-Driving Group, Valeriia helped the already established leader in unmanned technologies to become one of the most commercially successful robotic service providers.

Valeriia joined Yandex in 2018, initially as the Product Manager of Yandex Maps Editor, Russia’s most popular maps service with 85+ million active global users a month. She then transitioned to become the Product Manager at Yandex Auto. In 2020, she was appointed as the Head of Product for the Yandex Self-Driving team, coinciding with the first version of the robot driving along a single street in Moscow. She was responsible for the first commercial launch in Moscow, which involved only a few robots. Since then, under Ms. Verkhovykh’s leadership, the Robotics team has successfully completed over 150,000 deliveries in the United States, South Korea, Israel and the UAE in just one and a half years under her management.

Valeriia’s prominent role in the Yandex-Self Driving group led her and her team to initiate a collaborative project with Grubhub at Ohio State University, which boasts the largest campus fleet in the world consisting of 50 robots. Additionally, they partnered with the University of Arizona, which operates a fleet of 30 robots. Within just three months, these joint efforts resulted in a remarkable number of  deliveries per day.

Valeriia’s educational background in physics, obtained from renowned institutions like Lomonosov Moscow State University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has equipped her with a scientific mindset, broad perspective on collaboration and innovation. Her background has enabled her to address complex technical problems at the highest level of product development throughout her career. As a sign of recognition of her professional  achievements, Valeriia was admitted to the Stanford Executive Program. 

Let’s delve into her professional journey and discover the insights she gained along the way.

Q: What are some of your areas of expertise?

I have achieved significant accomplishments and gained expertise in launching, managing, and growing innovative products, as well as overseeing complex high-tech projects rooted in cutting-edge scientific research. With my technical background, I possess a unique advantage in managing projects that involve diverse teams and tasks. As the Founder and CEO of MSU Lomonosov Mentors Club, I successfully transformed it into a comprehensive platform that fosters graduate projects and nurtures an alumni business community. Additionally, in my role as the Business Development Manager at Dauria Aerospace, I played a pivotal role in establishing Russia’s first privately owned and operated satellite manufacturing company. During my tenure as a Project Manager at the Russian Quantum Center, I made significant contribution to facilitate the development and commercialization of quantum technologies. Later, as the Head of Customer Experience at Nimb, I led the team responsible for delivering a smart ring with a panic button, revolutionizing personal safety. Furthermore, I served as a Product Manager at Yandex, where I oversaw the development of the Maps Editor and Yandex.Auto. Most recently, as the Head of Product for Robotic Delivery at the Yandex Self-Driving Group, I led the strategic planning and execution of robotic delivery initiatives. 

These diverse roles and experiences have provided me with a comprehensive skill set and a deep understanding of managing complex deep tech projects and driving product growth. To manage such complex projects effectively, I embrace a non-linear approach to people management, which involves transforming individuals into successful contributors. I espouse a product-oriented mindset when working with people, viewing colleagues as valuable assets deserving of robust support. Throughout my career, I’ve recognized the importance of understanding people’s motivations and acknowledging their unique growth trajectories to build high-performing teams. This understanding facilitated my swift advancement from a Product Manager to the Head of Product at Yandex. These skills have been invaluable in overseeing multiple large departments under my direct supervision

Q: How do you apply your scientific mindset and social commitment to drive innovative product growth?

Throughout my academic and professional journey, I have leveraged my scientific mindset and social commitment to drive innovative product growth, yielding remarkable results. By combining critical thinking, leadership skills, and a passion for emerging technologies, I have been able to make a tangible impact in various domains, demonstrating the power of scientific inquiry and social responsibility in shaping a better future.

As a young student, I embraced numerous leadership roles, including serving as the vice chair of the MSU Student Union. In this position, I organized prestigious national and global events, such as the International Festival of Science in Moscow and the Lomonosov Science Forum. These initiatives not only showcased scientific advancements but also provided a platform for meaningful discussions and collaborations among leading experts and government officials.

My leadership experiences at the university level laid the foundation for a wider impact. Working alongside the newly formed nationwide student organization, the “Russian Student Union,” I spearheaded transformative changes nationally. Through advocacy work and reforms, I contributed to reshaping student governance and enhancing the overall educational experience across the country. 

This invaluable experience nurtured my leadership skills and exposed me to the intricacies of driving meaningful change on a large scale.

Building upon my academic pursuits, I embraced opportunities to broaden my knowledge and technical expertise. Studying at Skoltech, I delved into the space industry, power markets, and global energy decisions, expanding my understanding of these critical fields. A semester at MIT further augmented my knowledge of space science, technologies, and policy, igniting new avenues for potential future work.

My commitment to driving technological advancements led me to Dauria Aerospace, where I embarked on a career in business development. In this role, I played a pivotal part in establishing and developing the Aerospace Engineering Lab at Moscow State University. My responsibilities ranged from negotiating with university authorities to selecting staff, organizing lab kickoff events, and collaborating with World Skills Russia to create an Aerospace Engineering Junior Skills track. These efforts fostered collaborations and laid the groundwork for innovative research and product development in the field of aerospace engineering.

Continuing my journey, I joined the Russian Quantum Center, immersing myself in projects that spanned fundamental theory to real-world applications. Here, my scientific mindset and business acumen came into play as I contributed to projects involving high-quality solid photodetectors and energy harvesting for low-power applications based on spin diode technology. My role encompassed assisting the CEO with critical business processes, fundraising endeavors, and marketing strategies, facilitating the commercialization of groundbreaking sensor technologies.

Moreover, I have always been driven by a desire to improve the world and positively impact people’s lives. This passion led me to Nimb, a startup focused on developing a smart ring with an alert button for emergency situations. Through my involvement in customer development and research, I discovered a clear need for this solution among individuals with pre-existing health issues. By combining my scientific mindset with effective communication skills, I facilitated rapid data collection, enabling the identification of hypotheses and solutions for the next stages of the product. Fast and reliable communication became paramount in ensuring that users felt heard and responded to promptly during emergency situations.

Q: How did your role in the Nimb project align with your approach of utilizing technology to solve real-life problems, and what specific contributions did you make to support this idea?

Nimb, a ring with a panic button that sends an emergency alert to first responders and emergency contacts, presented a unique opportunity for me to put my approach to utilizing technology in real-life problem-solving into action. Throughout my involvement in the project, I played a pivotal role in supporting this idea by undertaking various initiatives that directly contributed to the successful implementation of our vision.

One of my key responsibilities was organizing pre-launch product UX testing and conducting targeted user research. By engaging with potential users and gathering their feedback, we gained valuable insights into their needs, preferences, and pain points. This information played a crucial role in shaping our product development process, ensuring that we could address real-world problems effectively and deliver an exceptional user experience.

Another crucial aspect we focused on for the project is emergency response time. Pressing the button on the ring is significantly faster than on the smartphone, which is of utmost importance when it comes to not just reaction response but to saving someone’s life. This is where client service plays a vital role, and stability becomes crucial. We needed to ensure that we are trusted in the critical moments when someone may need help. Our priority was to address clients’ concerns promptly and without any delays, taking them more than seriously. Through the implementation of best practices and leveraging appropriate technologies, we ensured that our users receive prompt assistance and solutions.

To drive continuous improvement, I implemented a data-driven approach for prioritizing UX changes and new features. By analyzing user data and feedback, we were able to identify areas for improvement and allocate resources effectively. This approach allowed us to make informed decisions regarding UX changes and prioritize the backlog of new features, ensuring that our product remained relevant and aligned with user expectations.

I was looking for options for a more scalable application, so I turned to the topic of smart cities. That’s why I came across competitions and contests. Through my efforts, the Nimb team successfully competed and achieved significant recognition. Notably, we won the “Safe Cities” call for solutions at the Smart City Expo World Congress in 2017 (Spain), demonstrating the effectiveness of our product in enhancing safety. Additionally, our team secured a finalist position in the Xprize Women’s Safety competition in 2018 (USA-India), further validating the impact and relevance of our solution in addressing real-world challenges.

Q: There are a lot of conversations about non-linear management, what role it took in your product management career?

Nonlinear management has played a pivotal role in my product management career, empowering me to cultivate more effective team relationships and foster an adaptive organizational culture. In essence, non-linear management aims to enhance team flexibility and adaptability through collaboration and decentralized decision-making. The ultimate objective is to develop teams that can readily adapt to changing circumstances and navigate uncertainty.

In my role as a Head of Product at Yandex, I have applied non-linear management principles to effectively collaborate with the geographically dispersed team, comprised of over 20+ members spread across multiple locations, including Russia, Serbia, USA, South Korea, Israel, and UAE. This distributed setup necessitated a non-linear management approach that acknowledged the complexities and challenges of managing remote teams. By leveraging non-linear management principles, I fostered open communication, empowered team members to take ownership of their roles, and encouraged autonomy and decision-making at various levels. This approach facilitated seamless collaboration, enabling team members to contribute their unique perspectives and expertise, resulting in improved productivity and project success.

Non-linear management principles facilitated efficient decision-making, streamlined processes, and ultimately led to the successful delivery of innovative products and solutions.By considering the unit economics, daily operations, and expansion into new countries, I was able to adopt a non-linear perspective that encompassed a wider range of factors impacting success. This approach allowed me to identify and capitalize on non-linear growth opportunities, adapt strategies as needed, and optimize operations to achieve exceptional results. Over the course of two years, our efforts resulted in more than 150,000 deliveries in the United States, South Korea, and Israel, showcasing the effectiveness of the non-linear management approach in driving tangible commercial outcomes.

As a  leader, I have had to find common ground between teams while respecting their culture. This has been one of the most enriching professional experiences of my career, and I believe it has provided me with a wealth of knowledge in dealing with people and groups, emphasizing respect and care to maximize their performance.

Q: Can you share a specific example of a project where you applied classic approaches to product development and closely interacted with users?

The Nimb project that I mentioned previously is indeed one of those projects. It played a pivotal role in sharpening my product management skills and ultimately paved the way for my career at Yandex.

As a Product Manager at Yandex.Auto, I managed a software development team and oversaw the creation and launch of new embedded solutions. I successfully negotiated partnerships with Chinese and South Korean contractors, collaborated with original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), and developed predictive maintenance services for connected car systems. After that, I moved on to the Maps Editor project at Yandex, where I played a leading role in introducing an open recommendation system for editing Yandex maps. This initiative proved successful, resulting in users could specify the maps themselves, and making Yandex maps currently one of the most accurate in the world.

When I became Head of Product at Yandex Self-Driving Group, I set a goal of transforming unmanned courier services, which were often regarded as a mere public stunt, into a legitimate business venture. Many teams in my industry aimed to achieve speed, affordability, and quality without taking into account the end user. However, when assessing the unit economics of unmanned courier services, it is crucial to consider that you are engaging with the end user who receives coffee deliveries. To transform unmanned couriers from being just fancy robots to a commercially viable product, I conducted a wealth of user research, both qualitative and quantitative. The results were truly remarkable: we successfully implemented robotic commercial deliveries from restaurants and grocery stores in Moscow and Innopolis through the Yandex Eats food delivery service.

After a while, I spearheaded the world’s first robotic parcel delivery service by partnering with over 30 branches of Russian Post across Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Innopolis. These robots were developed after extensive product research and development. The square shape of the cargo area was ideally suited to meet Russian Post shipping standards, and the replaceable battery ensured continuous operation. Upon receiving a request, post office employees loaded the parcel into the robot and indicated the delivery address in the system. The package was delivered to the entrance of the building. While the robot was en route, the user could track its location on the map in the application, and upon the robot’s arrival, the user received a notification that their parcel could be picked up. The user also received a verification code via SMS that had to be entered in the app, after which the robot opened the lid, allowing the parcel to be collected. The verification code acted as a digital signature, confirming that the recipient had received their parcel and ensuring the security of items sent by post.

I successfully launched a robot delivery project in partnership with Grubhub at Ohio State University and the University of Arizona. In an incredibly short three-month timeframe, we achieved an outstanding daily delivery volume of over 1,000 packages. Moreover, I oversaw pilot deliveries from grocery stores in Tel Aviv, Israel, and Godeok, Seoul. These initiatives not only showcased my ability to leverage classic product development methodologies but also highlighted my commitment to closely engage with users, address their needs, and deliver innovative solutions.

Q: What strategies do you employ to motivate your team members in long-term projects?

Usually, when we launched a new project, I would initiate conversations with each team member to understand their individual motivations. It’s crucial to make sure that you take the time to hear every team member and ensure that the communication between everyone matches the expectations. When implementing this strategy, I ensure that every team member understands the importance of their contributions and how their work aligns with the larger goals of the project. Recognizing individual achievements and providing regular feedback also plays a significant role in maintaining motivation. Additionally, I encourage open and transparent communication, allowing team members to voice their concerns, share ideas, and actively participate in decision-making processes. By fostering a supportive and collaborative environment, team members feel valued and motivated to excel in their roles.

Q: Can you share an example of a project where you successfully brought together people from different backgrounds to accomplish something great?

Absolutely! One particular example comes from my experience at the Yandex Self-Driving Group. I led a distributed team of 20+ members spread across the USA, South Korea, Israel, and the UAE. This cross-functional team consisted of PMs, client app and robotic API developers, hardware and software QA engineers, PR and business development team members, as well as on-site maintenance teams and remote control center operators. Managing a team that is geographically diverse and composed of professionals from various disciplines requires implementing effective coordination and communication strategies. Even a short team call can help a lot in ensuring that everyone is on the same page. It’s all about the details, as they contribute to a more connected team and enable better and faster performance. These tactics ultimately helped me overcome numerous challenges along the way.

Q: How do you navigate the challenges and longer development cycles typically associated with the hardware industry?

First of all, it is absolutely crucial to have an expert in manufacturing in the team. Without one, there is a risk of spending excessive time and money before actually commencing the production of a viable product. It is also essential to implement precise master schedule control by conducting weekly overall reviews and setting milestones. I strongly advise scheduling deliverable checks no later than every two months to maintain control and monitor progress.

Another useful approach is to incorporate a separate validation schedule into the development cycle. It’s important to account for unexpected delays or deviations since validation rarely goes as planned. Allowing for some extra time can help mitigate potential setbacks.

Whenever feasible, having a backup plan for key suppliers can provide significant leverage and reduce pressure. This ensures that if any issues arise with the primary supplier, alternative options are readily available.

Q: How do you navigate the constraints of time and budget in hardware development projects?

Firstly, it is essential to incorporate the budget as an integral part of each milestone deliverable. This ensures that financial considerations are accounted for at every stage of the project. Additionally, I always allocate an extra 10-15% of the budget as a contingency fund. This additional amount provides a buffer for unexpected expenses that may arise during the course of the project. As for time constraints, they are often driven by unforeseen validation issues, logistics failures, and poor supplier performance. To address these challenges, it is crucial to include at least one loop of validation and fixes in the project schedule. This allows for the identification and resolution of any issues that may arise during the validation process.Moreover, the performance of the Purchasing team plays a vital role in avoiding delays caused by logistics issues and ensuring satisfactory supplier performance. A proactive and efficient Purchasing team can effectively manage logistics and maintain strong relationships with suppliers, minimizing the impact of potential disruptions.

Yet, it is important not to get carried away with development. The project should be kept simple and scalable. It is crucial to remember that modifications may still be required after mass production, and the design should allow for cost-effective and timely changes with the assistance of service companies. Furthermore, it is important to stay updated with industry developments. There is a constant pursuit of developing new materials that are cost-effective to produce. It is essential to continuously monitor these developments as they have the potential to reshape the entire industry, potentially leaving you behind.

Q: What challenges exist in the hardware industry, and do you have suggestions on how to mitigate them?

One of the main challenges is the lengthy development cycle. Choosing a factory with the appropriate technology for production and negotiating prices are significant steps that require a considerable amount of time. Having an industry expert on board usually helps mitigating this problem.

Hardware presents unique challenges compared to IT when it comes to external factors such as COVID-19. These factors can significantly prolong the production process, resulting in operational losses that are not typically encountered when dealing with software products.

Component availability is also a major obstacle. It is crucial to consider this aspect during the design phase. While it may be challenging to predict shortages two to three years in advance, it is beneficial to check with the vendor for estimated End-of-Life dates for key components. This information can help ensure the availability of necessary parts throughout the project’s lifecycle.

Cost is another significant challenge. While there is no definitive recipe for solving this puzzle, I would suggest centralizing requirements and cost control within a single entity. Having these responsibilities in one place allows for faster decision-making, streamlining the process and potentially reducing costs.

As mentioned earlier, timing constraints can be driven by unexpected validation issues, logistics failures, and poor supplier performance. To mitigate these challenges, incorporating at least one loop of validation and fixes in the project schedule is essential. This helps identify and address any issues that arise during the validation process.

Quality is also a critical aspect that must not be overlooked. It is vital to thoroughly check the Engineering Verification Test (EVT), Design Verification Test (DVT), and Production Verification Test (PVT) samples to ensure they meet the project requirements. Additionally, conducting sufficient durability testing is necessary to meet warranty specifications and ensure long-term reliability.

Lastly, it is crucial to consider after-sales support. This involves planning for customer support, maintenance, and potential product updates or upgrades after the initial sale. By keeping after-sales in mind during the development process, you can ensure a positive customer experience and long-term satisfaction.

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