The last 6 months have been incredibly confusing for me. I graduated from my MBA program in April and started a new job in a fast-paced environment which has required co-leading and juggling multiple projects. I have also lived through a pandemic, like everyone else, unable to visit friends and family or do many things that normally feed my spirit. Being in new and uncharted territory has caused me to think deeply about my finances, budding career, purpose, and short- and long-term goals. It feels as if I have been dropped on a large expanse of bare land and asked to build the life I want.
I used to be relatively ambitious. I looked up to women leading some of the largest organizations in the world and dreamed of being them. I looked at the schools they went to, the paths they had taken and was ready to work towards having similar achievements. However, between starting a competitive MBA program and being in a new role, I have questioned these aspirations, lost some of that passion, and faced uncertainty about where I am headed. In a bid to get clarity, I have spent time discussing the questions I have about my career, purpose and goals with friends, colleagues and people in my network. Doing this has helped me gain some inspiration from young people who are doing well (by their standards) on a chosen path, pursuing several interests, and/or working towards clear goals. I decided to turn these conversations into an interview series for the questioning 20-something-year-old, like me, who has questions about their career, purpose, and goals.
For the first conversation in this series, I talk to Taslim Okunola. Taslim is a Strategy and Operations Manager at Google, who started out in Digital Marketing. We talk about breaking into the technology industry with a degree in Agricultural Economics and how he stays grounded and consistent in his pursuit of multiple interests.
Please tell us what you currently do at Google.
I do Strategy and Operations at Google for Chrome marketing, so internal consulting for our marketing teams. We help them plan budgets, OKRs (objectives and key results), track these OKRs, and help build efficient processes into their work. There is some operational work involved but some of it is also strategic. For instance, building an investment portfolio and analyzing the impact that certain investments would have on the business.
You studied Agricultural and Resource Economics. How did you end up working in Strategy and Operations and in the technology industry in general?
I stumbled upon tech when I was in school at the Federal University of Technology, Akure. I got to know about the Google Student Club then and that was my first exposure to tech. It wow-ed me that Google has the number of products that it has — YouTube, Android, Google Docs, Google Sheets etc. I took an interest in Digital Marketing as an initial path and started learning about Google Ads. One of the key things that drew me to Digital Marketing was how performance-focused it is and the fact that you’re getting the most bang for your buck. With Digital Marketing, you’re paying for results and clicks unlike with traditional ads and billboards where you pay for a particular slot for a month and it does not matter if one hundred or one million people see the ad. With Digital Marketing, you can track customer interactions within the scope of your business. That fascinated me and I started my path along that line. Then, I landed an internship with Google, working with the Large Customer Sales team where I helped large brands build their digital currency. I basically learnt digital marketing on my own and landed a sales internship. I eventually ventured into Product Marketing. I think my venture into Product Marketing stemmed from a zeal to continuously learn. Google has a program called the Associate Product Marketing Manager Program which is targeted at entry-level marketers to help them grow into industry professionals. I took advantage of that opportunity. The program focuses on learning on the job, so I got to learn from different sides of the business. I did Product Marketing for 18 months before I moved into Strategy and Operations.
That’s an interesting story because there are many people like you who decide that they do not want to pursue a career in what they studied. How did you convince folks at Google that despite being an Agric Econ student, you knew Digital Marketing?
I think it was based on a few experiences I had prior to Google. I’d had a Digital Marketing internship with a leading hotels’ booking platform in Nigeria, Hotels.ng. I spent a month with them. Prior to that experience at Hotels.ng, I volunteered as a Google Student Ambassador. As a Google Student Ambassador, I did a lot of training for students to help them develop their digital marketing skills. It was interesting because I’d read about a concept then organize an entire training on it the next day. I was able to put these experiences in my CV and stand out as someone who was passionate about digital marketing.
Essentially, you went out of your way to gain experience, however small, in your target role and leveraged that down the line for Google. Did you ever feel that your undergraduate degree was a barrier to entering the tech industry, which is often seen as exclusive?
No, I never really felt that way. When I was getting into tech, nobody really cared about what I studied in school; it was more about what I could do. When I was able to perform well during my internship, it was a no-brainer that I could do the job irrespective of what I’d studied. At an entry-level, my degree never stood in the way. I also did a bunch of certifications in Digital Marketing. For example, I did most of the Google Ads and analytics certifications. There was paper evidence also that I could do the job beyond work experience. At the end of the day, my degree just did not matter in the grand scheme of things.
In a separate conversation, we talked about your first internship with Google and how you did not initially get a return offer. How did you deal with this disappointment early in your career such that you eventually ended up in a full-time role?
When I did not get a return offer, I did not really feel that it was a disappointment. When the news hit, it was a bit shocking and I was taken aback but I did not dwell on it. What I did was to increasingly show my value. I was still in school and I was already volunteering and continued to do so. For instance, I volunteered with the Android Learning Community where I managed a particular region in Nigeria. The Android Learning Community focused on helping people learn Android development. I managed the south-western group and I helped to ensure that the program ran smoothly in 5 states. This was one of the many things I volunteered for. Simply put, after my rejection, I went back to work. I felt that to some degree, I was craving that initial validation that I was welcome to continue doing the things I was doing in the tech community but when the rejection came, it hit me that I did not actually need that validation to do things. I just continued to put my best foot forward with respect to impacting my community and knew that when the opportunity came, I would be ready for it. Basically, I just continued working.
You never had thoughts that maybe Digital Marketing or tech was not for you after that experience?
No, I never did. The most I did was dabble into other parts of tech like learning how to code. I do know a bit of HTML & CSS and use these skills at work today. However, I figured that coding was not for me. At some point, I tried to learn Android development. I have also tried tech enablement. For a short period of time, I ran a talent startup where I helped people develop Digital Marketing skills. I built digital marketing talent for companies to hire. That was a way for me to stay dynamic instead of focusing solely on Digital Marketing or leaving Digital Marketing totally.
You are an avid reader. You tweet regularly about strategy, product marketing and product management. You recently hosted a Clubhouse session on Amazon’s website design — whether it’s good or bad. You also have a newsletter that’s focused on product and strategy. What is your motivation for these interests you pursue? What drives these multiple interests and the activities you do in pursuit of these interests?
I have always wanted to create impact. One of my early mottos when starting out was that I wanted to help people and businesses grow. I’ve always wanted to create impact, whether building businesses or helping people grow talent-wise. All of the things I do are connected to that main goal. For example, with the strategy newsletter, I am trying to provide a unique perspective to how businesses operate, which would provide growth and investment opportunities. It would also warn businesses of impending doom and provide new ways for them to iterate their business model. It’s the same thing with my tweets on product and the Clubhouse session — it’s about asking questions and providing a collaborative community where people come together with ideas. I would also say that these activities are a way for me to grow my brand and be seen as a leader in a particular community.
How do you stay grounded and consistent in the pursuit of these multiple interests and any career goals you have? How do you ensure you never fail to lose sight of your interests and goals?
I am not afraid to pause. I don’t go at full speed all the time. I am always ready to pause and continue. For example, my newsletter has been outdated for a bit and I am actively thinking of how to make it more consistent this year. This is an example of me taking a break. I do not beat myself up about it. At the end of the day, what brings me back to continue after taking a break is my fundamental belief that it is my responsibility to do my bit and pay it forward [to impact businesses and people]. Everything I do revolves around this specific purpose and passion. Additionally, even if I am taking a break on one thing, I am usually doing another thing to get to the same goal.
As someone who seems to have found a purpose and career path, how do you think young people who have no idea what they want to do career-wise or what their purpose is, can go about figuring this out. You can draw from your own experience.
I don’t think there’s a blanket answer to this question. One thing that worked for me was to try different things. It was not as if I got into school and mapped out my next 10 years. No, I tried a lot of things. I dabbled into different things before I stumbled on tech. Even when I got into tech, as I mentioned earlier, I tried different things within the tech industry. It will eventually get to a point where you’re drawn to a particular thing or things and everything starts to make sense. So, for such people, I would advise them not to hyper-focus on figuring out what they want to do because everyone is still figuring it out. Rather, they should try a lot of different things.
Are you satisfied with where you are currently career-wise and purpose-wise?
I am, actually. At the end of the day, it depends on how you measure satisfaction. There is no perfect career path. For every stage in my career journey, I have had to think about the opportunities available there. I am learning new things in my current role in Strategy and Operations and I see it as a stepping stone to reach my short to medium-term goals.
This interview is part of a 3-part conversation series on career, purpose and goals for the questioning 20-something. More conversations in the series to follow at a later date.