This is how I work…give or take

tobiogunsina Personal, Product management Leave a Comment


I’ve recently spoken twice about my journey to product management so I decided to write about it. The structure is based on a rip-off of the Lifehacker How I Work series. In 2018, some public service folk wrote about how they work so I am very late to the party.  

Writing about how I got here has made me realise my memory is a bit patchy and I’ve gained a new respect for people who write about their life in such detail years later. Another reason why journals and diaries are important. 

Location: London, UK.

Current gig: Senior product manager, Government Digital Service.

Current mobile device: Samsung J5 for work, iPhone 8.

Current computer: MacBook Air 13” for work. MacBook Air 13” for personal use. 

One word that best describes how you work: Calmly or Like a duck – I often seem calm, unruffled but there’s a lot of paddling going on underneath.

First of all, tell us a little about your background and how you got to where you are today

I grew up in Nigeria and studied Electronic and Electrical Engineering at Obafemi Awolowo University. I think I was pretty certain early on that I was not going to practice, I had little exposure to what life will be like as an Electronic and Electrical Engineer. My 2 internships were at PPC Limited and Ericsson. They were great and got me interested in Telecommunications but not enough to think this is definitely going to be my career.  

While in school, I had a friend who was a designer and very good at it too. I remember asking to have a conversation with him about his design and how I could learn. He used Corel draw which was a software I had learnt to use briefly before I got into the university so I thought, well, I’ll give this a go. 

I read articles online, watched ‘how to’ videos, asked him questions when I got stuck, and got tips and tricks. I vaguely remember my first paid design gig – It was a banner for a departmental event a friend was organising. After that, I started what I called “Beatitude Branding and Design” and did a lot of freelancing. 

“What type of designer are you” I used to ask myself this a lot, I’m still not sure what the answer is. In the beginning, I designed banners, logos, flyers, business cards, magazines, yearbooks, etc and it was fun. 

I had an arrangement with a friend that I’ll learn how to build websites and then build one for him. I can’t remember the details of the arrangement and if he paid for a course or a book or something like that. I don’t think I made much progress with his website but that arrangement motivated me to start learning some HTML and CSS 

At this time, I was finishing my degree and looking for jobs, another friend was the CTO of Jobberman, they needed an intern who can design and knows some HTML and CSS, I got in. That was my first job after graduation and I was there for a little over a year. During that time, I got much better with my designs – I did more interactive web designs and front end web development thanks to frameworks like Bootstrap. I also did a lot of side projects as a freelancer – My portfolio still lives.

I moved on to Seamfix as a designer and front end web developer. I had evolved in my design, taken more courses online, and had a briefing process for trying to understand the goal of the project to make sure the design meets the needs of the customer. 

I did good work but I think I never really paid attention to the design community as a whole and didn’t really know designers outside of the ones I worked with. In hindsight, being part of your professional community is important especially in a fast-growing industry

I had always wanted to do a master’s degree but could not afford it. I learnt about the National Information Technology Development Agency (NITDA) Scholarship because my then-boyfriend, now husband, got a scholarship to do his Masters in the United Kingdom. 

Luckily, I got the same scholarship the next year and went to Lancaster University to study Information Technology Management and Organisational Change. 

This was a life-changing experience for me, professionally and personally. I think it just exposed me to the range of possibilities – New country, New friends, Living on my own in a shared flat. It was also a new way of learning, the freedom to be critical, learning to write essays properly, analysing research, and presenting my thoughts better, etc. 

One of the modules was called ‘Analysis and Design’ – It introduced concepts, theories, techniques, principles and issues related to analysis, design and innovation. We were taught about design thinking, gamification, using personas and scenarios, multi-disciplinary collaboration, etc. It was through learning more about those concepts that I stumbled on the product management role. I was intrigued. 

Towards the end of my Masters, I started applying for design jobs because that seemed to be what I had experience in. The jobs I desired needed someone who had more skills and experience in a specific area of design, my experience was broader. I felt like I was stuck in a box I made for myself – I only had design experience, the experience I had was not specialised enough for some of the roles I wanted.

That’s when I really started thinking about my career and researching product management roles. During that time, I got a contract role to build a custom wordpress theme, I got fired and realised the contracting world is harsh. I got another contract design job with Microserve but my Visa expired and they did not have a Tier2 sponsorship Licence so I went back to Nigeria. 

I sent an email to my former boss at Seamfix to say I was coming back to Nigeria and I wanted to check if they had any roles that could leverage my skills and newly gained knowledge. I went in for a chat, pitched for a product management role and I got it. I was the first one in the organisation with that title. 

I started working on a new product called Primepayroll – I needed to build a team and launch the product. It was like a startup within a medium-sized company, I wore many hats and I just kept learning on the job. I still think working in a startup like space can be a brilliant opportunity when starting as a product manager because you learn so much. 

Shortly after, I got married and moved to the UK for love. I started applying for jobs again. I applied to GDS for an associate product manager role and got the job. I started on the Digital Marketplace team and I was so chuffed to be in a proper agile, multi-disciplinary environment where the focus on the user was the culture and I had product managers to learn the craft from

I got promoted from Associate Product Manager to Product Manager then moved to GOV.UK where I am currently a Senior Product Manager. 

Take us through a recent workday

As a product manager, my summary of my job is to 

  • Set direction: make sure we are building the right product for the user and the team has a shared understanding of what we are building and why. 
  • Prioritise the most valuable work: make sure we are maximising the value our users (and business) will get
  • Deliver value: Work with the team to deliver that value and measure the impact

Day to day, this translates to lots of time spent understanding context, assessing things, and communicating with users, my team, and other stakeholders in or outside the organisation. 

My workday usually starts at 9 am with about 30 minutes of housekeeping and planning – checking emails and other communication, reviewing meetings that are coming up, and any preparation needed, filling the blank spaces in my calendar with chunky things from my to-do list. This usually takes longer on Mondays. 

After my daily housekeeping and planning, the rest of my time is either spent in team working sessions, chats with specialists in my multidisciplinary team, meetings with other people in the organisation or at my desk planning, doing some product thinking and/or analysing something. Some days are more meeting heavy than others.

Summarising a day last week as an example – I attended a session done by the people team on how to use the new digital, data and technology skill assessment tool to self-assess my capability level, which is a new Cabinet Office approach to measure specialist proficiency which will in turn affect pay. 

I had a pre-planning session with the tech lead for my team where we talked about the work we are prioritising for the next sprint and if any cards need to be written. 

We had our team stand up in the afternoon, where we talk about the things we are working on and if any help is needed. Instead of going around the room, we usually talk about the cards on the board. 

I joined a session by the team looking after feedback from the public on GOV.UK to talk about what kind of feedback will be useful for the accessibility team. 

We had a short sprint planning session for the next sprint then we had a roadmap update session to talk to the team about the roadmap and what has been updated following our conversations with the management team to get buy-in. 

I spent the rest of the time thinking about how to structure a conversation we were having with the GDS accessibility specialists the next day about their role in supporting GOV.UK accessibility. I also added notes to a kick-off document for next week where we will be exploring how to prevent content accessibility issues before they get published on GOV.UK

I try to have a 45mins lunch break and my day ends at 6 pm. I do compressed hours so I don’t work every other Friday

I write about most of my weeks in my weeknotes

What apps, gadgets or tools can’t you live without?

Apple notes – I use apple notes for a lot of things like to do lists, random notes, book summaries, ideas I have and just general life organising. 

Google docs/drive – The microsoft world is now lost to me because all my document editing and sharing happens in Google

My Laptop and My phone – Well, that’s where all the magic happens

Slack and Trello – Most of my work communications happen in Slack and Trello. I recently discovered the ‘remind me’ feature in slack and I love it. 

Whatsapp – I use it for communication with my family and friends

What’s your best shortcut or life hack?

I love waking up early when everyone at home is still asleep, just having that time alone is brilliant for my mind and I feel like I can get more done. Writing a to-do list for the next day the night before or before I leave work is also brilliant for helping me keep my days effective

Keeping my phone notifications off and only checking my work emails a few times a day is really helpful to avoid distractions. 

Having fewer things helps me keep my life simplified, I’m on a constant decluttering journey

Asking why is the most important question to help make sure what you are doing is worth doing. Don’t be afraid of asking why. 

Take us through an interesting, unusual, or finicky process you have in place at work

I choose Finicky because it annoys me. We have a platform called SOP (which I now realise I don’t know what it’s short for), it is HR type platform for general employee information management like checking payslips or managing performance. If you forget to login after a few weeks, you are logged out and your line manager has to raise a ticket for your account to be unlocked. I have no idea why but I’ve now set a calendar reminder for myself to log in every month

An interesting product process will be how we create alignment during product discovery

How do you keep track of what you have to do?

I use apple notes to keep a to-do list for work and for my personal life

What’s your favourite side project?

I don’t currently have a side project, too busy working, and parenting. 

Here are a few other things I do but I don’t think they qualify as side projects:

I’ve been trying to write more about my work and I’ve recently started a product circle with a small group of product manager friends. We meet every 2 weeks to talk about our work, challenges, our professional goals and life in general.

I sometimes teach Product management. My most recent gig was at General Assembly

I also started an Instagram page about getting my life organised but I need to post more often. 

What are you currently reading, or what do you recommend to read?

The books that have had the most impact on my life this year are 

Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport

Atomic habits: an easy and proven way to build good habits and break bad ones by James Clear. 

They are both full of insightful and very practical tips on designing your life in a way that helps you achieve your goals and stay true to your values.

If you think you might be an introvert, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain was great for increasing my self awareness as an Introvert.

Who else would you like to see answer these questions?

I’m nosy so if you are reading this, write one 

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

This is a hard question. Here are a few phrases that have stuck with me, they are mostly from books.

‘Learn to advocate for yourself even if nobody does’

‘Always ask why’

‘Do it afraid’

‘Breakthrough moments are often the result of many previous actions so you should be far more concerned by your current process or trajectory than your results’

‘If we want to get the most out of life, we need to be fully present: aware, attentive and engaged in what is happening.’

‘It is a lifetime accumulation of deliberate practice that again and again ends up explaining excellence’