December 12, 2022

Conversations With Black Product Managers: Sefunmi Osinaike Of Co.Lab

Originally published on Medium by Glenesha Grant as part of her "5 Coffees, 5 Days w/ Black Product Managers" series.

Our fifth and last feature is with Sefunmi Osinaike, Co-founder of Co.lab and author of “How to Product.”

Sefunmi Osinaike is currently working on the Co.Lab program that gives people the experience they need to land jobs in the tech industry. Specifically around Product Management, Product Design, and Software Development. His first PM role was at Microsoft. Before he got into product management, he was building a product to help students better manage their time and took the experience from that to build up his PM skills.

I started by asking questions to learn more about Sefunmi’s story and his journey into the product management field as a Black professional.

G: Can you describe your journey into product management? How did it start and what’s next for you?

S: My journey into Product Management was very accidental.

While I was in university, other students and I were experiencing a similar problem. The grades we were used to getting in high school weren’t the same as the ones we were getting in university.

I really wanted to help solve this problem, for instance, a friend of mine nearly had to drop out of a program in university because of this issue.

My hypothesis at the time was that we were spending too much time on social media like YouTube or Facebook instead of studying. So, I decided I wanted to solve that problem and allow us to get better grades.

I tried to figure stuff out like talking to students and so on, and eventually, I learned it was a time management issue, and not spending lots of time on social media.

The whole experience of discovering and validating a problem was really exciting for me because I was able to understand that it was possible to solve problems in different ways. So, I took one of my internship terms to try and build this product even though I didn’t know how to code or design. But I knew I was gonna build this product somehow.

Luckily, I had a roommate that was a great programmer and friends in design to form a team to build this time management app over four months where we were able to release iOS and Android app versions of it.

It was something that I was really proud of.

When it was time to look for jobs after graduation, I looked back at this experience and how I really enjoyed building a product from the ground up. After doing some research and talking to other people to figure out what I wanted to do, I stumbled upon product management.

And so, I started to apply for Product Manager internships and got my first offer at Microsoft.

Overall, I was just trying to solve my own problem and building a solution for it with my friends which gave me the experience I needed to journey into product management as a PM intern at Microsoft.

Now in terms of what’s next for me, I am no longer a Product Manager, but I did spend 5–7 years working as a Product Manager where I worked at places like Microsoft, Apple, and I worked in different start-up companies like ecobee in Canada and Copper in the US.

Since then I’ve decided to start my own company called Co.lab, which aims at helping people become Product Managers and other roles by giving them the product experience that follows a similar path that I did.

It gives aspiring PMs the experience they need to break in and succeed in tech and we do that by allowing them to build products and work cross-functionally in teams, so they can put these projects into their portfolio.

Our program has graduated over 365 students who now have landed jobs at companies like Google, Amazon, Microsoft based on the experience we were able to give them.

I’ve also written a book called “How to Product”, where I interviewed about 40 Product Managers from non-traditional backgrounds and the book covers 25 of those product managers to give insight for people who want to transition into Product Management from outside the industry. Their stories about what they struggled with and what they did to eventually land their first PM role.

I’ve come from just being a student who was just building a product out of my own curiosity to now being able to train people and give them the best PM practices and experience they need to succeed in the industry.

G: If you have been a part of product management communities, how has being a part of them helped your career?

S: When I started out, I actually wasn’t a part of any communities. I looked for some, but I didn’t find any. Also, product management was fairly new and companies weren’t hiring a lot of junior folks.

But if I had to join a community of people who are similar to me, it would be Black Product Manager Network. It is a very helpful community that provides mentorship and guidance for aspiring Black PMs like resume feedback, proper strategies to get your first PM job and things like that.

I say this because it’s great to have firsthand knowledge from someone who has gone through the entire process before you because it shows that hey, you can do it too.

Plus, the community aspect of it is important because you have a group of people similar to you gather around to support you in your endeavours to become a Product Manager.

G: What is one innovative thing you are seeing changing in the product management field in the next 5–10 years?

S: It is very difficult to predict what the future of technology is cause it’s changing so rapidly. There are obvious ones like web3, blockchain and others like that, but I think it is important to not forget the foundation which is to solve a customer problem.

It’s important to not get carried away with different technologies. We as product managers need to think about the genuine problem that we are trying to solve for our customers. Because there is no point in using the biggest and most complicated technologies to solve very simple problems.

As a product manager, as long as you’re customer-obsessed and focused on customer problems then you will be ready and prepared for whatever the industry throws at you.

G: In your opinion, why do you think we aren’t seeing as many Black men and women in tech as we could?

S: I think for the longest time I was like the only Black Product Manager at the places that I worked at. I think it goes back to, you can’t be what you can’t see.

If you don’t even see a lot of people in the positions that you want to be in, then you start to tell yourself that you don’t belong there, and I believe that is the initial problem.

I also think there are issues with the hiring pipeline. Most people are hired based on referrals and if there are fewer Black people at companies, then it’s less likely to be even fewer Black people coming in through the pipelines. It is a very systematic problem.

But I do think we are making some progress. Because there are folks who are being very intentional in paving the way for others even outside of just product management. I see more folks mentoring, handing out resources, scholarships, and sponsorships too.

It is more about building that confidence. Like 80% of students in Co.lab are BIPOC and the most important thing we spend time on is building confidence in themselves.

And I believe we will start to see more progress in this space as the years go by.

Advice for aspiring Black Product Managers

As someone who is considered a Product Teacher in his field, I thought it would be beneficial to hear some advice Sefunmi would have for aspiring Black Product Managers who want a career in tech.

G: What sort of advice would you give to someone that wants to shift careers into product management without a tech background?

S: I always tell people you don’t need a technical background to become a PM. My co-founder for Co.lab, Helen Huang has an Arts & Science degree and didn’t know how to code, but she ended up becoming a great PM at Microsoft and worked there for almost five years.

Having a technical background isn’t a prerequisite for becoming a PM. I believe being a problem solver is a prerequisite for being a PM and I think some of the best PMs bring a lot of complementary skills from other careers whether it be marketing, customer support, or even sales because PM is a very ambiguous role that spans across several things such as knowing technology to working with customers.

At the core of it, you are deciding the direction the product should go and that takes more than just somebody who knows how to code.

There are more technical products that would help if you had a technical background, but that should not stop you from trying to understand the technology itself.

You should definitely have the desire to learn. Being a PM in one company is different from being a PM in another company, so you must have the desire to keep on learning.

Lastly, a key piece of advice I would give to someone without a technical background is to stay close to the technical people in your team, read about technologies that people use every day to understand how they work, and know the technical concepts so they won’t go flying over your head.

G: What sort of advice would you give to Black men and women interested in a career in product management, but don’t see themselves represented in tech companies?

S: Be the change you want to see. If you have identified a company you want to work at and they don’t have any Black PMs and you want to see that change, then be the first one to do so.

Of course, that comes with a lot of responsibility because you are by yourself and now you have to figure it all out and that takes a lot of courage to do as an individual. It is a lot of work, so really reflect if you want to do that work because trust me it will be a lot.

And number two, if you want to break into PM, make sure to show the important traits that a product manager needs to have. I’ve mentioned problem-solving, being customer-obsessed, and showcasing in your own way how you were able to build something. Especially for first-time PMs who are switching to a new company.

It is more about “show, don’t tell.” You can tell people you know about product management, but it is more important to show your impact on your current work and showcase the proof.

Lastly, once you are in, always make sure to help bring other Black professionals in as well.

Originally published on Medium by Glenesha Grant as part of her "5 Coffees, 5 Days w/ Black Product Managers" series.  Find more interviews from the series here.
Glenesha Grant

Associate Product Manager at Loblaw Digital