My Pivot Journal is a Ventures Africa weekly series documenting people’s career transitions from one industry to another, especially to tech.
Kenechukwu Nwankwo had a promising career as an Architect. But he realized that he didn’t enjoy it as much as he thought he would. He wanted to try something different and more fulfilling. Here is Kenechukwu’s pivot journal.
How it started
Initially, I wanted to study systems engineering and I was offered admission to study it. However, further maths was a prerequisite for any engineering course and I did not take it in WAEC. So I had to settle for my second choice, which was Architecture. Before I graduated, I got an employment offer from Landmark Africa, a popular development company in Lagos. I had done my IT there, so it made sense to go back there. When I joined them as an intern, they only had an event centre. I was part of the journey to bring up projects like the Hard Rock Cafe, the cinema, and the Landmark Beach. I worked there for over three years, starting as an architect but also diving deeper into development which involved finding sites, coming up with ideas for sites, transforming the sites, and making money.
It was during COVID in 2020, it hit me. They asked me to come to the office during the lockdown. I thought it was absurd because I didn’t need to come into the office to design. I had also gotten tired of the endless revisions and the tedious work of designing. One of the things that frustrated me as an architect was the constant demand for more designs. Sometimes, a client would give me a brief or a vague idea of what they wanted. I would create the first draft and then they would ask me to give them three more samples. That’s another way of saying three full designs. I started to question my career path as an architect. I had to ask myself hard questions, What have I gotten from this? Was architecture something I wanted to do long-term?
I tried to shift to the development management side of architecture, but that did not work out either, because we did not have another architect at that time. I couldn’t see myself doing architecture long-term. I decided to explore other options. Somehow, tech had always been close to me because my dad works in tech. I remember getting my first computer when children were playing with toys. I did some research and I saw the opportunities that tech offered. When I did the analysis and weighed my options, it made sense for me to transition to tech.
Product management was a new and exciting field. I am a visual learner, so I started to learn as much as I could from YouTube and video-based courses. I took a product management course on Udacity and a couple of courses on Product School. It was during the Black Lives Matter movement, so I took advantage of the discounts that were offered to black people. Then, I joined all the product communities I could find. I joined Product Management Africa, a community that started on WhatsApp before moving to Slack. I joined Product Tank Lagos. I would go there and sit down, listen to what they had to say, and network. I also started applying for jobs almost immediately but I couldn’t get any.
I had the chance to join a program run by Product Management Africa. They placed aspiring product managers into companies or projects for three months. It was like an internship. As part of that program, we were assigned mentors, who guided and gave us feedback. While I was still in the program, a former colleague from Landmark contacted me. He told me about a project that I had worked on before, which had matured into a school. They had a program for product managers and he thought I would be a good fit. I applied and got selected. I joined the program at the end of 2020 and simply continued to improve my PM skills.
One of the challenges I faced while transitioning was the skepticism from potential employers. They would look at my CV and ask me why I was applying for a product role when I was an architect. It had a way of bringing down one’s confidence. But it didn’t stop me from searching. I needed to get a job soon. I had made sure to save up some money just before I quit my job as an architect. The money was supposed to last me a year, but it ran out sooner than I expected. Luckily, I found something before I ran out of options.
Google was a good resource for finding roles. I picked up some hacks to find product roles that were not widely advertised. I would use Google to filter the search results by specific sites and keywords. For example, I would type “site: lever. co” and then associate product manager in quotation marks. This would show me all the associate product manager roles on Lever, which is a hiring platform. I applied to as many as I could. After almost a year of learning and applying, I finally landed my first role as an associate product manager. That was when I felt like I could relax and focus on developing myself in tech.
My first culture shock working in tech was the concept of working remotely. I was like “Are you serious? This is great!” However, this affected my preferences for future roles. I became more interested in fully remote positions than hybrid ones. Working remotely also came with more expectations. I had to learn to communicate better with my colleagues and clients since I couldn’t see them face-to-face. Stakeholder management was also different. In construction, I was familiar with the domain and the expectations of the stakeholders. In software, I had to learn fast what the developers were doing and how to tell if they were being honest with me. I also had to deal with conflicting demands from two senior managers who pulled me in different directions. Another culture shock was working with younger people. In real estate and construction, most of my coworkers were older and had families. In tech, even the co-founders were in their twenties.
I also had to learn many tech terms to contribute to meetings and drive the company’s initiatives. If I didn’t understand half of the things that were discussed in a meeting, I couldn’t contribute effectively. Even if I repeated what I heard, my manager would ask me follow-up questions that I couldn’t answer. I also struggled with customer support. In construction, I didn’t have to deal with customers directly, as it was a B2B business. But in tech, it was a B2C business and I had to handle a lot of support issues during the weekends. How I coped was by grouping the issues by category. I focused on solving the issues that were recurring or urgent. I asked for help and delegated some of the issues to my team members. I also became more patient and empathetic with the users.
How it’s going
I am a senior product manager at Mono, a fintech company that provides open banking services. A typical day for me starts with stand-ups, which are short, daily meetings to discuss progress and identify blockers. Before that, I check the product performance and see if there are any issues I need to report in the stand-ups. Then I meet with my team to know what everyone is working on for the day, and if we have any blockers or dependencies. After that, I spend 30 minutes to an hour reading up on the latest trends and developments in our industry, such as regulations, competitors, and customer feedback. Then, in the afternoon, I work on any documentation that I need to update or create based on the discussions and decisions we make. I also handle any support issues that come up during the day and communicate with the stakeholders and customers as needed.
The most exciting thing about product management is knowing that I can do things that can change what the world looks like. For example, my company does open banking, which lets people access and use their financial data in different ways. This can improve things like lending and financial inclusion. It is also exciting to work with some of the smartest and most passionate people ever. My transferable skills help. My designers enjoy working with me because I have a good sense of design and user experience. I can spot potential problems and suggest improvements that are helpful to them. I can also create low-fidelity and high-fidelity designs, but I mostly focus on the low-fidelity ones now. On the flip side, working in fintech comes with a lot of risk of fraud and cyberattacks. We have to be always on top of our security and compliance. Plus, the Central Bank of Nigeria can change the regulations anytime and affect our business.
I see myself working in tech for a long time. What I might change is maybe exploring the intersection between property and fintech, which would still be largely fintech. There are some technology companies today that are doing interesting things in this space, and I think I have a good background in property and fintech to contribute to them.
To get the skills I need for the roles I want, I look at job descriptions of those roles and find the keywords or skills they require. Then I make a personal development plan to learn those skills. For example, if a role needs someone who knows APIs, I would study what APIs are and how to use them. I would also take online courses or tutorials on APIs. If the role is senior and in a sector like fintech, I would also learn about the regulations and best practices in that sector.