As part of our Tales in Tech series we’ve been catching up with members of our tech community throughout lockdown to share the journeys, lessons learnt and advice that has helped them through their careers to date.

This week we caught up with Product Manager at The Very Group , Muktar Mahama. After completing a Software Engineering degree at university, Muk’s curiosity led him down the path of Product Management where he has worked from start-ups to household names such as Tesco & Intechnica where he worked with Pets at Home. He shared an insight into his day to day responsibilities, his advice for anyone considering a career in product and the reason he loves to attend tech meetups.

Tell us a bit about yourself and your role at The Very Group:

I studied Software Engineering at university and started working for a pharmaceutical company in my placement year. I actually joined as a Systems Engineer but whilst I was there I took more of an interest in a Business Analyst role, so I transitioned for the rest of the year and absolutely loved it.

Although I came from a technical background, I found the technical work less interesting. I'm very curious as a person. I always want to know how things work and I love talking to people, so this role was perfect for me. I completed my placement, finished uni and joined a start-up as a Product Manager (PM), we were building a virtual personal trainer before building bespoke software for different companies. That was my first dabble in product management and from there I moved on to work for Tesco and Intechnica before joining Very. My role here includes shaping the vision and strategy for the Very and Littlewoods apps. I do this by working with my team to discover customer needs coupled with our business strategy to define the purpose for our apps for the business.

Do you think your technical engineering degree has helped you in Product Management?

You don’t need a technical degree to be a PM at all, but I would say it helped by enabling me to have conversations with technical people. We’re working on solving difficult customer and business problems, so it helps to understand things like the technology stack that’s being used to build your product. Although you have someone else to actually make those technical decisions, you need to be involved in that decision making because it’s going to impact your product.

The caveat to that is, it’s easy to get sucked into having technical conversations rather than focusing on building the right thing. Think of product as ‘building the right thing’ and tech as ‘building the thing right’. Both impact one another, so it’s about finding that balance.

What is your favourite part of a typical workday?

I think that’s why I got into product in the first place, because there is no standard workday! It varies, a typical day for me involves looking at the performance of my product from a data perspective, looking at app reviews and liaising with stakeholders to discuss upcoming or ongoing initiatives we are working on. Sometimes it’s to understand if there are any compliance, legal or regulatory changes that are going to impact us in any way. But for me, product discovery is the best part.

It’s getting right under the skin of what we’re solving and why we’re solving it, and bringing people together collaboratively to try and get to the bottom of how we can solve it, all the way from ideation to bringing in a candidate for experimentation - if it’s needed.

What are some of the key differences you found when working for a start-up vs a huge enterprise such as Tesco & The Very Group?

With a start-up you’re involved in a lot of different things and your contribution is felt massively because it’s a small team. You can directly see what you’ve done and the impact you’ve made coming to fruition. There are also less hoops to jump through to get work done depending on the type of industry you work in.

In larger companies, the impact you can have is seen by a lot more people but there are a number of people involved in making it happen. You also have more exposure to resources. For example, we have an in-house UX lab at Very where we bring customers in to carry out user research. This is brilliant, and you wouldn’t necessarily have resources like this in a start-up. Like most things, there are pros and cons for each.

What would you say have been some of your greatest achievements throughout your career?

I have worked on a lot of products and I have really enjoyed each in a different way. One that sticks out was from early on in my career during my placement. I was looking at how we report on adverse events for clinical trials, which at the time was a manual process, and I was involved in working on a way to digitise that experience. We ultimately made the reporting process much quicker and although it might not necessarily be my biggest achievement, it’s one that sticks out for me as it was one of the first impacts I made in my career.

There are also products and features I have worked on that have failed, the learnings from those have helped me work on some very successful products.

I love looking at what we can do to make a positive impact on people’s lives, that’s why I chose to go into pharmaceuticals originally. I like to make a positive impact in everything I do and that’s definitely something I look for when choosing a product role.

What about the most interesting challenge that you’ve faced?

I would say managing friends. From my time at the start-up I had to wear a lot of different hats, so as part of being a PM I was also a kind of General Manager too. I’d gone from working with people on a daily basis to suddenly managing them, and that was tricky. Having those straight and honest conversations with people who were my good friends about things you’re not happy with proved challenging, and I had to rehearse some of those things before I delivered them. I would say those were definitely some of the most uncomfortable times for me.

Before lockdown did you attend any meetups or are there any virtual events you’ve attended? Are there any that you would recommend?

Yes definitely. I go to ProductTank often and have been to both the London & Manchester events. I’ve also been to Ladies That UX. I like meeting people and am always curious about things going on in the Product community. There are a lot of like-minded people who attend those events and it’s a great way to continue developing my craft and finding out about how others approach product.

Is the UX side of things something that you’re interested in?

Absolutely. UX is something I absolutely love, and I couldn’t do my role without having a big interest in that.

What advice would you give to a Junior Product Manager who’s looking to rise up the ranks, or someone who is considering a career in Product but unsure of where to start?

I think what I’ve found helps me in my career so far is curiosity. Asking ‘why?’ a lot. Trying to explore different ways to find a solution to a problem. Learn to involve people in the problem solving, don’t try and do everything by yourself.

I also think one of the skills to develop is empathy. Having empathy for the people you’re solving problems for really helps in the solutions that are developed. You need to try putting yourself in a customer’s shoes to really understand what they are going through when using your product.

A huge thank you to Muk for taking the time out to share his journey into tech and some of his experiences throughout his career. As Muk mentions, tech meetups are a fantastic way to network with like-minded professionals and enhance your knowledge of particular tools, technologies and frameworks. We’ve been hosting weekly Tales in Tech talks on a host of different topics throughout lockdown. You can watch back any of our previous webinars here and hear about all of our upcoming tech talks via our Meetup pages: London & Manchester.

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