Breaking into Tech

When I made the decision to leave banking for the startup life, some thought I was going crazy. The biggest question was why I was leaving stability and a “sure” monthly pay for a tech company they weren’t sure would meet salaries at the end of that month. I’ll admit that for most of these people, startups weren’t more than manifested wishful thinking doomed to die in a few months. Now my friends call me “tech sis” and my mum has said I’d explain what I do to her one day.

I don’t tell this story to inspire. This is my journey. Not all of us will be tech bro or tech sis and that’s fine.

Venturing Out (pre-2013)

I’ve always felt a critical disconnect between the first 19 years of my life (when I got my BSc) and the decade I’ve lived after. Pre-grad, all I ever heard was how young I was and how everything would be perfect.

I fell for it.

A little back story, I first wanted to be a lawyer, but went for Economics in Unilag — maybe I wanted to be like my dad who had studied and taught Economics before his role at the Chartered Institute of Bankers of Nigeria (CIBN) and subsequent passing away.

My eyes cleared when I went for NYSC (2012/2013). There, I was thrown into teaching at a secondary school that had less than 20 students total in all six grades, got toasted by village boys I had 5 years on and was inundated with calls to register for the Nigerian Institute of Management (NIM) certificate exams.

First Job (2013)

I started out selling. First I sold books and then plots of land with a real estate company.

It didn’t take me long to realise how much I hated sales. I simply hated convincing people to buy something and having my salary/performance review depend on their decision. Soon though, colleagues felt like family and I stayed for more than a year. On the flip side, I noticed how interesting I found creating a deck for the company (without being asked) and sourcing more effective lead generation techniques.

PS: I botched a panel interview with an investment bank in VI in April 2013, right after NYSC. Final stage interview and the CEO thinking I was nervous complimented my handbag to put me at ease. I appreciated that gesture and it told me how good the workplace culture would be. E pain me sha but it was clear why I didn’t get it — they needed technical knowledge and relevant experience.

I stalked the person that got the role for the longest time on LinkedIn. Lol.

The “This can’t be my life” syndrome (2014–2015)

Around this time, I got on JarusHub and even contributed articles on knowing oneself and making the best of sales jobs here and here to the platform. JarusHub rekindled an old interest in Finance, so I gave myself the next assignment — send cold emails to as many investment banks as I could find online.

Image for post
What my cold mails to companies looked like in 2014. Why did I feel the need to add my contact information so many times? 👀

I had left my real estate sales job around the same time without a new job in the pipeline. My only plan was hoping that a family member would pity me and refer me for a new job. I was at home for 5 months before I got a role at Nigeria’s longest surviving indigenous bank.

By 2017, when I had gotten serious about seeking a change, my format had changed. I drew up an Excel of companies I wanted to work in, and went after HR and decision makers in those companies. LinkedIn was the way this time and I only sent emails when they directed me to. Surprisingly, response rates were way better here than in 2014 and I got very good leads as well.

Image for post
3 years later, my messages were shorter, straight to the point and through a more “responsive” channel

Dealing with Rejection (Never Ends)

Going through my old emails and it’s clear that 2014 was my year of sending cold emails. It was also my year of multiple rejections.

A rejection from a telco in that year was the one that hit me the most. It was the one I thought I had in the bag as many of my suggestions had been used in my group’s presentation at the Assessment Centre. No — it was not KPMG.

Image for post

The second happened in 2018 — an investment bank that I really wanted to work with. The deal breaker was my 2:2 grade. In some companies, I wasn’t even allowed in the door because I had a 2:2.

Do your best in school kids. Second Class Upper and First Class degrees look nicer on CVs. They also make the journey easier.

But this was 2018 and 7 years post-graduation. I decided that wasn’t going to rule my life anymore.

Certifications and Progress (2014–2018)

At one point I got it into my head that certifications were the only way I could make any tangible progress. I hated Accounting with a thorough passion and yet between August 2014 and December 2016, I registered for ICAN, CIBN and ACCA (paid GBP 😩). I never sat for any exam.

None of it felt right.

ALAT was launched when I was a team lead at Wema Bank’s contact centre and finally, I felt some excitement. I saw the move to Victoria Island as moving to the land of opportunity. Even as a mainland babe, I knew that all the interviews, opportunities and corporate events were happening on the other side of 3MB.

Breaking into Tech, Networking and Shooting Shots (2018)

ALAT dialed my curiosity up and the lull I had felt hitherto left. These were the early days and things were moving fast. The technology was now in my face. I was responsible for finding out what was going on and making sure we solved problems. Even my WhatsApp status updates quickly became about things I found interesting in tech, innovation and fintech, not bants from IG and Joro. Moreso because at the time, one of my mentors told me no one would take me seriously if I kept posting such silly stuff.

By 2017/2018 when I decided to test the waters again, I had 3 opportunities in the pipeline — 2 product management roles and a Customer Support role at TeamApt. What is interesting is that leads for the two roles that weren’t with my current employer had come from LinkedIn/shot shooting. I nearly shut the door on one of them because of the low self-esteem I had from having a 2:2 degree and being an outsourced staff. My exact words were:

Please tell this person that I am an outsourced staff here, not a full staff and please let me know the brutally honest feedback.”

These were Lola’s replies to my insecurities at the time.

Image for post
See how it starts with “Thanks for sharing.”

My next words were:

“I don’t have energy again ni. Getting dismissed because of that or because I had a 2.2”

The reply:

Image for post
We talked a little more after this but you get the point.

Even though they were things I already knew, hearing them from somebody else further validated them.

I went with the Customer Support opportunity at TeamApt and oh what a new world that was. What really struck me was how fluid one’s career trajectory could become and how much of an edge specific technical skills could give you.

Surrounded by software engineering genius, pretty soon I wanted in. I tried learning to code, chose Python, no joy. It was exciting but was a ton of work that my lack of a (Computer) Science background wasn’t going to help. I had seen this play out in real life.

By August, I had an opportunity to join the HR team and I took it. Tech recruiting was eye-opening and all through that year, I delved deeper into the tech startup world. I was dead-centre now.

Curiosity got the best of me and on December 28 2018, I reached out to Yele for the first time. You know the rest.

Last thoughts

Two other things that didn’t help me were that I was unknown in the universe and I lacked specific technical skills. The second meant that I wasn’t going to be rushed on LinkedIn the way developers usually were. To solve the first, I realised I had to create more content than I consumed — especially since I always shied away from events.

Vision is always 20/20 in hindsight and here are some things that helped me along the way:

  • I had a mentor and sponsor: I once wrote about mentors but this video by Carla Harris does justice to why you need a sponsor. I won’t sit here and tell you I got lucky and finally figured stuff out myself. The truth is things got better when I got a mentor and sponsor.
  • I stopped overthinking: Call it fear or self-sabotage, but there’s a spirit that whispers negativity when you finally get the opportunities you’ve been looking for. Just remember that the worst case scenario is that you gain the interview experience. Also, there are people less qualified in better roles so spend more time doing than worrying.
  • Have an image of your “future self” in your subconscious: A clear image of your destination makes the journey more bearable, trust me. It also gives clarity as you now know what it takes to get that coveted role.
  • Refine your process: Sending cold emails (the way I did 6 years ago) led me nowhere. While it is a numbers game, push for quality more than quantity. Remember to find smart ways to gain visibility.
  • Surround yourself with like minds: If your closest friends aren’t on the same wavelength as you in terms of ambition and ginger, you are already screwed.
  • Give back: Soon enough, you will be flooded with job offers or opportunities, never decline them without recommending at least one person.

“If you don’t like how things are, change it! You’re not a tree.”

-Jim Rohn

Perhaps the greatest lesson is that you can change your path if you do not like the one you are on. No one has this totally figured out. For me, it’s been Customer Support, a sprinkle of Product Management, Recruitment and HR, and now Investments.

Even startups pivot.

Make a move.

See where it takes you.

Thank you Chid for inspiring me to write this.