Navigating the peculiarities of the African product management ecosystem – Philips Nwachukwu on The Product Experience "Product people - Product managers, product designers, UX designers, UX researchers, Business analysts, developers, makers & entrepreneurs January 01 2022 False Podcasts, The Product Experience, Mind the Product Mind the Product Ltd 5882 Product Management 23.528

Navigating the peculiarities of the African product management ecosystem – Philips Nwachukwu on The Product Experience

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Philips Nwachukwu, Senior Product Manager at The Bulb Africa, joins us on the podcast this week to talk about how he transitioned from a jack-of-all-trades to starting a Product Operations function, as well as the unique challenges he sees for Product people working in Africa.

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Featured Links: Follow Philips on LinkedIn | Practical Product’s ‘State of Product Management in Africa’ report | Punch article on the trust deficit in Nigeria

Episode transcript

Randy Silver: 

You know, Lily, we’ve covered a lot of myths and misconceptions about product in the past, but there’s still a few we haven’t covered. And I’m really excited that we get to deal with another one today.

Lily Smith: 

That’s true. And most of the product teachings I’m familiar with come from the US and Europe. But today we get to talk about the product seen in Africa and I learned a lot.

Randy Silver: 

Philips now Chukwu is our guest today. He’s based in Nigeria, but has worked with products and customers all over the continent. So he’s an ideal tour guide. I’ve heard a lot about, you know, SMS based services and financial innovations in Africa. But he opened up my eyes to a whole lot more.

Lily Smith: 

So without further ado, let’s chat to Philips. The product experience is brought to you by mind the product.

Randy Silver: 

Every week, we talk to the best product people from around the globe about how we can improve our practice, and build products that people

Lily Smith: 

love. Because they mind the product calm to catch up on past episodes, and to discover an extensive library of great content and videos,

Randy Silver: 

browse for free, or become a mind the product member to unlock premium articles, unseen videos, AMA’s roundtables, discounts to our account conferences around the world training opportunities.

Lily Smith: 

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Randy Silver: 

Phillips, thank you so much for joining us on the podcast today. Thank you so much, Randy, for having me. For anyone who doesn’t recognise your name. Can you just give us a quick intro? Tell us a little bit about yourself? What do you do now? And how did you first get into product management?

Philips Nwachukwu: 

Alright, well, first off, thank you so much, Randy. And of course really for having me on this podcast guess the Spirit said this before. But for the sake of our listeners, I like to say that it is absolutely amazing, you know, to be part of the mind the pillars community, and to share my own insights and personal learning. You know, from my project, from my product management journey in Africa, my apologies, right? And of course, to answer your question, simply put, I am a product guy, right. Although my niche is tailored to help in Africa focused businesses to build and to scale successful digital products, be the new markets and existing ones. And I have always been around Tech really. But prior to joining genetic group, for those who don’t know, Julia is Africa’s response to Amazon on the continent. And prior to joining Jumeirah group, I worked with a certain media consulting firm to build out a digital product that was focused on creating publishing African literary works as audiobooks. Now, we modelled it after Amazon, audible at the time, right. But this was my very first introduction into tech. And it was fresh off University as a grad, right. But after that, my major major introductions the world of tech with a junior and Jumia, I essentially moved around, I moved from product support, to customer support to managing projects around vendor success, vendor support, logistics, affiliate sales, classifieds, and so on. It made sense at the time, because you may have, you know, had several, several function in departments or verticals within the same market. So I did, I did everything, you know, at different times, then it was after this road. And this project, I had a very, very important career defining conversation with our den CEO about what was going to be next step for me. And she recommended, frankly, that I, you know, I leveraged my well rounded operational experiences across the organisation to take on the role of a product Operations Manager, it was the very first time I had heard anything about product oppression, or anything about around product was my very first time really, I mean, I have done something previously, but something structured as product or pressure. I hadn’t heard of it before. But then, as she put it, I was to support key internal and external products. And that was to work with genius Central Tech team in Portugal, Porto, you know, and, as I say, the rest is history, really. But that was my very, very first major introduction to tech and to product.

Randy Silver: 

So I’m really curious, going into getting into product becoming a product manager, route of product operations. I’ve not heard of anyone going through that route before. I’ve heard of people moving the other way a bit. Yeah. But helping people to become run their product teams more efficiently without having done the job first. That sounds fascinating. So can you just tell us a little bit what did product operations Mina Jumia and what was it like doing your first product role in that space?

Philips Nwachukwu: 

Yeah, it was the very first time genome hiring some of you know what was making that rule looking good never had any product oppressions rule before in the entire gym and Julia, and five those no perdono localised production role in Nigeria, because everything about tech, all our tech guys at the time, both in product and engineering side was domiciled in Portugal. So there was essentially non existence in engineer in German and German time, and I was the first person to take on that role in the company. And the downside, however, was that there really was no sound structure to product ops at the time. I didn’t go through any training, any onboarding process, I mean, from day one, I was just thrust into everything around product. But then I recall that the CEO, the CEO, at the time, who was my line manager, then made a particular statement that essentially charted the cost for me, she said, she said something around Philips, you have to make sure you that’s not our products, and that our product people have everything they need, I cannot recall exactly, actually, but it was essentially along these lines. But retrospectively those words, thinking about it. Now, they’re much pretty defined the crux of won’t become my passion for several months to come and survive later as well. But specifically, I in terms of what it meant, at the time of what I did in that, in that capacity at the time, I started out, you know, helping PMS extract, and analyse insights from users from from various sources. And then it was expanded to helping PMS make sense of user data, that was critical to understanding various behaviour of users and been able to translate that understanding to actual feature improvements, feature releases, and essentially improving overall product experience. And then I got involved in tracking key product metrics across several verticals from JR mall to Juma peak, which was essentially powering our checkout payment and all of that, and then to to Jumia, prime to Jumia, one and all other verticals, that Gmail wasn’t there at the time. And so I moved around. And then I started supporting core products, product management work in terms of put on documentation, creating for the resources for external and internal use, creating SOPs, you know, creating support processes, developing training, training materials for the various products, and several tiny tangible structural things that essentially culminated to helping our PMS to become more effective, and focused on their corresponding abilities. So in a nutshell, that was essentially what it meant starting out in product ops at the time for JIRA.

Lily Smith: 

So with starting in product ops, I’m curious to know, what was the main challenges of working in that role? And your kind of key takeaways, like, what does it take to be a successful product ops person? Like? How would you kind of describe it to other people who may want to work in that side of Product Management?

Philips Nwachukwu: 

Yeah, I mean, in product ops, I started out wearing a lot of hats. You know, like I said, I have moved around in oppressions that have done stuff around the core areas of the business. And so I had to bring all of that experience into my role. But then down the line, I realised that product ops really, it differs from organisation to organisation. The challenge I experienced in my in my role as a product of sourcing was essentially making sense of tonnes of data across various products. In total, our supports in around seven products, both internal and external, and I was just the only person so and PMS, who were our PMS were in Porto at the time, the they needed me to make sense of data, they needed me also to, you know, support product documentation to be their eyes and ears on the local scene. And then, you know, trance translate my learning, you know, inside I’ve been I’ve extracted from users to other countries, not just Nigeria, but Egypt’s, especially for the country that had very, very major Junior presence. So around making sense of the data, I also encountered challenges around working with stakeholders, really, because in that role as a product ops person in Nigeria, I had various stakeholders outside of the people I was reporting to, so to speak. I also have the guys In Portugal, the several product managers and I had to work with various product teams, there were at least at least five different products in scattered around and working with working several products. So managing the new React or those that stakeholder relationships, extracting data. And speaking to directly liaising with tonnes of users we had at the time, you know, making sense of that data, it was tough, believe me, it was tough. And then when you consider that various data sources were right, Tom, you were looking at databases, conducting focus groups, interviews, sitting in with our support teams, listening to support calls, viewing support, tickets, extracted and insights from anywhere possible ascension, and I was the only person across seven different products. So it was pretty tough, I must say, challenging, but nothing that I didn’t eventually handle.

Lily Smith: 

And that must have been very hard in terms of, you know, if you’re working across the whole of the African continent as well with, with the business that you’re working with, and the kind of complexities of working across a massive continent essentially. So what kind of what kind of complexities did that bring? I mean, it seems like a huge undertaking for one person is have to do so. How did you manage that? How did you? How did you set yourself up so that you could kind of move forward without being overwhelmed with with all of the the work that you had to do?

Philips Nwachukwu: 

Yeah. In my role, I think the major, the major thing really, that helped me skill set these challenges was my deep understanding of the product. Because I was coming from a customer support background, venturing to vendor support, resolving a myriad of issues, cutting across various departments, key departments around the business, I was well rounded. But then, because knowledge I had was a personnel, I had to commit to get in much more in depth knowledge around how the products really, really worked, not just from the user side, but from the product side of things engineering side of things, as well. So I took our time to really, really understand how the product worked. I also took our time to understand the various metrics that mattered, and how those metrics were mined and measured and improved at various, various times. And so those two key understandings were very pivotal to whatever success i i was able to achieve. And of course, it was the same thing across the various countries. So Nigeria, could WA, Kenya, South Africa, Egypt, Morocco, it was essentially the same thing, understand the product, not just from the user’s perspective, but from the engineering side of from the actual product side of things, and then understand the metrics, the key metrics that mattered how those metrics are measured, how exactly they can be improved. And of course, when you have this, this, when I understood all these things, I also had the privilege of leaning always lean on the users, and we have tonnes and tonnes of them. And so these two key things really author me say, really helped me surmount these challenges, really.

Randy Silver: 

So aside from some things like M Paisa, and things like that, I don’t hear a huge amount about the African technology scene and about companies there. I don’t know very much about the state of product management there. And you’ve had the opportunity, as you said, to work with, with teams and users in many different countries. Can you just give us a bit of an overview of what the scene is like? What’s the maturity of Product Management in Africa? And is it really different in Nigeria?

Philips Nwachukwu: 

Well, um, thank you, Robbie, you know, that that is one conversation I have every time I speak to counterparts outside of Africa and even outside of Nigeria, right. But the tech ecosystem in Africa, as you may know, it has it has experienced outstanding growth in the last 10 years. I mean, this growth has been year on year. I mean, if you can contain various indices, like the amount of funding that has come into Africa, the amount of startups that have have have sprouted in Africa, and the startups have all been impact driven. And then there’s also been, like I said, an exciting surge, because there are a number of tech startups you know, that are solving different important problems. And there are sectors and industries across Africa. And as you can imagine, you know, digital products also been expanded across various countries all over the continent. So essentially, we are seeing innovative products, not just in FinTech. But we’re seeing innovative products in ad tech ad tech is education technology we’re seeing, we’re seeing products in property tech, we’re seeing production, legal Tech in Health Tech, Ninja fashion tech, they keep springing up every year. And of course, as these products are being are being built, or being launched, or being scaled, and of course, achieving unicorn status, we’re seeing a lot more people, they are finding purpose in digital product management. And amazingly, we have tonnes and tonnes of cup of startups who are having the initial offerings, but still do not prioritise the work of PMS, as you can imagine reflecting the salaries and all and how they’re compensated. But but in a nutshell, the current set of Product Management in Nigeria is maturing. And the same can be said about the stellar product management in Africa. And our future is very, very promising, really,

Lily Smith: 

another kind of hotspots within Africa, where where are the hotspots? Where are the places where people should be keeping their eyes like peeled for those hot startups coming out? Of Africa?

Philips Nwachukwu: 

I can see this because there are a lot of problems, a lot of important problems to be solved in Africa. Yes, we are grappling with a lot of social, political, economic infrastructure issues, but problems to be solved that can be translated into businesses, profit making ventures abound in Africa. But I cannot stay in this podcast and say that all all all across Africa hotspots, but specifically we have Nigeria. Nigeria has shown a lot of innovation across various sectors. And then we have Egypt. I think even last year, Egypt had more funding than Nigeria. But this year, Nigeria, Nigeria had way more funding and digital there we’re seeing Seymour Cresswell. And then if you move down to Eastern Africa, we’re seeing Kenya, we’re seeing even Tanzania and then Francophone Africa, we’re seeing a lot of other innovative fintechs come from Cameroon, and they’re also the Anglophone and other Francophone countries in Africa. So all across Africa, like I said, problems, problems that can be solved innovatively, they are bound. But specifically these places I mentioned, I like to put it the hotspots.

Randy Silver: 

And most of the things I’ve heard about, and I’m very aware that these may be misperceptions or misconceptions about about Africa. But most of the things I’ve heard about our innovations, I’ve had to deal with the fact that so much is done on SMS or lack of bandwidth and lack of infrastructure in some cases, and trying to make things popular at scale without having some of the reliability of infrastructure. to it that’s just a misperception, or is that weird thing? Is that accurate?

Philips Nwachukwu: 

Okay, um, I am actually divided as to whether I should give you a longer or a short one. So, I’ll just try to give you an in between response. But you’re not wrong. And you’re also not entirely right. It is not a misconception. I’d rather call it the half perception, okay, because it doesn’t, it doesn’t reflect the full picture. In Nigeria, for example, we’ve got around 200 million people. Now you will find in Nigeria that a lot of the technical innovation that has been around most important challenges of the continent has been, you know, centred on simplifying trade. Right. But then you notice that the reality is that is, of course, exacerbated by the fact that there is a massive trust deficit in Nigeria, massive trust deficit. And then this combines perfectly with our collective need to simplify buying and selling. Remember that I said I said something around simplified three being our most important challenge as a continent. Now in simplifying buying and selling, we’re able to produce innovation. Now give you an example. When when you hear when you have FinTech, when you hear innovations around FinTech, you, you’d see that we are primarily due to the ad the necessity for us to simplify banking, and other financial services as a way to cushion this trust deficit. So because the average African does not really trust that money sent in from an account to a different bank, you know, we’re still getting the next day or few days. We have to innovate around p2p interbank money transfers that are new. So if you were to send money from this account, in this bank, To another accountant in a totally different bank within the same country, of course, in India, for example, the person receives that almost immediately. Now, when you consider that there are other people who live in rural areas without basic internet bandwidth, they still need to send and receive the forms. So, again, we innovated around USSD. Okay. USSD is essentially where you have a text message unstructured supplementary service data. And now USSD banking is also the instance. Now, it is the same thing across all that caters or financial services, we talked about switching, interbank settlement lending, all of these things are centred on the fact on the basic fact that in Nigeria, by extension, Africa, there is a massive, massive trust deficit. But on the flip side, right, it has it has also made things easier for us to, you know, begin to innovate around every other problem that has each within simplified near instant financial transactions, and like I said, is the same across Africa. It is our reality. And I’m glad that we are aggressively maximising

Randy Silver: 

as never heard of put that way. That’s really interesting. Thank you for that answer.

Lily Smith: 

And so, you’ve kind of mentioned before about peculiar challenges working in product management in Africa. And are there other challenges besides that, that kind of trust deficit that you have to deal with on a regular basis?

Philips Nwachukwu: 

Absolutely, absolutely. But you know, this, this question is tough, because like I mentioned, across Africa, there are several important challenges. And this one, you will have conversations with your colleagues from around the world about these challenges, you almost never hear them say that it applies to them in their various continents and countries. But for Africa, it’s, it’s just there. But I’m going to limit my response to just about two major problems or challenges. I’ve talked briefly about the data. But then I’ll also talk about talent. And as a concise data, we have challenges around available and reliable data. It may not make sense to you, Liddy and Randy, but it’s a serious, serious challenge. And when I talk about data, I am specifically talking about the absence of qualitative and quantitative granular knowledge of the African people. And the African environment. I have a mentor, his name is Victor Samatar. He would always say things like that Africans do not know who we are, and where we are. So as a result, there are a lot of there are too many unknowns that are largely been assumed by various players, even outside the African tech ecosystem. So whether you are building outside of Africa, but for Africa, it is a trend I’ve seen. founders, venture capitalists, and all of that assume a tonne of things because there is seldom available or reliable data. I personally have I have this theory that a lot of the data about Africans and the African market isn’t reliable, and largely assumed, and no one has haven’t put it to test though. But these are things I’ve seen across across the years. So when you see an entrepreneur, starting a company, or a product person building or scaling a product, they have to grapple with this the issue of collecting reliable data. And of course, reliable data is pretty expensive in Africa, and collecting that reliable data, and balancing their efforts with modelling people’s own lived experiences of the problems that they’re trying to solve. So it is entirely not strange to find that skilling digital products in Africa is mostly hard, because of the lack of available, reliable data. And as you move from industry to industry, as Randy was has just that

Randy Silver: 

make it more important to be lean, to run quick experiments to test your assumptions.

Philips Nwachukwu: 

Yes, absolutely. Absolutely. But then you’re running those quick experiment, you also realise that all your tests are based off of people’s lived experiences when it comes to scaling. Now scaling that product, you also need data that will be able to support a business case you’re coming up with, you know, and it’s the same from industry to industry. This data problem persists in FinTech, ecommerce and logistics, real estate, pensions, asset management, name it health, education, etc. The problem of available unlabeled data is now the second most important challenge, in my opinion, is the challenge of data. But in the last 10 years, he has witnessed drastic improvement by by, you know, conscious concerted efforts within the tech ecosystem in Africa. I don’t know you you may have heard a few years back, genius Corsi, one of the founders. That is me during Buddha. He was asked why Junior software engineers were were mainly sourced outside Africa. And his response was that, you know, there were very few talented engineers on the continent. That was around 2020 2012 2013. Now, yes, bargain, he was a senior product managers. You know, what I am glad as I look back at where we’re coming from, I’m excited that a lot of young people, we are seeing the light, they are genuinely choosing to learn the skills of product management, and all of Africa, we have product communities and platforms that are supporting this drug. So we have, we have product die, we have TiVo, we have pm Africa, they thought of them, you know, that are providing experiential training, certifications, access, internships, webinars, boot camps. And most importantly, they are meshing these things, these teachings. Now, these experiential trainings with what I call the African context, to during successful products. And of course, it’s important to also talk about communities like mine, the product, what my product has done in in product management is is unprecedented, it has essentially open sourced global perspective around product management, and then providing access to resources that go a long way to essentially showcasing global best practices on autos, product management. So in a nutshell, when you when you consider that there is currently an insane proliferation of tech startups all over Africa, it is very, very important to also know that these newly minted freshly obscured PMS, they are now the ones being absorbed by this, the start of this tech startups, you know, including the potential unicorns, and in my opinion, it really, it can only get better from here.

Lily Smith: 

So that’s quite a bunch of challenges to overcome in terms of that level and reliable data talents and the trust deficit that you mentioned,

Philips Nwachukwu: 

as well. Absolutely.

Lily Smith: 

So how how does this affect how you kind of approach your product strategy and your roadmap development? How how do you think about these challenges when you’re working through those,

Philips Nwachukwu: 

you know, assets, PM, you Gildan in Africa, for as even a startup founder. There’s an upside, you know, to navigating these challenges. And that upside is that you are forced to really, really, really innovate. Right? In in, in Africa, innovation is a necessity, it is not an option, actually, you don’t come to Africa and do the bare minimum on your product, and expect to impact anyone or to even win in the marketplace. Right? So another thing is that product managers are constrained to always question the data. Right. So at every point, in your product development roadmap, or your product growth roadmap, whatever it is, you are making sure that if you are developing new products or new features, you are free to type in everything, not prototyping, prototyping everything you are validating everything, your question in every detail, you’re testing out everything. And you’re not just making business cases using data from say, six months or one on one year ago. They are always dynamic, changing things about that data that you have to always test out and question. Now, the average pm should also be aware that, you know, this, these challenges will take time really before they get better. And so we are always prepared and strive to be well equipped. And also get our hands dirty. Because during product our users love, we have to solve key problems. And there is not reliable data to support some of the positions you may take. You know, and and and we have to also make sure that those products we’re building, they are making actual measurable impact and they’re winning in the marketplace. So yeah, questioning the data every time and then really, really leveraging various people’s lived experiences all across Africa and all across the audience, they are gearing for, to really, really innovate around whatever your product offering is. So I think I think I think is the key, you know, in in developing product strategies amongst this myriad of challenges we’ve so far discussed.

Randy Silver: 

So Phillips, this has been a fantastic conversation. Unfortunately, we’re running out of time. So I’m going to try and hit you with one last question. And this is a one on behalf of a friend of mine, someone who was working with me who just recently left to go work with an African based company. Yeah, I’m curious. So for anyone who’s not worked in Africa before and starting to work with product teams in country What’s the thing that you think would be the biggest challenge for them? What’s the thing that they should watch out for as they get started?

Philips Nwachukwu: 

Okay, um, so I think in my opinion that recent times, I’ve seen Africa focus businesses really, with non African founders, you know, failed miserably, primarily because these fields understand that there is such a thing as the African context. Yes, it’s a real thing. But simply put, it means that whatever works so well outside of Africa, has very slim chances of working world here, if it is not retrofitted, to adapt to the African context. Now, if even even when you come into the African context, there is something as major as important as the Nigerian context with the ability to Nigeria. And I promise you that this is so serious, and it is different for whatever it’s obtainable across Africa markets, if you have given a product or if you expand your product, your product offerings to Africa, look out for the African context, take our time, really, to understand the African context, whether in terms of whatever theme around it, that you’re looking at, understand the African context, that thing in trade in moving money around, you know, whatever theme it is that your product is focused on, take our time to understand the African context. If you do not do that, it could be one of the major reasons why your product may fail. And in the process of failure, losing a lot of money for you as the founder, and the venture capitalist.

Randy Silver: 

Let me follow up on that tiny bit more. So in the US, there’s some peculiar challenges of operating across different states, even though there’s one dominant language and arguably one dominant culture. Europe has lots of challenges around languages and cultures and regulations. You know, we’ve I asked you a question about working in Africa was a stupid question, is it? Is it really is there an African context? Or is it a Nigerian context and a call to war context and South African context?

Philips Nwachukwu: 

I’ll tell you this, more often than not, and I see this out of respect to other African countries, right? A lot of the things I walk well, if your product works well in Nigeria, chances are that it will also work on other African countries. I mean, I’ve had to run experiments in Nigeria and launch products in Nigeria, if they failed, chances are they may not really, really succeed in other African countries. So more often than not, you find that a lot of businesses who wants to have an African rich continental ritual across Africa, they make sure the the tap the Nigerian market, right. So there is some that’s an Indian market, but in terms of peculiar challenges, as a continent, really. I think in terms of geopolitical organisation, Africa does a lot of similarities with Europe. But if you consider Europe despite its cultural language and regulatory challenges, like you mentioned, it still has arrangements such an arrangement. Now Watford, a major example in this context is the trade relationship between member states, right? This relationship stretches to logistics, and intra continental migration of people. Right. So we have a you have a an EU European Union, that essentially regulates trade and migration among Member States. These two things trade and migration of people, it streamlines a lot of things, and makes it easier for organisations to efficiently do business with one another. Now, when you consider Africa is a far cry from Europe situation, I cannot begin to tell you how expensive and difficult for me, as a Nigerian to travel to my grid to set up the business or conduct a simple business transaction with another business or another person, different African country. It is terribly expensive. That is so much expensive that a lot of our tech businesses are doing, you know, they’re able to bring outside of Africa to register their businesses. It’s that expensive. So while we have Africa grappling with cultural language challenges, there is the greater evil of you know, an absence of the unifying continental agreement or policy and key business drivers, the migration of people, the movement of goods and services, but I know that some of these things are changing. You know, they are changing, especially because African countries are coming together. I know that there is a recent agreement called the African continental Free Trade Area agreement recently signed by 5555 African countries. And we’re we’re really hopeful that this path will ameliorate some of these challenges. Well,

Randy Silver: 

as Lily and I both live and work in the UK, we’re finding out exactly how challenging but we don’t need to dwell on that one today. Thank you

Philips Nwachukwu: 

very much for everything. pleasures in

Lily Smith: 

mind. It’s been so great learning about products in Africa. And I think you’ve done an excellent job of making it sound very exciting, very challenging, but also very exciting and can’t wait to hear more stories from Africa hopefully from more product people.

Philips Nwachukwu: 

Absolutely. The excitement is well hidden in the challenges if you don’t box the challenges, you’d find the excitement actually.

Lily Smith: 

Yeah. Thanks so much for it’s

Philips Nwachukwu: 

The pleasure is all mine. Thank you so much for having me, Randy.

Lily Smith: 

I loved getting this insight into Africa. Honestly, it does sound really exciting.

Randy Silver: 

It does. And it’s a great reminder that innovation of bounds when there are unique challenges to overcome.

Lily Smith: 

So if you like what you’re listening to, then please share it with your friends, your family, maybe even your boss.

Randy Silver: 

And you know, you can always subscribe so that you never miss a trick. See you next time.

Lily Smith: 

Haste, me, Lily Smith and me Randy silver. Emily Tate is our producer. And Luke Smith is our editor. Our theme

Randy Silver: 

music is from humbard baseband power that’s P A you thanks to Ana killer who runs product tank and MTP engage in Hamburg and please based in the band for letting us use their music. Connect with your local product community via product tag or regular free meetups in over 200 cities worldwide.

Lily Smith: 

If there’s not one Nagy you can consider starting one yourself. To find out more go to mind the product.com forward slash product tank.

Randy Silver: 

Product Tech is a global community of meetups during buying for product people. We offer expert talks group discussion and a safe environment for product people to come together and share learnings and tips

 

Philips Nwachukwu, Senior Product Manager at The Bulb Africa, joins us on the podcast this week to talk about how he transitioned from a jack-of-all-trades to starting a Product Operations function, as well as the unique challenges he sees for Product people working in Africa. Listen to more episodes...
Featured Links: Follow Philips on LinkedIn | Practical Product's 'State of Product Management in Africa' report | Punch article on the trust deficit in Nigeria

Episode transcript

Randy Silver:  You know, Lily, we've covered a lot of myths and misconceptions about product in the past, but there's still a few we haven't covered. And I'm really excited that we get to deal with another one today. Lily Smith:  That's true. And most of the product teachings I'm familiar with come from the US and Europe. But today we get to talk about the product seen in Africa and I learned a lot. Randy Silver:  Philips now Chukwu is our guest today. He's based in Nigeria, but has worked with products and customers all over the continent. So he's an ideal tour guide. I've heard a lot about, you know, SMS based services and financial innovations in Africa. But he opened up my eyes to a whole lot more. Lily Smith:  So without further ado, let's chat to Philips. The product experience is brought to you by mind the product. Randy Silver:  Every week, we talk to the best product people from around the globe about how we can improve our practice, and build products that people Lily Smith:  love. Because they mind the product calm to catch up on past episodes, and to discover an extensive library of great content and videos, Randy Silver:  browse for free, or become a mind the product member to unlock premium articles, unseen videos, AMA's roundtables, discounts to our account conferences around the world training opportunities. Lily Smith:  mining product also offers free product tank meetups in more than 200 cities. And there's probably one. Randy Silver:  Phillips, thank you so much for joining us on the podcast today. Thank you so much, Randy, for having me. For anyone who doesn't recognise your name. Can you just give us a quick intro? Tell us a little bit about yourself? What do you do now? And how did you first get into product management? Philips Nwachukwu:  Alright, well, first off, thank you so much, Randy. And of course really for having me on this podcast guess the Spirit said this before. But for the sake of our listeners, I like to say that it is absolutely amazing, you know, to be part of the mind the pillars community, and to share my own insights and personal learning. You know, from my project, from my product management journey in Africa, my apologies, right? And of course, to answer your question, simply put, I am a product guy, right. Although my niche is tailored to help in Africa focused businesses to build and to scale successful digital products, be the new markets and existing ones. And I have always been around Tech really. But prior to joining genetic group, for those who don't know, Julia is Africa's response to Amazon on the continent. And prior to joining Jumeirah group, I worked with a certain media consulting firm to build out a digital product that was focused on creating publishing African literary works as audiobooks. Now, we modelled it after Amazon, audible at the time, right. But this was my very first introduction into tech. And it was fresh off University as a grad, right. But after that, my major major introductions the world of tech with a junior and Jumia, I essentially moved around, I moved from product support, to customer support to managing projects around vendor success, vendor support, logistics, affiliate sales, classifieds, and so on. It made sense at the time, because you may have, you know, had several, several function in departments or verticals within the same market. So I did, I did everything, you know, at different times, then it was after this road. And this project, I had a very, very important career defining conversation with our den CEO about what was going to be next step for me. And she recommended, frankly, that I, you know, I leveraged my well rounded operational experiences across the organisation to take on the role of a product Operations Manager, it was the very first time I had heard anything about product oppression, or anything about around product was my very first time really, I mean, I have done something previously, but something structured as product or pressure. I hadn't heard of it before. But then, as she put it, I was to support key internal and external products. And that was to work with genius Central Tech team in Portugal, Porto, you know, and, as I say, the rest is history, really. But that was my very, very first major introduction to tech and to product. Randy Silver:  So I'm really curious, going into getting into product becoming a product manager, route of product operations. I've not heard of anyone going through that route before. I've heard of people moving the other way a bit. Yeah. But helping people to become run their product teams more efficiently without having done the job first. That sounds fascinating. So can you just tell us a little bit what did product operations Mina Jumia and what was it like doing your first product role in that space? Philips Nwachukwu:  Yeah, it was the very first time genome hiring some of you know what was making that rule looking good never had any product oppressions rule before in the entire gym and Julia, and five those no perdono localised production role in Nigeria, because everything about tech, all our tech guys at the time, both in product and engineering side was domiciled in Portugal. So there was essentially non existence in engineer in German and German time, and I was the first person to take on that role in the company. And the downside, however, was that there really was no sound structure to product ops at the time. I didn't go through any training, any onboarding process, I mean, from day one, I was just thrust into everything around product. But then I recall that the CEO, the CEO, at the time, who was my line manager, then made a particular statement that essentially charted the cost for me, she said, she said something around Philips, you have to make sure you that's not our products, and that our product people have everything they need, I cannot recall exactly, actually, but it was essentially along these lines. But retrospectively those words, thinking about it. Now, they're much pretty defined the crux of won't become my passion for several months to come and survive later as well. But specifically, I in terms of what it meant, at the time of what I did in that, in that capacity at the time, I started out, you know, helping PMS extract, and analyse insights from users from from various sources. And then it was expanded to helping PMS make sense of user data, that was critical to understanding various behaviour of users and been able to translate that understanding to actual feature improvements, feature releases, and essentially improving overall product experience. And then I got involved in tracking key product metrics across several verticals from JR mall to Juma peak, which was essentially powering our checkout payment and all of that, and then to to Jumia, prime to Jumia, one and all other verticals, that Gmail wasn't there at the time. And so I moved around. And then I started supporting core products, product management work in terms of put on documentation, creating for the resources for external and internal use, creating SOPs, you know, creating support processes, developing training, training materials for the various products, and several tiny tangible structural things that essentially culminated to helping our PMS to become more effective, and focused on their corresponding abilities. So in a nutshell, that was essentially what it meant starting out in product ops at the time for JIRA. Lily Smith:  So with starting in product ops, I'm curious to know, what was the main challenges of working in that role? And your kind of key takeaways, like, what does it take to be a successful product ops person? Like? How would you kind of describe it to other people who may want to work in that side of Product Management? Philips Nwachukwu:  Yeah, I mean, in product ops, I started out wearing a lot of hats. You know, like I said, I have moved around in oppressions that have done stuff around the core areas of the business. And so I had to bring all of that experience into my role. But then down the line, I realised that product ops really, it differs from organisation to organisation. The challenge I experienced in my in my role as a product of sourcing was essentially making sense of tonnes of data across various products. In total, our supports in around seven products, both internal and external, and I was just the only person so and PMS, who were our PMS were in Porto at the time, the they needed me to make sense of data, they needed me also to, you know, support product documentation to be their eyes and ears on the local scene. And then, you know, trance translate my learning, you know, inside I've been I've extracted from users to other countries, not just Nigeria, but Egypt's, especially for the country that had very, very major Junior presence. So around making sense of the data, I also encountered challenges around working with stakeholders, really, because in that role as a product ops person in Nigeria, I had various stakeholders outside of the people I was reporting to, so to speak. I also have the guys In Portugal, the several product managers and I had to work with various product teams, there were at least at least five different products in scattered around and working with working several products. So managing the new React or those that stakeholder relationships, extracting data. And speaking to directly liaising with tonnes of users we had at the time, you know, making sense of that data, it was tough, believe me, it was tough. And then when you consider that various data sources were right, Tom, you were looking at databases, conducting focus groups, interviews, sitting in with our support teams, listening to support calls, viewing support, tickets, extracted and insights from anywhere possible ascension, and I was the only person across seven different products. So it was pretty tough, I must say, challenging, but nothing that I didn't eventually handle. Lily Smith:  And that must have been very hard in terms of, you know, if you're working across the whole of the African continent as well with, with the business that you're working with, and the kind of complexities of working across a massive continent essentially. So what kind of what kind of complexities did that bring? I mean, it seems like a huge undertaking for one person is have to do so. How did you manage that? How did you? How did you set yourself up so that you could kind of move forward without being overwhelmed with with all of the the work that you had to do? Philips Nwachukwu:  Yeah. In my role, I think the major, the major thing really, that helped me skill set these challenges was my deep understanding of the product. Because I was coming from a customer support background, venturing to vendor support, resolving a myriad of issues, cutting across various departments, key departments around the business, I was well rounded. But then, because knowledge I had was a personnel, I had to commit to get in much more in depth knowledge around how the products really, really worked, not just from the user side, but from the product side of things engineering side of things, as well. So I took our time to really, really understand how the product worked. I also took our time to understand the various metrics that mattered, and how those metrics were mined and measured and improved at various, various times. And so those two key understandings were very pivotal to whatever success i i was able to achieve. And of course, it was the same thing across the various countries. So Nigeria, could WA, Kenya, South Africa, Egypt, Morocco, it was essentially the same thing, understand the product, not just from the user's perspective, but from the engineering side of from the actual product side of things, and then understand the metrics, the key metrics that mattered how those metrics are measured, how exactly they can be improved. And of course, when you have this, this, when I understood all these things, I also had the privilege of leaning always lean on the users, and we have tonnes and tonnes of them. And so these two key things really author me say, really helped me surmount these challenges, really. Randy Silver:  So aside from some things like M Paisa, and things like that, I don't hear a huge amount about the African technology scene and about companies there. I don't know very much about the state of product management there. And you've had the opportunity, as you said, to work with, with teams and users in many different countries. Can you just give us a bit of an overview of what the scene is like? What's the maturity of Product Management in Africa? And is it really different in Nigeria? Philips Nwachukwu:  Well, um, thank you, Robbie, you know, that that is one conversation I have every time I speak to counterparts outside of Africa and even outside of Nigeria, right. But the tech ecosystem in Africa, as you may know, it has it has experienced outstanding growth in the last 10 years. I mean, this growth has been year on year. I mean, if you can contain various indices, like the amount of funding that has come into Africa, the amount of startups that have have have sprouted in Africa, and the startups have all been impact driven. And then there's also been, like I said, an exciting surge, because there are a number of tech startups you know, that are solving different important problems. And there are sectors and industries across Africa. And as you can imagine, you know, digital products also been expanded across various countries all over the continent. So essentially, we are seeing innovative products, not just in FinTech. But we're seeing innovative products in ad tech ad tech is education technology we're seeing, we're seeing products in property tech, we're seeing production, legal Tech in Health Tech, Ninja fashion tech, they keep springing up every year. And of course, as these products are being are being built, or being launched, or being scaled, and of course, achieving unicorn status, we're seeing a lot more people, they are finding purpose in digital product management. And amazingly, we have tonnes and tonnes of cup of startups who are having the initial offerings, but still do not prioritise the work of PMS, as you can imagine reflecting the salaries and all and how they're compensated. But but in a nutshell, the current set of Product Management in Nigeria is maturing. And the same can be said about the stellar product management in Africa. And our future is very, very promising, really, Lily Smith:  another kind of hotspots within Africa, where where are the hotspots? Where are the places where people should be keeping their eyes like peeled for those hot startups coming out? Of Africa? Philips Nwachukwu:  I can see this because there are a lot of problems, a lot of important problems to be solved in Africa. Yes, we are grappling with a lot of social, political, economic infrastructure issues, but problems to be solved that can be translated into businesses, profit making ventures abound in Africa. But I cannot stay in this podcast and say that all all all across Africa hotspots, but specifically we have Nigeria. Nigeria has shown a lot of innovation across various sectors. And then we have Egypt. I think even last year, Egypt had more funding than Nigeria. But this year, Nigeria, Nigeria had way more funding and digital there we're seeing Seymour Cresswell. And then if you move down to Eastern Africa, we're seeing Kenya, we're seeing even Tanzania and then Francophone Africa, we're seeing a lot of other innovative fintechs come from Cameroon, and they're also the Anglophone and other Francophone countries in Africa. So all across Africa, like I said, problems, problems that can be solved innovatively, they are bound. But specifically these places I mentioned, I like to put it the hotspots. Randy Silver:  And most of the things I've heard about, and I'm very aware that these may be misperceptions or misconceptions about about Africa. But most of the things I've heard about our innovations, I've had to deal with the fact that so much is done on SMS or lack of bandwidth and lack of infrastructure in some cases, and trying to make things popular at scale without having some of the reliability of infrastructure. to it that's just a misperception, or is that weird thing? Is that accurate? Philips Nwachukwu:  Okay, um, I am actually divided as to whether I should give you a longer or a short one. So, I'll just try to give you an in between response. But you're not wrong. And you're also not entirely right. It is not a misconception. I'd rather call it the half perception, okay, because it doesn't, it doesn't reflect the full picture. In Nigeria, for example, we've got around 200 million people. Now you will find in Nigeria that a lot of the technical innovation that has been around most important challenges of the continent has been, you know, centred on simplifying trade. Right. But then you notice that the reality is that is, of course, exacerbated by the fact that there is a massive trust deficit in Nigeria, massive trust deficit. And then this combines perfectly with our collective need to simplify buying and selling. Remember that I said I said something around simplified three being our most important challenge as a continent. Now in simplifying buying and selling, we're able to produce innovation. Now give you an example. When when you hear when you have FinTech, when you hear innovations around FinTech, you, you'd see that we are primarily due to the ad the necessity for us to simplify banking, and other financial services as a way to cushion this trust deficit. So because the average African does not really trust that money sent in from an account to a different bank, you know, we're still getting the next day or few days. We have to innovate around p2p interbank money transfers that are new. So if you were to send money from this account, in this bank, To another accountant in a totally different bank within the same country, of course, in India, for example, the person receives that almost immediately. Now, when you consider that there are other people who live in rural areas without basic internet bandwidth, they still need to send and receive the forms. So, again, we innovated around USSD. Okay. USSD is essentially where you have a text message unstructured supplementary service data. And now USSD banking is also the instance. Now, it is the same thing across all that caters or financial services, we talked about switching, interbank settlement lending, all of these things are centred on the fact on the basic fact that in Nigeria, by extension, Africa, there is a massive, massive trust deficit. But on the flip side, right, it has it has also made things easier for us to, you know, begin to innovate around every other problem that has each within simplified near instant financial transactions, and like I said, is the same across Africa. It is our reality. And I'm glad that we are aggressively maximising Randy Silver:  as never heard of put that way. That's really interesting. Thank you for that answer. Lily Smith:  And so, you've kind of mentioned before about peculiar challenges working in product management in Africa. And are there other challenges besides that, that kind of trust deficit that you have to deal with on a regular basis? Philips Nwachukwu:  Absolutely, absolutely. But you know, this, this question is tough, because like I mentioned, across Africa, there are several important challenges. And this one, you will have conversations with your colleagues from around the world about these challenges, you almost never hear them say that it applies to them in their various continents and countries. But for Africa, it's, it's just there. But I'm going to limit my response to just about two major problems or challenges. I've talked briefly about the data. But then I'll also talk about talent. And as a concise data, we have challenges around available and reliable data. It may not make sense to you, Liddy and Randy, but it's a serious, serious challenge. And when I talk about data, I am specifically talking about the absence of qualitative and quantitative granular knowledge of the African people. And the African environment. I have a mentor, his name is Victor Samatar. He would always say things like that Africans do not know who we are, and where we are. So as a result, there are a lot of there are too many unknowns that are largely been assumed by various players, even outside the African tech ecosystem. So whether you are building outside of Africa, but for Africa, it is a trend I've seen. founders, venture capitalists, and all of that assume a tonne of things because there is seldom available or reliable data. I personally have I have this theory that a lot of the data about Africans and the African market isn't reliable, and largely assumed, and no one has haven't put it to test though. But these are things I've seen across across the years. So when you see an entrepreneur, starting a company, or a product person building or scaling a product, they have to grapple with this the issue of collecting reliable data. And of course, reliable data is pretty expensive in Africa, and collecting that reliable data, and balancing their efforts with modelling people's own lived experiences of the problems that they're trying to solve. So it is entirely not strange to find that skilling digital products in Africa is mostly hard, because of the lack of available, reliable data. And as you move from industry to industry, as Randy was has just that Randy Silver:  make it more important to be lean, to run quick experiments to test your assumptions. Philips Nwachukwu:  Yes, absolutely. Absolutely. But then you're running those quick experiment, you also realise that all your tests are based off of people's lived experiences when it comes to scaling. Now scaling that product, you also need data that will be able to support a business case you're coming up with, you know, and it's the same from industry to industry. This data problem persists in FinTech, ecommerce and logistics, real estate, pensions, asset management, name it health, education, etc. The problem of available unlabeled data is now the second most important challenge, in my opinion, is the challenge of data. But in the last 10 years, he has witnessed drastic improvement by by, you know, conscious concerted efforts within the tech ecosystem in Africa. I don't know you you may have heard a few years back, genius Corsi, one of the founders. That is me during Buddha. He was asked why Junior software engineers were were mainly sourced outside Africa. And his response was that, you know, there were very few talented engineers on the continent. That was around 2020 2012 2013. Now, yes, bargain, he was a senior product managers. You know, what I am glad as I look back at where we're coming from, I'm excited that a lot of young people, we are seeing the light, they are genuinely choosing to learn the skills of product management, and all of Africa, we have product communities and platforms that are supporting this drug. So we have, we have product die, we have TiVo, we have pm Africa, they thought of them, you know, that are providing experiential training, certifications, access, internships, webinars, boot camps. And most importantly, they are meshing these things, these teachings. Now, these experiential trainings with what I call the African context, to during successful products. And of course, it's important to also talk about communities like mine, the product, what my product has done in in product management is is unprecedented, it has essentially open sourced global perspective around product management, and then providing access to resources that go a long way to essentially showcasing global best practices on autos, product management. So in a nutshell, when you when you consider that there is currently an insane proliferation of tech startups all over Africa, it is very, very important to also know that these newly minted freshly obscured PMS, they are now the ones being absorbed by this, the start of this tech startups, you know, including the potential unicorns, and in my opinion, it really, it can only get better from here. Lily Smith:  So that's quite a bunch of challenges to overcome in terms of that level and reliable data talents and the trust deficit that you mentioned, Philips Nwachukwu:  as well. Absolutely. Lily Smith:  So how how does this affect how you kind of approach your product strategy and your roadmap development? How how do you think about these challenges when you're working through those, Philips Nwachukwu:  you know, assets, PM, you Gildan in Africa, for as even a startup founder. There's an upside, you know, to navigating these challenges. And that upside is that you are forced to really, really, really innovate. Right? In in, in Africa, innovation is a necessity, it is not an option, actually, you don't come to Africa and do the bare minimum on your product, and expect to impact anyone or to even win in the marketplace. Right? So another thing is that product managers are constrained to always question the data. Right. So at every point, in your product development roadmap, or your product growth roadmap, whatever it is, you are making sure that if you are developing new products or new features, you are free to type in everything, not prototyping, prototyping everything you are validating everything, your question in every detail, you're testing out everything. And you're not just making business cases using data from say, six months or one on one year ago. They are always dynamic, changing things about that data that you have to always test out and question. Now, the average pm should also be aware that, you know, this, these challenges will take time really before they get better. And so we are always prepared and strive to be well equipped. And also get our hands dirty. Because during product our users love, we have to solve key problems. And there is not reliable data to support some of the positions you may take. You know, and and and we have to also make sure that those products we're building, they are making actual measurable impact and they're winning in the marketplace. So yeah, questioning the data every time and then really, really leveraging various people's lived experiences all across Africa and all across the audience, they are gearing for, to really, really innovate around whatever your product offering is. So I think I think I think is the key, you know, in in developing product strategies amongst this myriad of challenges we've so far discussed. Randy Silver:  So Phillips, this has been a fantastic conversation. Unfortunately, we're running out of time. So I'm going to try and hit you with one last question. And this is a one on behalf of a friend of mine, someone who was working with me who just recently left to go work with an African based company. Yeah, I'm curious. So for anyone who's not worked in Africa before and starting to work with product teams in country What's the thing that you think would be the biggest challenge for them? What's the thing that they should watch out for as they get started? Philips Nwachukwu:  Okay, um, so I think in my opinion that recent times, I've seen Africa focus businesses really, with non African founders, you know, failed miserably, primarily because these fields understand that there is such a thing as the African context. Yes, it's a real thing. But simply put, it means that whatever works so well outside of Africa, has very slim chances of working world here, if it is not retrofitted, to adapt to the African context. Now, if even even when you come into the African context, there is something as major as important as the Nigerian context with the ability to Nigeria. And I promise you that this is so serious, and it is different for whatever it's obtainable across Africa markets, if you have given a product or if you expand your product, your product offerings to Africa, look out for the African context, take our time, really, to understand the African context, whether in terms of whatever theme around it, that you're looking at, understand the African context, that thing in trade in moving money around, you know, whatever theme it is that your product is focused on, take our time to understand the African context. If you do not do that, it could be one of the major reasons why your product may fail. And in the process of failure, losing a lot of money for you as the founder, and the venture capitalist. Randy Silver:  Let me follow up on that tiny bit more. So in the US, there's some peculiar challenges of operating across different states, even though there's one dominant language and arguably one dominant culture. Europe has lots of challenges around languages and cultures and regulations. You know, we've I asked you a question about working in Africa was a stupid question, is it? Is it really is there an African context? Or is it a Nigerian context and a call to war context and South African context? Philips Nwachukwu:  I'll tell you this, more often than not, and I see this out of respect to other African countries, right? A lot of the things I walk well, if your product works well in Nigeria, chances are that it will also work on other African countries. I mean, I've had to run experiments in Nigeria and launch products in Nigeria, if they failed, chances are they may not really, really succeed in other African countries. So more often than not, you find that a lot of businesses who wants to have an African rich continental ritual across Africa, they make sure the the tap the Nigerian market, right. So there is some that's an Indian market, but in terms of peculiar challenges, as a continent, really. I think in terms of geopolitical organisation, Africa does a lot of similarities with Europe. But if you consider Europe despite its cultural language and regulatory challenges, like you mentioned, it still has arrangements such an arrangement. Now Watford, a major example in this context is the trade relationship between member states, right? This relationship stretches to logistics, and intra continental migration of people. Right. So we have a you have a an EU European Union, that essentially regulates trade and migration among Member States. These two things trade and migration of people, it streamlines a lot of things, and makes it easier for organisations to efficiently do business with one another. Now, when you consider Africa is a far cry from Europe situation, I cannot begin to tell you how expensive and difficult for me, as a Nigerian to travel to my grid to set up the business or conduct a simple business transaction with another business or another person, different African country. It is terribly expensive. That is so much expensive that a lot of our tech businesses are doing, you know, they're able to bring outside of Africa to register their businesses. It's that expensive. So while we have Africa grappling with cultural language challenges, there is the greater evil of you know, an absence of the unifying continental agreement or policy and key business drivers, the migration of people, the movement of goods and services, but I know that some of these things are changing. You know, they are changing, especially because African countries are coming together. I know that there is a recent agreement called the African continental Free Trade Area agreement recently signed by 5555 African countries. And we're we're really hopeful that this path will ameliorate some of these challenges. Well, Randy Silver:  as Lily and I both live and work in the UK, we're finding out exactly how challenging but we don't need to dwell on that one today. Thank you Philips Nwachukwu:  very much for everything. pleasures in Lily Smith:  mind. It's been so great learning about products in Africa. And I think you've done an excellent job of making it sound very exciting, very challenging, but also very exciting and can't wait to hear more stories from Africa hopefully from more product people. Philips Nwachukwu:  Absolutely. The excitement is well hidden in the challenges if you don't box the challenges, you'd find the excitement actually. Lily Smith:  Yeah. Thanks so much for it's Philips Nwachukwu:  The pleasure is all mine. Thank you so much for having me, Randy. Lily Smith:  I loved getting this insight into Africa. Honestly, it does sound really exciting. Randy Silver:  It does. And it's a great reminder that innovation of bounds when there are unique challenges to overcome. Lily Smith:  So if you like what you're listening to, then please share it with your friends, your family, maybe even your boss. Randy Silver:  And you know, you can always subscribe so that you never miss a trick. See you next time. Lily Smith:  Haste, me, Lily Smith and me Randy silver. Emily Tate is our producer. And Luke Smith is our editor. Our theme Randy Silver:  music is from humbard baseband power that's P A you thanks to Ana killer who runs product tank and MTP engage in Hamburg and please based in the band for letting us use their music. Connect with your local product community via product tag or regular free meetups in over 200 cities worldwide. Lily Smith:  If there's not one Nagy you can consider starting one yourself. To find out more go to mind the product.com forward slash product tank. Randy Silver:  Product Tech is a global community of meetups during buying for product people. We offer expert talks group discussion and a safe environment for product people to come together and share learnings and tips