Hear from Damola Odusolu, Senior Product Manager at Kin + Carta
In today’s instalment of our interviews with female tech leaders, Ten10 Client Partner Leah Yohans spoke with Damola Odusolu, who worked for seven years in finance before pivoting to become Senior Product Manager at Kin + Carta.
Damola spoke with us about her ‘zigzag’ career journey, how school prepared her for the world of work, how her interest in tech blossomed during her career, the importance of stakeholder management in her role, and what advice she has for people trying to make career changes in the world of tech. We hope you enjoy listening to Damola’s career story and find her insights useful.
Before we start, it would be good to hear a bit about your background coming in, because you’re smashing it right now in tech. It’d be good for some of our audience – they’re consultants either training or some of them who are deployed with our clients or just anyone who’s just generally interested – it’d be good to know what your background was before coming into the sector.
I did a degree in biochemistry at university which is obviously far from technology so hopefully that is encouraging to anyone who feels like they haven’t done something that directly relates to a career in tech. When I was about a year into that I realised it wasn’t the career path I wanted to follow and I started looking at other roles and other industries, and kind of fell into looking at finance roles. When I graduated, I took a job at a large international investment bank and started there in a client-facing trade processing-type role. So still very much not tech and I did that for about three and a half years. [There was an] Absolutely massive learning curve and I learned so much about the way of work, working life, and how to operate effectively and efficiently. And it helps clients a lot with getting issues resolved, both small issues I could fix myself and big issues that needed more tech involvement.
I enjoyed that second part of things: having an idea, working with a tech team to get it implemented, and seeing the benefit it had for clients. That’s how I ended up moving into the change management [space] and then eventually the tech space. I moved from the team I was in into another internal team and did some strategic consulting in-house. Interestingly and then got asked to move into the engineering division of the bank that I was working in about five years into my career there. So it was a bit of a zigzag journey.
Most people that I speak to on this have a zigzag journey, so I think it’s encouraging to see that it’s not linear coming into tech and especially for women, it’s comforting to hear. So you were asked to move into more of an engineering role. Do you think that your peers saw that that was your strength or were you having any conversations? How do you think that came about?
I was working in a specific business area, and we were just not getting the results we needed because we were so siled between the people who were involved in figuring out what to build and the people who were actually building it. And that sounds basic now that we all work in tech – obviously, you need teams that are all working together on the same goal – but the mission my MD had at the time and therefore brought me in to help with was ‘let’s align the people who are figuring out what to do with the people who are building it in one team, same reporting structure, same goal, same incentives’. That’s why we got pulled over into tech and I didn’t really canvas for it, but in my career, I’m always looking to have a meaningful impact. Getting involved in making stuff happen and building things is such a great way to do that.
Working directly with people who were actually doing the coding was an amazing way for me to feel personally fulfilled so I think all the decisions I was making lent to me being a good person for it. I had a good relationship with that MD and that worked out for me.
If we could take even more of a step back and talk about your education and how that impacted you. Some of our people in the Academy have gone to university, haven’t gone to university, or gone to either state school or private school, it varies, but we went to the same school and I wanted to talk about it because it is unique in the sense that it is a boarding school but something like 70% of the people are on some sort of scholarship and it is about bringing people who have come from backgrounds, where they otherwise probably wouldn’t have had the opportunity to have that education. So what did you take away from your experience [of] being a minority at a boarding school?
Great question. I think the thing that was so great about the school that we went to is I felt so comfortable being with people from all different backgrounds. As you mentioned, a lot of people there were on subsidised payments because it was a means-tested school. So, there were people there that were paying loads of money, people were there paying absolutely nothing, and you got a microcosm of society in the school where you could meet any and every kind of person.
I think that helped me because when I got out of school, I realised that not everyone was comfortable in environments where they weren’t the majority. Not everyone was comfortable with people that they couldn’t relate to at face value in terms of what they looked like, what they were interested in, or what their background was. I think our school was great for breaking down those barriers early. Everyone was able to present how they were, and everyone was pretty accepting of that to a certain degree. I know it wasn’t a perfect place, there were always going to be challenges, but that helped me. As soon as I left school, I felt like I could go into any environment and feel fairly comfortable and not feel inferior or worried or doubting myself because I was a little bit different because it was a common and not generally unpleasant experience at the school we came from.
I would second that as well. It is something that we’re constantly telling people and the technical consultants at Ten10: just be comfortable being uncomfortable. And I think that you’re just so used to everyone being different and there’s a comfortability in that and that’s how the real world is. Moving on to your career moving from finance, why did you make that move and how was that experience for you?
It took a long time. I worked in finance for seven years before I made the move. What drove me, ultimately, was curiosity. I’d worked in the same kind of industry for a long time, and I’d been introduced to this product world. I found it fascinating, and I discovered that product was a role outside of the firm – that you could do product roles at all kinds of companies – and I just started looking around and thinking ‘you know what, I would love to get some experience understanding how the digital world operates outside of what I’m so used to and outside of finance’. So that was what pushed me to start looking and I got a position in a digital transformation consulting firm which was perfect for me because it gave me an opportunity to experience product in so many kinds of organisations, be it e-commerce, health tech, or government. I’m now working in retail banking. It’s been amazing in terms of just broadening my scope and understanding of what tech means outside of the world of finance.
It sounds like it was important for you to get that breadth of experience as well. What advice would you get to someone that’s potentially looking to make a career move?
I say don’t be intimidated. It can be scary because either you’ve built up a skill set from your degree, or from what you’ve already been doing in a different area, and you can think ‘How do I even convince someone to take a chance on me to give me this role?’ Try not to be intimidated and try to think about what transferable skills you’ve developed in the role or the degree that you’ve done or whatever you’ve studied or whatever apprenticeship you’ve done. Because the skills are always transferable. There’s always something, you’re developing be it stakeholder management skills, analytical skills, or data analysis. There’s something that you can transfer over.
I think trying to find someone who can help you speak the language really helps. Someone who can help you figure out what the right words to say, what the buzzwords are to include in your CV, and what the right words to say are in the interview to help you get that foot in and give people the sense that you kind of know the lingo and therefore you’re interested and passionate about the industry.
The last thing I would say is just make sure you capture everything that you are. Don’t think you have to be one certain type of person to get in. You can be everything that you are, you can have all your varied interests and still have a fruitful tech career. You don’t have to be all about tech all the time. There are so many people who’ve come from-, the people I’ve worked with, they’ve been chefs, authors, people from all sorts of industries that have been able to use those skills as selling points for why they’d be good in the tech space.
I think that was an interesting point about maybe not even having a mentor but tapping into someone that’s in the space and maybe sound boarding what sounds good and what’s good to say in the CV or an interview. All that’s important. So, what would you say is the main difference between working in a big investment bank versus a consultancy? What are the highlights and challenges?
Because I spent so long in the investment bank, I definitely got to know everyone well. Your reputation kind of proceeds you, so you start a new project [and] people already know that you’re fairly good and you can do well. With consulting, you don’t have that safety net. You go from client to client and you’re proving yourself afresh every time. It’s super challenging in that way and very motivating because however long your engagements are – six months, one year – you’ve got a whole new set of stakeholders. A whole new environment to reprove yourself.
The other thing I found quite different about the industries is client-centricity. When I was in investment banking, it was very client-focused but in a different way from consulting where you’re literally working alongside the client and partnering with them on achieving their goals. As a consulting firm, our business is based on the value we add to the client and the hope that they’ll continue to see value in us and continue to put their funding here instead of elsewhere. There is that sales aspect of it as well in terms of upselling when you’re in there, what else you can identify they might need help with. We might have resources in the consulting firm that can help with that. It’s made me a lot more commercial in a good way and taking that client-centricity up to another level.
So how important is stakeholder management to your job?
It’s 80% of what I think about every day. It’s so important and stakeholder management – it can sound very stuffy and formal. It’s just all about building relationships and doing it authentically on both ends. So, you being authentic and you providing space for the person that you’re trying to build a relationship with to be authentic as well. I feel that’s when stakeholder management shines – when there’s that relationship building going on that feels genuine.
Again, I think it must be even more of a challenge in a consultancy where, as you said, you’re selling to each client for each project. It’s like from the ground up each time versus at the investment bank where your name is there. It must be such a challenge to speak with different stakeholders in different industries that have different groups of employees with different types of people. So, we were talking earlier about one of your clients now and I can imagine they’re completely different to one of your previous clients. You’ve got to have that skill built in.
I think it’s about building trust and one thing that’s worked well for me is [that] people love to be listened to and to know that they’ve been heard. One day you could be working in retail and one day you could be working in government, but ultimately that stakeholder that you put that 15 minutes in with and you ask them ‘What’s your vision? What are your challenges? What is the most important thing to you to be able to achieve your goals this year?’ You’re going to get authenticity back in that answer and you’re going to get someone feeling heard, seen, and understood. And I think that helps with the changing nature of consulting where you might work in a different industry, the stakeholder might be a very different vibe from the previous one, but ultimately everyone loves to talk about themselves, everyone loves to share their perspective, and everyone loves to feel like they’re being listened to and that what they’re being listened to then get executed. Because we can do as much stakeholder relationship [building] as we want but if we’re not then delivering value then it’s not going to matter. We need to take the opportunity with stakeholders to figure out what they really care about and then make sure we do that.
And just to end things [on] any advice that you might have for the next generation of technologists that are coming into the space or some of our consultants that are about to land in one of their placements or just anyone interested: what advice do you have for someone coming into tech?
The first thing is that there is absolutely plenty of room for us all to find our niche in tech. I think it’s a great industry and I think there’s something for everyone. Be it you’re a designer, a developer, a product manager, or a business analyst – there are so many different roles so, don’t count yourself out.
Secondly, it is a very male-dominated space so if there are any women listening to this that feel a little bit intimidated as they’re going through their interview and meeting a lot of people who don’t look like them, or maybe they feel like they can’t relate to, or you’re starting your first placement and you’re seeing a client and you’re not feeling comfortable and familiar, just realise that you deserve to be there and allow who you are to shine through. I used to get a lot of feedback about putting your elbows out. Getting your elbows out and making space for yourself. Not being afraid to take up space and just embracing the uncertainty but allowing yourself to bring your whole self along and not being worried about what that might present like.
I think more specifically to tech itself, just take the opportunity to learn. There’s so much to learn in this space. Be it domain knowledge, be it frameworks, be it processes we follow, anytime you have something that doesn’t make sense, that you’re unclear about, this is the perfect opportunity if you’re new to ask all the questions and it really does make people feel that, first of all, you’re committed, and that you’re interested in learning. So, ask all the questions, nothing is a stupid question, and generally, it’s a very welcoming industry so just go in hoping for the best. And I wish them all the best of luck.