Infrastructure issues leech on tech gains for Nigerian companies – Udezue
Oji Udezue is an experienced product management leader with stints in marketing, sales, engineering, and design leadership. In this interview with IFEOMA OKEKE-KORIEOCHA, he speaks on his experience in the tech space and how entrepreneurs can successfully build digital products, amongst others.
Take us through your journey in the tech space?
I joined one of the earlier IT services firms in Nigeria, Telnet Nigeria Limited and iTeco (a subsidiary) during my college years as an intern. I then proceeded to complete my NYSC in Lagos working for the same company. I got into grad school for a P.HD at the University of Southern California for Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. I got a scholarship, joined a lab and worked on mobile internet protocols and more.
I decided to graduate with only an M.sC, declining the full PhD track. After working in a network OS company briefly, I joined Microsoft for a long while. As a product manager, I worked on many products you know and love – Windows, Internet Explorer, Hotmail, Outlook, Windows Mail, etc. I invented many things at Microsoft – 12 patents through my time there.
At the end of that run I was eager for more adventure. First I joined a marketing team, and then I started an executive MBA at the Berkeley and Columbia schools of business (a joint program). When I got my MBA I moved and joined the largest hedge fund in the world, Bridgewater Associates, ultimately working for Ray Dalio. After a year there, I started a tech company that ran for three years. I then joined Atlassian and then Calendly and finally Twitter; in each case, leading large teams to build software that makes that business successful.
As an experienced product management leader, could you tell us why the interest in this field?
Software is the most profitable business in the world. Appropriately applied software is the best way to increase return on capital of any business. Product Managers are the key catalysts to build software that people want. I guess I dispute the premise of the question. ‘Product Manager’ is the hardest, most selective job in the r&d process for software or IT companies. It’s just not a well-known skill set in Nigeria but very highly sought after and compensated in silicon valley.
You also have an interest in sales, marketing, engineering and design leadership. How do you merge these components to create value?
When you’re working to get to the CSuite, it’s often advantageous to understand firsthand how other parts of the business work. In major companies executives that are part of the leadership bench are often given tours of duty in various parts of the business in order to be more effective leaders.
I personally want to be able to understand how all the levers of the company work; how to create value in every department so that when you are responsible for it all, you’re not out of your depth. I also am naturally curious and love side quests to satisfy my curiosity about how things work. An exec who understands these things is a stellar partner to other execs and has a great chance to add value and solve problems beyond their ken.
What are some of your challenges and what are the success stories you have recorded in the tech space?
For challenges, I had to traverse the immigration challenges in America, starting with a h1b up to becoming a citizen. Some of that was quite challenging. Being black in America can be quite a challenge. You have to endure so much racism; micro and macro aggressions.
People don’t believe you can be brilliant and creative as any other person and demand proof. People deny you opportunities. I’ve had my share of bosses who made life difficult and didn’t advocate for me.
For successes, I had fun at Microsoft and shipped many products people know and love and use every day. I built a tech company! Even though it didn’t stand the test of time, I was very grateful for the experience of inception, raising money, hiring, building, selling and more. I’ve applied every lesson there to subsequent opportunities. I helped Atlassian execute their vision for the world and got a great introduction to the potential of Business-to-business Software-as-a-Service, (B2B SaaS).
I worked with brilliant people to turn Calendly into a unicorn. I presided over some of the most creative product launches in Twitter history – social audio, the resurgence in Tweets, and brand new work on Creators and Communities. I have helped and invested in countless start-ups – working to make them more successful. I work hard to help founders of colour and women become more successful. Finally, I have spoken at and will continue to speak at many conferences that work to raise the bar on building successful software businesses; and continue to try to inspire a new generation of creative professionals who are going to start and build very successful software companies.
How long did you lead the content, creation and conversation team at Twitter and what was the experience like for you?
I did this for one year and a quarter. It was a really great time. Twitter has an amazing culture and really strong talent. My team acquired four to five companies during that time to bolster our focus on the creator economy and messaging. And this new blood infected the team with energy. I had a portfolio of stable stuff like Tweets and DMs, but also new investments like Creators, Social Audio, Communities and Media Studio.
Twitter is by far the most diverse big tech company as well so it was so good to meet with, lead, work for and work with so many brilliant people of colour and women. I think the only negative experience was really around how operationally immature some of the company was. It was painful sometimes.
What was the effect of the last Twitter ban on Nigerian businesses?
I think some of them lost a reliable marketing outlet. Young people in Nigeria love Twitter and businesses have lost the ability to connect to that segment and use Twitter to show them ads.
I think the main loss was that young Nigerians lost a way to express themselves on things that mattered to them or just to find community with other people all over the world. That’s a big deal in 2022.
During COVID-19, companies began to explore several digital options to mitigate the restrictions in movement. Post COVID-19, do you think companies still leverage on these work tools for productivity?
This shift has been long in the making. In 2012 Microsoft in Seattle spent two weeks working remotely because of a snow storm. It was largely flawless for almost 30,000 people. The tech sector and beyond have had these tools for a while. Most of the reluctance is really about work culture and management policy and other factors like the utilization of corporate real estate spending. Or cultural things like how much control bosses have over the time of their reports.
The tools are not perfect yet though, they still need more maturity. But they are here and here to stay. The tools we have started to adopt en masse through covid will endure because they unlock flexible options for companies and workers; all things in high demand.
Remote work is not a panacea. There is still a lot to refine and a lot to learn. But the benefits to employers and employees are real. Covid broke through the negative norms and taboos. So we’re all going to be breaking new ground on how the world goes to work for a while. Certainly many people in the tech sector would no longer consider a job without a work from home option.
How do you think entrepreneurs with a low budget can build a digital product that can sell and compete maximally in the market?
‘Low budget’ is a too narrow framing of the problem. We should separate that into two separate concepts. The first is the cost of starting a software company and building traction. The second is funding for growth. Software businesses are taking less and less money to start – huge downward trend over the last 15 years. But it’s not nothing either, especially outside the west. What entrepreneurs can do is study to do this with more precision, less waste.
Pick the right validated problem – this is by far the biggest predictor of success for any entrepreneur, right next to insight about the target customer. Focus on building the right-sized simple lovable product (SLP) not just an MVP. Get mentors and helpers to take the fat out of this initial journey. Work hard to focus on early customers and build traction.
With initial traction and success can come funding – show that there is desirability and that the unit economics can work if extrapolated into the future. Capital is not guaranteed operating from Nigeria. Indeed, it’s not guaranteed to operate from San Francisco. But it’s getting better and better. Investors are getting wiser to the quality of founders and we should be working to elevate the quality of founders. And it will keep getting better.
I’ve done so many angel deals in the last eight years where we were the first money in.
Just remember that traction can bring funding – so find a way to build traction.
Compared to other African countries, do you think Nigerian companies are leveraging technological tools to boost productivity in the workplace?
Yes. But our many infrastructure problems, like transportation and power, probably leech a lot of the gains we should have. And there is always more we could do better obviously. We lag the west by about two to 10years in productivity tools deployed at scale. It’s hard to compare against other African countries but I’d say the thing to focus our competitive comparisons with other African countries are infrastructure issues. That is by far the most cogent limiting factor, not technology tools. I mean, how many workers in Nigeria have access to a workplace likely to even have technology tools?