Navigating a career in product is different for everyone. Some of us will follow a traditional route, while others find their way through exploration, trial, and error. So, what are the similarities in these career paths and what can we learn from people who’ve already found their way?
To answer these questions, we talked to three product managers, Oluwatobi Otokiti, Sally Brogan, and Stewart Livingstone.
“You must be intentional about your personal and career development”
Oluwatobi Otokiti, a Product Manager at Andela in Nigeria, has been working in product management for five years. However, just seven years ago, she had no idea what product management was. So how did she get to where she is today?
Unsure of what tech career path she wanted to tread, Oluwatobi’s career began at a startup.
“At startups, you get to be hands-on in almost everything that’s needed for the company to succeed,” she says, “and so I started software development, learnt animation, offered IT support, and customer service.” Three years in, she furthered her education with an MSc in Computer Science and went on to get a role as a product manager at the financial services company, Interswitch Group. “My job here was to build financial payment products for consumers and banks and that was the beginning of my product management journey,” she says.
For Oluwatobi, this beginning led on to an incredible learning experience. She made significant achievements, including the build and launch of cardless payment products to over 10 banks in Nigeria. Then, two years into the role, she took a professional product management training and exam to become a Certified Product Manager and a member of the Association of International Product Marketing and Management (AIPMM) body.
Support From Within
In 2017 she joined Andela, a software engineering-as-a-service company, leading the product and design team in creating internal products to achieve business goals.
“The company is headquartered in New York but I work from Lagos with a distributed team of colleagues across Nigeria, Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda, New York and San Francisco,” she says. And it’s been her experience that Andela plays a positive role in the progression of its employees. “Andela is excellent at asking for feedback from employees and incorporating that input into the workplace in order to help employees grow their professions in the company. Andela also provides me with learning resources and training, and supports my public speaking engagements in different parts of the world.”
So it seems Oluwatobi’s professional journey has been fuelled by her own hard work and determination, with the added benefit of support and opportunities provided by her employees. Has it all been plain sailing? “One of the biggest challenges I encountered when I started as a product manager was finding local experiences and training to fully grasp what it meant to be a product manager and what the career trajectory was like in this space,” she says. “The role of product management is quite nascent in Nigeria, with different and undefined paths for breaking into the field.” In addition, she explains, few companies understand the value the product management role brings into a company and, at times, responsibilities can be misaligned.
Based on these experiences, Oluwatobi decided she should offer support for others on the road to product management and so founded ProductDive in 2019. “ProductDive is an empowerment organisation that helps to provide the right skill set via online, offsite training, and knowledge sharing sessions to aspiring product managers and managers to help them accelerate their career in product management,” she says.
Getting the Career you Want
Oluwatobi has been deliberate about empowering herself with the skill sets needed to position herself for global opportunities and intentional about owning her career journey and growth.
‘The results of doing that have inspired me to do more,” she says. “I grew from managing products into leading a product team of product managers and designers to deliver world-class products.
“My goal now is to build great products that positively impact the next billion users and, at the same time, empower aspiring product managers and product managers with the right skill set to do likewise,” she says. “My career looks like this – grow in the product management role to become a Chief Product Officer or CEO.”
She adds: “Value is the currency of the future. To give value to an organisation, or build valuable products, you need to feed yourself with value by being a lifelong learner. Technology is continuously evolving; you must be intentional about your personal and career development. And remember to Iterate Until Awesome!”
“I had to make sure I sold my personality as much as my skills”
Sally Brogan, is MD Product and Tech at video tech business Big Sofa in London and has been working in product management for eight years, gaining much of her experience and developing her expertise through working at a startup.
“Working in a startup has taught me most of my skills rather than any professional training,” says Sally, who, unusually for someone so interested in tech, studied History at university. In fact, while some of the skills she uses today are ones she’s worked hard to learn on the job or through training and events, many, she says, can also be traced back to her studies.
Talking about her degree, she says: “There are definitely transferrable skills in terms of deep understanding of concepts, analysis, and drawing conclusions from many different variables. I’ve also attended a lot of workshops and courses as well as community meet-ups which have provided outside insight.”
Selling you as Well as Your Skills
Prior to Big Sofa, Sally worked in a similar role – but without a tech product. She developed financial events and, to land her current role, she says she felt she had to ensure the company knew who she was, just as much as they needed to know what she could do. “The culture of the company relies on finding the right people so I had to make sure I sold my personality as much as my skills. I told them I was inherently nosy and interested in people!”
Once in the door, Sally has worked hard and her progression has been well supported. “I feel I have been very fortunate to be given the opportunity to grow. I’ve also been lucky enough to work in a developing startup where there were plenty of opportunities,” she says.
And there’s still so much she wants to do.
“I’d love to learn more technical skills,” she says. “I’ve started teaching myself Python and learning about ML as I’d love to get a more technical understanding of the processes and technical scaffolding behind data-rich products.”
Looking Forward to the Next Step
After seven and a half years at Big Sofa, almost three of those years leading the team, Sally is clear about the direction she wants her career to take. However, how she’ll get there isn’t yet quite as obvious.
“The idea of what ‘Product’ is has been forming during the time I’ve worked in the industry, and it’s only recently that we’ve formed a clearer idea of what this means,” she says. “For example, project management often gets confused with product management, and this has meant that a pathway hasn’t always been clear for progression.” As a result, Sally has always tried to find her own clarity. “I attend events whenever possible to get an understanding of what’s happening in the industry and my role also means that I have some great relationships with recruiters who can keep me updated with how roles are developing and changing.”
On a personal level, she’s tried to seek opportunities and to challenge herself whenever she can. “When getting to grips with a project, I love to have a deep understanding of all facets of the project. It helps me be the authority in the business on what we’re building and to provide a bridge between different teams.
“Going out to events is always useful too, because talking to others not only provides some new ideas but also confidence and reassurance in your own expertise. This carries forward into your everyday work.” And for now, Sally’s happy she’s moving in the right direction, whatever the next step will be.
“What I’m doing and the culture of Big Sofa is still as interesting and engaging as when I joined. I haven’t felt the need to move around,” she says. What’s more, she feels supported by her organisation.
“There’s a conscious effort to recognise people’s contributions, where their skills lie and to allow them the freedom to learn and experiment in areas if they show an interest,” she says. “I’m lucky in that I’ve been given space to take on responsibility and to shape my role as the company has developed. I hope that I am doing the same when working with my team.”
“I proved my ability then went for the job I wanted”
Stewart Livingstone took on the role of Digital Delivery Manager at Co-op Digital in Manchester earlier this year after 16 years in various roles outside product.
“I’ve worked in retail operations, but the biggest part of my career has been in HR and more specifically within Learning and Development. I’ve done this for the last 10 years,” he says.
“In Learning and Development within HR, I worked across various different specialisms from delivery to design and within different contexts like retail, logistics and our support centre which covered change projects, behavioural frameworks and risk.”
Stewart’s move to Digital Delivery Manager came when, thanks to some hands-on experience, he saw an opportunity and expressed a desire to move in a new direction. He’d been working with the support of his mentor to transform a non-digital team into one that used agile ways of working.
“My mentor ran sessions where I could see the outcomes of the things I’d put in place,” he says. “I was able to transform the team and prove my ability. So, once I’d completed that change, I expressed an interest in becoming a Delivery Manager. At the time there was a vacancy which I applied for and was successful in getting.”
Having now been in his new role for nine months, Stewart is already looking ahead to what’s next.
“I’d like to be able to influence more strategic direction at Co-op and to do that I’d need to be in a ‘Head of’ role,” he says. “I feel that with my experience I can make a difference at that level but right now I’m not sure how to get there.”
The challenge, Stewart explains, is that career pathways aren’t always clear in product management. It can make it difficult for people to get from A to B without some level of luck.
“To get to the next level I need to have experience with different types of product teams. That would mean that I’d have to move around a lot to get that experience and our business isn’t currently set up in that way.”
To be proactive and to work around the issues he sees, Stewart signs up for the different programmes that are available.
“I’m taking part in a coaching programme to become a qualified coach and I’m hoping to apply to be on our new leadership programme next year,” he says. “I’m also pushing myself to go out and network more, and challenging myself to do more public speaking.”
Spotting the Trends
The interesting thing about speaking to Oluwatobi, Sally and Stewart is that while their individual journeys have been very different, they all have one thing in common.
Each person has actively sought out opportunities, independently learned new skills, sought guidance and insights from the product community and carved out the route they wanted to take.
Here are just some of the ways they’ve proved you can give your professional progression a boost:
- In job interviews, communicate how your skills would help the business
- Express a willingness to learn the things you don’t know
- Talk to other product people – it will inspire ideas and confidence in your own expertise
- Listen to podcasts – it’s a great way to learn for free
- Read relevant books – Oluwatobi recommends Inspired by Marty Cagan and Shoe Dog by Phil Knight
- Soak up knowledge and learnings at meetups, conferences and workshops
- Pursue roles and opportunities that challenge you to upskill
- Speak up about what you want – whether that’s training, support, or a new position