November 22, 2022

Conversations With Black Product Managers: Monica Ugwi Of Shopify

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

Our first feature is with Monica Ugwi, a Product Director @ Shopify.

Monica is a product leader with over a decade of experience building meaningful products for millions of users. She has deep technical expertise and leads with empathy for users and her teams. She is obsessed with using technology to make lives better.

Monica has built products at Shopify, Google, Facebook, as well as in startup settings. She holds a degree in Computer Science from Grinnell College and an MBA from Stanford University.

I started by asking questions to learn more about Monica’s story and her 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?

M: I studied computer science in college and started my career in tech as a Software Engineer building high-frequency trading engines on Wall Street. I enjoyed that work, and I started to realize that there was this role called Product Manager. PMs had a lot of influence over how products are built, and they did this through a deep understanding of user needs. This piqued my interest and I started to dabble in a PM gig while I was in my engineering role.

Eventually, I went to business school. I had in mind that I was going to be a Product Manager down the road because it fit well with my passion for technology and my empathy for users.

As a Director of Product at Shopify, I love building products that make commerce better for everyone. I suspect I’ll continue building products for a while.

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

M: I try to maintain a presence in large circles as well as in smaller communities with peers, mentors and mentees.

Large circles, like LinkedIn, have been great for opening me up to a wide range of ideas and industries. Through public speaking, I meet so many interesting people!

My small circles of peers, mentors, and mentees have also been very impactful.

With my peer group, I exchange day-to-day ideas in our messaging groups and even do compensation discussions (these are so important especially for people of colour to understand the market rate for our positions!). I highly recommend staying in touch with people who are in similar positions to you. It is very powerful to know that others are on the same journey.

With my mentors, I gain support and encouragement and often discuss very specific career goals or challenges that I am working through. Some mentors will literally connect with me through text message … they are awesome.

With my mentees, I help problem solve their own challenges and I learn from their perspective. This gives me so much life!

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

M: I’m encouraged by the fact that more companies are adopting rotational programs. This structure has the potential to create a good pipeline to get more diverse candidates into product management.

As we get a better understanding of the different types of PM paths, I expect to only continue to see more educational programs that help people identify the right PM tracks and that prepare candidate for these positions.

Many companies are choosing to become product-led. This will open up more power to PMs, and with that more responsibility.

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

M: The main problem is the lack of access to opportunities in the tech space. Talent follows a normal distribution. However, we know that access to opportunity is skewed to certain groups.

The path into product management remains painfully ambiguous which results in relationships as a primary lever for breaking in.

For so many PMs, someone took a chance on them. But if you don’t have access to the right “someone” then this makes breaking in much harder. I am encouraged by more formal programs cropping up to help democratize access because to build the best products we need the best and the brightest regardless of race, socio-economic class, or other social constructs.

Advice for aspiring Black Product Managers

As someone who is considered a Product Leader in her field, I thought it would be beneficial to hear some advice Monica 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?

M: Focus on getting into the role — even if this means becoming a PM in a lesser-known company, or building a less shiny product.

I find it’s much easier to transition to other positions of interest after you have demonstrated your ability to build something while holding the PM title. If you’re keen on big tech from Day 1, get on top of those APM applications!

As an engineer by training, I can tell you I’ve never had to burst out my hard coding skills to be effective at my role. With curiosity and willingness to learn, you can gain the technical skills you need without learning to code. Find someone who understands the space you’re interested in (e.g. an engineer) and have them explain the tech stack in layperson terms — simpler does it.

The internet is also an effective place to learn.

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?

M: I feel your pain; it is real.

There is a huge benefit to walking into a room and seeing people that look and speak like you.

And yet, you must persist because you have everything inside of you that you need to become an amazing PM. You just need to bring it out; walk into that room and do not be discouraged. You are enough and do not let anyone tell you otherwise.

Don’t worry that you can’t see the right level of representation. You’ve got this. Jump in here and keep pushing; you’re making things better for those who come after us.

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