About The Guests
Note: This episode was recorded during the beginning of April 2021.
After having recently gone through the Product Management track of Co.Lab, I have a conversation with the co-founders Sefunmi Osinaike and Helen Huang on their difficult path to product management and why they want to provide confidence and practical experience for those looking to break into tech.
Helen is a first generation Chinese-Canadian, as well as an earth scientist turned product manager turned startup founder. After leaving her mark at companies such as Zynga, Microsoft and Github, she’s gone on to co-found Co.Lab, a team-based education program for aspiring technologists. Helen is especially passionate about thought diversity, the power of active learning, and building inclusive communities.
Sefunmi is the Co-founder & CEO of Co.Lab, an education program for aspiring technologists to help them break into tech. Sefunmi is a University of Waterloo, Electrical and Computer Engineering alum, and frequently draws from his experiences as an international student from Nigeria. As an avid storyteller, he has authored three books on non-traditional paths into technology.
Twitter @heyohelen Instagram: @heyohelen
Twitter: @sefunmioshy Instagram: @sefunmioshy
Helen Huang 00:00
Yeah, absolutely. I think the main thing that we’ve realized in the space is that right now, the term or the concept of cohort based courses, or cohort based learning is is booming. There’s a bunch of companies that have been spun up around the space. And I think it really makes sense, right? Yes, you can learn by yourself, you can read off a book. But already, even if you’re reading off that book, but there’s other people reading off that book with you, that’s already a better experience, because there’s that group accountability, right? I think with Co.Lab, we take it one step further, because we have not only your team accountability of actually doing it, but then you have multiple teams that then keep you accountable and to continue going forward.
Karen Swyszcz 00:37
You’re listening to The Bacon Bits ‘n’ Bytes Podcast, and I’m your host, Karen Swyszcz zyk. This is the podcast where a bit of business and a byte of technology come together. Every month I interview entrepreneurs, investors, startup founders, and people in tech to learn about what drives them and what makes them tick. Hi, everyone, and welcome to another episode of The Bacon Bits ‘n’ Bytes Podcast. And I’m super excited today to have with me Helen Huang, and Sefunmi Osinaike . So Helen is a first generation Chinese Canadian as well as an earth scientist turned Product Manager turned startup founder. After leaving her market companies such as Zynga, Microsoft and GitHub, she’s gone on to co-found Co.Lab, team based education program for aspiring technologists. Helen is especially passionate about thought diversity, the power of active learning and building inclusive communities. Sefunmi is the other co-founder for Co.Lab. He’s a University of Waterloo, Electrical and Computer Engineering alum and frequently draws from his experience as an international student from Nigeria. As an avid storyteller, he has authored three books on non traditional paths into technology. Welcome to the show, guys.
Helen Huang 02:06
Yeah, thanks for having us. Super excited to be here.
Sefunmi Osinaike 02:09
Thank you so much for having us, Karen. We really appreciate it.
Karen Swyszcz 02:13
Yeah. So I’m very curious to learn about how you guys met because I know you both went to the University of Waterloo. Did you meet in school or was it afterwards?
Helen Huang 02:22
So we actually met when we were both interning for Microsoft. And so both of us were product managers. And that was the first time that we sort of encountered one another. I also do think that Sefunmi tells the story a little bit better, because he has a better memory than me. So I’m just gonna toss it over to him.
Sefunmi Osinaike 02:40
Yeah, so yeah, so what Helen said. We met right before we started interning on Microsoft. So it was a snowy day in Waterloo, Ontario Canada. So certain companies, when they’re hiring interns, at Waterloo, they do like a prep or like a dinner or social. So Microsoft had one of those, but they had in a different university like Wilfrid Laurier, for some reason. And then they came in there, and we’re like all asking questions, and they’re giving you tips on how to interview. And I see, I think I arrived first talking to other people. And then Helen arrives later on. And she’s just like, there very calm. Everyone else is like super nervous. Every like, you could just tell him like myself included. Everyone was like, Helen was just like, very calm. She seemed like the calmest person in the room. And then I just started talking to her is like a Hello, how’s it going? I was telling her about my startup at that time. And I gave him my business card. That’s so cringe, I was like yeah you know, just finished working on this problem. And I think we then started prepping for interviews, like together at the same time. And then we had other similar interviews, such as like, when interviewing for Vine, like the Twitter company at the time, and UI. So she was just like, hey, do you wanna like interview prep? So we started, like, sharing notes and like helping each other out? We did the Microsoft ends up she had hers early in the morning, and I had mine in the afternoon. And we still don’t like compared notes. And then eventually, we both got the offers. And we’re like, oh, we’re not going to bother about the other companies that we’re interviewing with. And then when we started our internship, we then continued, like a friendship and conversations and just like it just grew from there.
Helen Huang 04:15
Yeah, I definitely, you know, very much applaud the Microsoft internship for bringing us together and having met shibumi during that time, I think now, and I mean, we’ll get to this later as well. We work super well together partly as to be our strong friendship as well. And just coming from an Earth Science Program myself, if I didn’t try to enter tech at that point, I definitely wouldn’t have met Sefunmi because we’re, we were in completely different faculties. The University of Waterloo is huge. And I think for a lot of people, it is a very competitive space. And so that’s why like, against all odds, even though we had the same interviews and never really felt like we were competing against each other from the very get go.
Karen Swyszcz 04:56
Interesting and I’m curious to know what for both of you, what made you decide to pursue a career in tech?
Sefunmi Osinaike 05:06
I think for me, it was I wanted to solve a problem, like initially, like, my plan was to go into like, power and alternative energy, like in the energy space, which is why I wanted to do electrical engineering. But as I came into Canada and experienced a problem, I wanted to solve a problem on my own. And I think I just started to get super into, like, you know, apps and startups and all that sounds like, wow, it’s super exciting. And Waterloo generally has that energy of, you know, startups, you know, all do all these things. So I think just by surrounded by that, and even just having a personal problem, which was like, you know, being an international student, it was, it was hard coming into Canada, and just like trying to succeed, and, you know, trying your best not to fail out of university program paying international fees. So I saw students have that problem, I wanted to solve it. So I was like, hey, the best way to do it is let’s build an app, you know, without having any prior knowledge of problem solving as a, hey, let’s just do that I was just the process of learning. What does it take to create an app or even do something new, a tech became more and more interesting. And that’s even how I ended up realizing what product management was, and I was like hey, I want to be a product manager.
Helen Huang 06:20
I definitely have a different sounding story than that. Because I think what’s Sefunmi is, I think he was always very confident always had that drive to do startups and be in tech and, etc. for me. I mean, first, I went to Waterloo for Earth Sciences. The only reason I went to Waterloo. Now I know, Wow, great Co-Op program, great tech community. But at the time, it was actually because I knew that my high school boyfriend, who had broken up with me was going to Waterloo. And so I was like, Oh, I’m going to go to Waterloo, not to mention that my grades were actually very bad. So I didn’t get into any of the nursing programs that I actually wanted to go into. So that’s how I ended up in Waterloo. And then the way that I got into tech, so Earth Science, you know, as soon as I started, I realized that, okay, you know, it’s the only program that accepted me, and I don’t want to be an earth scientist, I don’t want to attend any labs, I don’t want to do any of that. And so that’s what I realized from the very beginning. So I started to do a few jobs, you know, just big banks out based out of Canada, it was just, you know, very simple data analysis, aka data entry jobs. And so that’s what I did for a little bit until I had another boyfriend, who was actually graduated and had gone to LA for grad school. And so I remember thinking, I really want to get a job that’s based out of LA, or like the West Coast, so that I can be close to him. So I started looking for jobs based out of the US. And I realized that, wow, they don’t sponsor any visas for people, like, you know, in finance or in science. And at the time, I saw this project management intern ship at a company called Riot Games. They make this popular game that I played at the time called League of Legends. So I applied, didn’t get it, you know, failed the interview completely. But when I came back, and I started to apply for internships I had given up on the US at that point, I saw this role at a company called Zynga, which is a, you know, gaming company that made Farmville back in the day. And it’s a product manager. And I actually thought it was the same thing as project manager. So I just applied to it. And then, you know, I ended up getting the job and stuff. And I was like, Whoa, this is what tech is like. And I think it just stuck from there. And then the next term, I met Sefunmi And then off we went.
Karen Swyszcz 08:35
Yeah, that’s amazing. And, you know, the funny thing is, like, I can definitely relate, because I don’t know if you guys remember, but I also went to Waterloo, as well, for their Co Op program. And I started off in like engineering, but then I moved over to science, and then quickly realized I didn’t want to do, I don’t like working in the lab. I don’t like research, but I’m just gonna keep going because it’s gonna get really expensive if I try and you know, get another degree. And considering that you both have several years in product management, and you are the cofounders of Co.Lab, which we’ll get into very shortly. I’m curious to know, what would you say is the difference between a good product manager versus a great product manager?
Sefunmi Osinaike 09:13
This is like a typical interview question. By the way. I got I actually got asked this interview question nor my last job of copper. And, you know, unfortunately, I did not prep for this one. So I’m just gonna say what I feel is best. I think communication is a very important thing for product managers. A great product manager needs to be able to communicate, so that one is up there. And when I even think communication, I think I’ve written about this before. It’s not just being able to ask people or talk about things in languages that the other person understands. But it’s also asking the right questions. So as a product manager, you’re not really doing like I say this all the time. You’re not really doing anything. You don’t really do it any like actual tangible work. You’re orchestrating other people allowing them to do their best work. They need to know what they need to do to be successful, which you’re often times driving. So you need to be very clear what that means whether it’s a developer, designer, marketing, customer support, sales, anything. And they also need to, you also need to know if they are stuck, and how you can unblock them, and allowing them to also arrive at those things, you know, by themselves, because you’re not necessarily an expert in that. So if a developer comes to you, and ask tells you that, hey, they’re stuck, you need to ask them the right questions, to be able to let them arrive at a solution on their own, or you just really help them move them towards the right direction. And communication does all of that. So it’s all about like listening and taking in all of that. And then, you know, moving forward to solving problems that way. So I think that’s like a big thing. Like over like, if you’re a very good communicator, you can go very, very far. I think also one of the reasons why I think Helen is such a great PM, because she’s working on developer tools very, extremely complicated. Like, you’re even, yeah, a lot of people a lot of things that she used to do in like a Microsoft, like I didn’t understand. But being able to effectively take that time, understand and communicate and ask the right questions. That’s one. Another one is remaining curious. So I think that desire to just I think also goes hand in hand with asking questions, but that curiosity allows you to, you know, just be creative. So with curiosity, you’re creative, and the things that you do with your teams. You come up with new ways to excite people. Keep people engaged to influence people, also, with your customers as well. If you’re curious about their problems, you understand what are the main pain points that they’re going through, and how that translates into whatever business opportunities or features you try you’re trying to build. So being curious, also allows you to build that relationship with your customers and do all the things that they need to do to succeed. And lastly, is Yeah, I guess, also hand in hand being very customer focused. I think they’re all connected, strangely, or not stingy. So if you’re very obsessed with your customers, because a lot of PMs, and a lot of entrepreneurs, they have that mindset of that, that feeling of you know, I know it best. Customers don’t know, it’s like, it’s me, like I’m gonna decide. But you also still need to, like, maintain and build a relationship with your customers. If you’re customer obsessed, I think you’ll be if your customer service will allow you to be curious about their problems, and allow you to communicate with them constantly, and ask questions to be able to solve their problems and enable your teams to do things to help solve their problems. And that helps the business so I think that’ll be my answer. So to summarize- You know, being customer obsessed, being curious and asking the right questions. And yeah, the reason why summarizes Helen always told me, a good PM always summarizes so every time I always go on a long spiel, I always try to be sure to bring it bring it back.
Karen Swyszcz 12:56
Yeah, that’s actually a really, really good, especially when you’re providing a lot of like new information to somebody. Right? So yeah, I’d like to talk a little bit more about Co.Lab. And I’m just taking this off from the website, just to give the audience a little bit more as to what colab is. So Co.Lab., empowers and prepares product managers, designers and developers for success within the tech industry. And we do this by facilitating cross discipline product teams and going from ideation to product launch, and work in product teams with a product manager, designer, and developers. And they get to ship a product with real customer impact and prove your skills with completely collaborative learning by doing experience. So this is how I feel this is a really unique experience. And this was the first time I came across it because I’ve always encountered, like, there’s those like the boot camps. And then if you want to learn just like about the theory or product management, you can take a course. So to actually, you know, be able to kind of have like that practical experience within five weeks, I thought it was really unique. And that was the reason why I was so drawn to Co.Lab. So yeah, how did you come up with this amazing idea?
Sefunmi Osinaike 14:01
Thank you for reading that. Sometimes, like when I hear it, I’m like, Wow, that sounds that sounds cool. But I guess we’re working on it, which is why we’re super interested in it. So Co.Lab came from Helen and I wanted to. So we’re Product Managers. We get asked questions a lot about Product Management. Hey, how’d you get into product management? And what do you do the PMs do? What’s our day to day? And Helen and I came together and we’re like, this was back in 2018 like December of 2018. We were sitting at my old company and we’re just like having that conversation was like hey, I want to get more people into product. And I get asked this question Helen said Oh, I get asked this question as well. And then we decide I mean as PMs again like okay, let’s you know, try and do research and understand this problem space. And the solution we came up with so we all we both like went in our silos. We did research for like a week. We came back and we presented our findings and we created like a one pager for each other. So I wrote one. She wrote one. And you know, we’ve, we’ve read it and we then had a long conversation. And we actually still have those documents. I refer to it sometimes. I can share with you after. And then what came out of that was, hey, the best way to be a product manager, looking at all the things that we do right now to succeed, was to actually do it. You can’t read how to be a product manager. You can’t take a course how to be a product manager. You can’t watch videos, and be a product manager. You actually have to do it because it’s this like, nebulous role. You don’t, it’s very different. You know, when you go from company to company, it varies. So we felt in order to do that, you need that experience.
Helen Huang 15:43
Oh, I was gonna also just add on to that. Part of that vagueness, you know, is when you go off. And for many people trying to break into the industry, you ask 10 different PMs, what do you do as a PM, and everyone will tell you the same thing. It’ll say, hey, it’s dependent on the team, dependent on the product, dependent on the company. And yeah, so that’s just what I wanted to add, please continue with me.
Sefunmi Osinaike 16:05
Yeah, so but they’re obviously like overarching themes that go with it, which is, you know, majority of product management roles are execution based, like you have to build something with the team. So you need to be able to do that. You need to understand customers and all that and work in an Agile. So all those things came up. So the proposal that we put ended up coming up with was like, hey, let’s build this, like, next generation program where you know, product managers get to interact with designers and developers, and it’s super great. So great. Like I remember that conversation thinking, I guess that’s a lot of work. I don’t think we want to do that, at least right now. And this is where we were at that time. So that’s when we decided to write a book. And then after the book, we revisited that idea, you know, and we initially just thought about it just from the product management lens. But then we realized, like the same thing is true of a design and the development side to get in you really need that experience, to set yourself apart and be a competitive applicant, you need to be able to showcase that you have that skill. And as we went deeper into the problem, we found other things we needed to solve for, which is one of the reasons why a lot about colab is also the confidence bit of it. Outside of just reverse engineering, hey, you know, I can’t get the job with the experience without the experience where I need the experience to get the job. We’re giving people that experience. But outside of that, were also you manufacturing that confidence and building that confidence within you. So you can succeed within the tech industry, because that’s something that people don’t often talk about. That there’s not enough open dialogue about it. So that’s sort of how we came up with Co.Lab, I guess, like, two years or three years later. And now we’re like, we have the bandwidth and the energy to actually push this, you know, extremely challenging thing to do, but also very rewarding.
Karen Swyszcz 17:49
Yeah, and I can definitely speak to my own experience how challenging it was, but at the same time, it definitely was rewarding. And it gave me that confidence. Like, hey, look, look what I can do. Look what I built with my team, and in five weeks, and I’m just like, blown away by just like the structure, the system that you guys have created. And you know that I’m only coming from the third cohort, it seems like you really you guys really put your pm skills to use to make Co.Lab as successful what is now but of course, you know, anytime you start a business, you start a project or something. Sometimes there are obstacles when you’re trying to get it off the ground. And do you guys mind sharing like any of the obstacles you first encountered when you launched Co.Lab?
Helen Huang 18:33
There’s been a few. Definitely considering just the time constraints, first of all, both of us, I mean, so we started Co.Lab, officially, I would say around August in 2020. And I actually happened to still be in Seattle at the time, and Sefunmi was pitching me this idea. And I ended up coming back to Toronto and had nothing to do so I was like, hey, let’s do it. And let’s put 100% of everything that we have into it. And so that’s actually how it started officially after the idea inception two years ago. So the first problem was honestly just that hey, both Sefunmi and I have PM roles, very demanding pm roles at full time jobs at top companies, right? So Sefunmi was at a company called Copper, they make CRM software based out of San Francisco, a startup so very demanding startup life type of PM roles. And I was at Microsoft, I had recently changed teams and I was trying to onboard as well as execute as the one PM basically, on my team at that point. And yeah, it was just a lot of just general time that hey, we need to not only dedicate towards thinking about the strategy of Co.Lab, but also the execution piece, right? And on top of that, okay, let’s do that in our spare time when we’re not maintaining these, these good tech jobs that you know, we’re working hard at. And so I think that was just issue number one. Obviously, we continue doing it really it was just sheer passion, but also seeing the impact on people as we went through the cohorts. That really made us continue to believe in it and understand that it was worthwhile, but absolutely, like a huge, a huge issue. The second one that I would call out at least is, is just that this is a very different style of learning. Right? I think a lot of times when people think about education, you think of, you know, your universities or even your boot camps, right? It’s very, it’s, it’s very step by step, you know, you have a strict curriculum, you, you follow it, you have marks, you get grades, and there’s a very strict sense of like, pass or fail. So when we considered Co.Lab, because, one, it was a collaborative experience, right? That’s already something that’s outside of you. And it’s not you as the only person who’s sort of maintaining the experience in your learning opportunity. That’s, that’s already like a difficult thing to even explain. But the second main one is really that we do follow this concept of active learning, like I mentioned, and just really learning by doing, because we do feel like in all of these roles in technology, across product management, product design, as well as engineering, you just don’t know until you do it yourself. Right, PM, you know, it depends on the product. So hey, PMs, go create a product, and you’ll see what it’s really like. Or it’s the same way for designers as well, as developers too. It’s not just about the step by step. And you know, the process of coding, it’s about communicating your designs, communicating your code, actually putting it together in a way where you drive your own outcome. Right. And so I do think that that learning style in particular, is something that is hard to explain to people and is even something that we are not the best at vocalizing right now. I feel like that is really my personal thoughts on on the matter. Like, I feel like, you know, where we struggle to place ourselves, hey, are we a bootcamp? Are we an education program? Or are we you know, something that just facilitates this amazing experience for you to then make your own? Yeah, those are just some of the thoughts that are in my head Sefunmi, did you have any? What did you want to add?
Sefunmi Osinaike 22:08
(laughs). I think you’re spot on. Absolutely. I think the biggest challenge, for me, personally, is time. And I think that I’ve been trying to find ways to create time. And I have interesting ways that I do that. But that’s another topic for another day. But it’s also like, even our customers, there’s the education aspect of it. We educate people first like hey, this is the right thing to do. Because we’re so led to believe that hey, you go to school, you get a certificate, you get a degree and the world is obsessed with, you know, all those letters that people kind of like add on to their LinkedIn profiles, I don’t want to see that because I don’t want to speak ill of any certificate. So everyone’s very certificate base. And I have friends who and I saw this tweet the other day, someone who said like, like, I think the worst decision I ever made was going for a Master’s right after my undergrad. Because you have people who are very skilled. I also have friends who, you know, Masters PhDs and the job hunt is brutal, very brutal. And these are people at the top of their game, like, you know, academically on paper, it’s very challenging. And that because everyone wants you to have experience. And then there’s also another thing that people don’t talk about as much, which is, jobs are gotten missed, mostly through your network. So there are obviously other people who have gotten your certifications and everything that I’ve been able to get there getting through the door. But it’s not as direct as hey, because I’ve got the certificate, I’m getting the job, there’s a combination of things that allow people to get where they are. So there’s the almost like, we have to educate people that, hey, there is no linear part, you’re not going to do all of these things, and then get a job, you know, you want to try and cover your bases. But let’s do our best to prepare you for the jobs, like hey, you’re preparing for anything that you want to do. So we’re that preparatory building confidence station, when you actually land our role. It’s a breeze for you, you will also go through challenges, but you will be better equipped to deal with it. Because a lot of people when they follow that step by step is like Oh, wow. Like, we’re supposed to, we’re not supposed to be doing this. This is what we’re supposed to be doing and all that if you get to, or you don’t I think even in the professional world, like when you’re working with those kinds of people is not the most pleasant way. You know, after working on I’ve worked in several teams on if you know someone is slowing as a PM, like you have timelines and deadlines to meet. If someone is slowing you down, because we want to go through the seven step process because it makes them feel comfortable. And as we learn, like that’s just not going to work. And if I have to make that decision to say, Hey, we need to move fast. You know, I’m also impacting the way that person feels because the person also doesn’t feel comfortable person feels like oh my god, all of this. So we’re trying to avoid that and just like make it as realistic as possible, which also has its challenges and people are like, wow, I had a tough or challenging experience. You know, is this supposed to be good? I was like, yeah, this is a real life for you. You’re solving problems, and you’re going through challenges in the workplace as well. So I think that’s like the biggest The biggest challenge. I guess I just pretty much said everything else that Helen said.
Karen Swyszcz 25:13
Yeah, I feel like that you guys kind of equip us? How do I how do I just like kind of like a toolbox with all these different tools? And it’s like, you know, for which situation like, Okay, what, which tool out of my toolbox? should I? should I use? Yeah, rather than that whole, like, step by step, linear process. And what Helen was talking about the whole idea of active learning, it kind of brings me to my next question, like, just the way things are going, and probably the fact that a lot of things have become more remote and people are looking to upskill, reskills do you feel that more organizations, companies and educational institutions are looking to kind of adopt, like a cohort or project based kind of type of learning?
Helen Huang 25:51
Yeah, absolutely. I think the main thing that we’ve realized in the space is that right now, the term or the concept of cohort based courses, or cohort based learning is is booming. There’s a bunch of companies that have been spun up around the space. And I think it really makes sense, right? I mean, yes, you can learn by yourself, you can read off a book. But already, even if you’re reading off that book, but there’s other people reading off that book with you, that’s already a better experience, because there’s that group accountability, right? I think with Co.Lab, we take it one step further, because we have not only your team accountability of actually doing it, but then you have multiple teams that then keep you accountable and to continue going forward. But I absolutely do see it coming within organizations in particular, I wouldn’t say so right now, at least from what I’ve seen. I haven’t seen many groups really spin up, or companies spin up training programs that are cohort based, aside from certain fellowship programs and stuff like that.
Karen Swyszcz 26:47
So I’d like to talk a little bit more about like Co.Lab, specifically, and, and the program. So how do you determine if someone is a good fit for the program?
Sefunmi Osinaike 26:56
I’ll let Helen take that.
Helen Huang 26:58
Okay. So I think, you know, beyond all of your technical skills, I think the main thing that we really look for is your motivation to learn, as well as your communication. And that’s regardless of any discipline out there. Our you know, our realist belief, honestly, is that regardless of what skills you do bring into the industry, it’s, it’s going to ultimately be that curiosity that Sefunmi mentioned, are the hallmarks of a good PM, or in any other role, it’s going to be the collaboration and teamwork skills, you know, can you figure it out? Are you an independent self starter, and those are more so like the categories that we ultimately look for within our collaborators. And of course, then we have, you know, each discipline. And so we do have certain, like, a little bit of different requirements for each discipline, just because we do very much focus on the collaboration experience rather than strict. You know, I mean, I’m sure you know, the strict teaching of exactly how to do things. And so I think the second thing would be just ability to deal with this vagueness and really drive their own outcomes. Yeah, yeah, it was really interesting, because I guess like, sometimes I was, like, kind of looking for that like, step by step. But then you kind of have to take a step back and like, Okay, well, you know, based on my experience, based on my thinking, curiosity, like, how would I approach it and just kind of, you know, just like, went with my own my own gut, which I thought was really scary, but at the same time, I felt it paid off. So at the time of this recording, oh, sorry, go ahead. Oh, oh, yeah, I was also gonna say that, I think that’s why, you know, we equip each of you with two mentors, right? So you can see how other people do things. But the one thing that we try to move away from is the concept of, hey, you need to do things, how your mentor does things. The reason why we give you all of these opportunities to even network with the other PMs is to discover, wow, there’s a wealth of knowledge amongst all of these people. You know, everyone does things a little bit differently. So how are you going to craft your own way of doing things moving forward? And we also want to showcase Yes, industry experts. This is how they’ve done things, but it’s also not the only way. So that definitely, definitely very, very much understand that. Yeah, it’s hard sometimes. But having that community that’s why it’s so important to like just sort of level set your own expectations. And make sure you’re on the right track without someone telling you Hey, you’re on the right track.
Sefunmi Osinaike 29:24
Yeah, I’m just to add to that, sorry, quickly, is I think everyone deserves to have their own style. Every PM, every designer, every developer, everyone’s different. So you want to bring yourself and bring your best self and what you you can do on a team to collaborate as effectively as possible.
Helen Huang 29:40
Yeah. And that’s something that I mean, we deeply believe in as well. You know, when we launched our booklets yesterday on non traditional paths into tech that was the overall theme as well is that these non traditional perspectives or these different experiences and just backgrounds that you bring that’s that is what truly is valuable in technology. Instead of every team thinking the same way, creating the same things, right, it’s, it’s really that difference that brings the creativity. And we do think that’s better for the tech industry in general, which is why we really, really try to empower people with the confidence that hey, just do your own thing. Forge your own path.
Karen Swyszcz 30:15
Hmm, yeah, definitely. So I was part of the Winter 2021 Cohort. And we just had our Demo Day on March 27. And then I took a look at the website, and I realized that your Spring Cohort is like happening on April 17. So you guys are just like, go go go. So after having gone through, like three cohorts, is there anything different with the next cohort this time around?
Sefunmi Osinaike 30:41
Yeah, for sure. I think one of the things like as PMs we tweak the program, or we improve, or I don’t want to say tweak, because it seems like a bad thing. I do think we achieve product market fit, because we have something that people incredibly love, they get a lot of great value from. But ultimately, there’s always room for improvement. So we add things as we go along to improve the experience of participants. So it’s kind of been an ongoing thing, even from the winter cohort, we knew all the changes that are some of the changes that we’re wanting to make. One interesting one is we’re bringing in the designers earlier, the designers are coming in earlier, I think, if we didn’t give the PM and the designer enough time to have conflict. So it’s normal, I think, you know, what we want to recognize is like, that conflict will still happen, we just want it to happen earlier. I think that’s the only difference. So given them a little bit more time on by themselves, because I think you have three people in a room and you have two people who are fighting on the third person just kind of watching them fight, I think that’s what sort of happened. So by allowing them just like fight on their own, and even everything now, and having that incentive of, Hey, we have another person or people joining, they will be forced to figure that stuff out a lot quicker. So that’s one of the big changes we’re making. And I think we’ll have more teams with our multiple developers. So those are the other two changes that we’ll be making. So it’s still around similar in the workplace, it’s still very different, but we’re trying to you will make it less chaotic, you see, which is still ultimately like, you know what happens? Whenever you’re on a team. So it’s just like, making it a lot. Yeah. So very excited about about that.
Karen Swyszcz 32:34
And I know that you both of you recently left your full time jobs as PMs to run Co.Lab full time, what was your decision behind this?
Sefunmi Osinaike 32:45
So it’s a very interesting thought exercise to go through when you’re trying to take a leap of faith. I’ve taken one previously, but it was lower stakes, whereas like I, for I left one of my co op or internship opportunities to just do my own thing. And ultimately, the goal there was to learn as much as possible or whatever, like, if you choose the path of learning, you will never regret it. I guess I’ll speak for myself. I don’t want to speak for Helen, is I generally want to like learn and push myself as much as possible. And I think I’ve been doing that a lot with Co.Lab on based off of just what we want to do just this year, I think we’re gonna learn a ton. So at the very worst case, you know, it’s just going back to another, you know, good tech job, you know, I think Helen and I have remained employable. That’s what I think is actually my last manager said to me , he was like Hey, Sefunmi you’re very employable. So it’s, if I ever want a job, I think I can always go back and even do that job much better because I have all these learnings from Co.Lab. So I think it’s more about, hey, let me just invest in myself learn grow. I’m also extremely passionate about this. And I think in order for it to grow and get to the place that I think it can really change the lives of people, it needs more time. So I think that’s also like the biggest pull for me. So I talked about like the worst case scenario. And I was like, I just go get another job, which isn’t also too bad. But the big push is really, you know, dedicated myself my time, my knowledge into making our collaborators as successful as possible was top of mind, and that’s priority for me. And it means like, I should not be, you know, thinking about anything else. Like that’s what I should be thinking about when I wake up on to when I go to bed. And I think I’m excited for that journey to just dedicate all my cycles on it.
Helen Huang 34:41
Yeah, I think I mean very similar to a shoe he said about just the path of learning and just the opportunity to learn. I also think that for me when someone from our previous or our first ever cohort, you know, when we first started out, he actually ended up landing a PM job at Microsoft, and it wasn’t even an entry level PM job. It was a PM II job from just a completely different background after going through our program. And I think that gave me a lot of confidence, you know, of Wow, we really built this thing that empowered these people to take these steps and, and succeed during it. And I think with even our Fall 2020 cohort, right, seeing people land jobs after coming out of that, seeing the products that they built, and knowing that, wow, okay, we’re only going to continue to impact more people, we’re only going to see that impact grow significantly. And it really just felt like okay, well, similar to Sefunmi, we should focus 100% of our time on this, at least for me, I think I’ve always been a risk averse type of person as well. And so it was a very difficult decision. I mean, I think in my heart, I always knew that this was the only decision just because of how, you know how passionate both of us were about it, but also how well we work together in resolving problems that we know will come up, right, because this isn’t easy. I think on the outside, we have this pretty website, and even you had a great experience. But we’re constantly thinking about, okay, how do we improve it further? How do we make sure that the impact is greater? And I just think it really does deserve the both of us at the peak of our performance, I guess, in order to achieve some of the things that I know we can achieve together.
Karen Swyszcz 36:24
And for people who are kind of looking to follow in your footsteps to take that leap of faith and but they’re, they’re scared or they have their doubts, what advice would you give to them?
Helen Huang 36:35
I think on my advice, I would definitely create a pros cons list. And I guess the other thing that I would advise is, yeah, we often think about the worst case scenario. But we also need to focus a lot of time on the best case scenario, right? Obviously, the end result is going to be somewhere in between. But, you know, you need to consider all of the spectrums within the realm of possibility to ultimately make your decision rather than just being negative. And thinking worst case, at least that that was that was definitely what I wish I told myself,
Sefunmi Osinaike 37:07
I think on my part would be, don’t do it alone, I think that’s the biggest thing. I think I would have been harder to do it. If I didn’t have Helen, personally the opportunity to have a very good team, I think that’s how to work with the opportunity to work with a very good team. I think it’s very important. So having someone who you can trust who you work with very well. So and to support you through this whole thing. So I think that is also the big thing. Like, it’s not an easy thing, like taking that leap of faith, like on your own. So having that support. So don’t do it if you don’t have support, you know, that will be like my biggest thing.
Karen Swyszcz 37:48
That’s really great advice. Thank you. So in addition to running Co.Lab full time now and gearing up for the Spring 2021 Cohort. Oh, you guys recently launched like those booklets you’d mentioned earlier, but the You Belong in Tech booklets, like one version for the product manager is one for the designers and one for the software developers. And you launched on Product Hunt. And congrats, by the way on that I’m curious to know, like what was the process like if you could take us from like, start to finish?
Sefunmi Osinaike 38:18
Yeah, um, so it’s very interesting, because also, we wrote another book before, like the How To Product which came out last year. And that took a lot longer. But it was also like kind of like part time. I mean, this one was part time too. But whenever so going back to the PM lens, when you’re a PM, I think it gives you a lot of ways to solve problems. So I sort of approach it and you know, we approach everything that comes on our plate as hey, these are problems. How do we like solve them? So it’s this daunting thing of, hey, you want to create a book or you want to write a book, or in this case, three booklets? What does that look like? What does that mean? So we start to break it down. Like, it’s important to break it down and understand, okay, why do you want to be and I think this is a lot of what product managers do you have this big vision, right? Like, okay, this is very daunting, it’s gonna take me a long time. So how do you then break, bring it back into, like, what are the steps you need to do? So we break it down into, okay, what do we want this book to be? You know, what problem do we want it to solve? And then we’re like, okay, we’re winning stories. Let’s go out and find those stories. First of all, so finding those people with interesting stories to interview, you know, tell them about the project, getting that buy-ins, and then interviewing them sitting down with them, interviewing them. And then so that’s like, one part of it. And then it’s like, hey, how do you want to structure the book. So how we did it was a Hey, just break the book into like, three parts. There’s the core stories, there’s the takeaways from those stories, and there’s, you know, all the other things that we want to like sprinkle in from like thought leadership and all that. So after breaking it down, you sort of have actionable tasks that you can honestly timeboxing realize that, okay, if you’re going to do an interview with someone that’s an hour, if you’re going to synthesize that interview, that’s going to take you an hour or two hours, right? If you’re going to write the story you give yourself so you allows you to apply some of those things. And once you have that big picture of like, all the things that you need to do, it becomes a lot easier and less daunting. You know, because a lot of people think, well wouldn’t write a book, I think, book, like, just think book. You know it’s like , wow, lots of pages, lots of words like hundreds of pages, like, that’s daunting. So just bring it back as Okay. Do you know what? How many chapters do you need? You know, I’m, at least for what we’re doing. This isn’t like Creative Writing where or like, you know, friction, where it’s, you know, stories or you need inspiration, it takes a lot more time. I think there’s structure in this. And even with a lot of business books, a lot of people can write books in less than a year, because they have that structure. They know what they want to talk about. They know what they need to break it down. The hardest part of writing is actually sitting down and writing, not the not those other things. So that process of planning, that’s what it takes to write the book. And then there’s also the second part of planning the launch, which is like a whole separate topic of, you know, how do you even design the books, and what does the inside look like on the promotional materials look like and all that. But right in the book itself is just you know what I said, break everything down. Time box it. Try it all out. And then it becomes less daunting. And you also give yourself a timeline, you build that timeline based off of all the things that you need, and allows you to do that. So it’s similar with any app development or software development, if you know, what kind of product you’re trying to create, you know how long design and development takes it allows you to appropriately plan those things, which is what product management ultimately gives gives people.
Karen Swyszcz 41:38
Yeah, that’s really great advice. Just reminded me of that saying, like, how do you eat an elephant? It’s like, just take one bite at a time. So with respect to the the initial volumes, you launch, will there be other volumes as well? And my second question to you will you be also creating booklets for like other roles in tech?
Helen Huang 41:55
Yeah, I think the main overarching theme across all of these booklets is really just the concept of belonging. And that’s why it is, hey, You Belong in Tech booklets. And then we have all of these different versions, different disciplines and upcoming volumes. Because again, we really just believe in that concept of thought diversity and want to showcase as many of those everyday but untold stories as as much as we can. Just because it’s relatable, you feel seen and understood a little bit. It’s like Chicken Soup for the Soul, but tech edition with some takeaways is like how I is how I like to consider it. So in future, we definitely want to expand the roles, you know, we want to think about, well, what are the other topics or roles within tech that people go into, you know, maybe IT project management, or just project management in general community stuff, operations. And so all of those roles are valid and very popular roles within technology that we want to highlight. And then I think other things and other topics that we want to go to in the future are also just more so along the lines of accessibility. You know, right now, we’ve mainly very much focus on accessibility of technology and the colab experience, regardless of your academic background, right, but there’s so many other varied backgrounds, and just considering intersectionality. Considering, you know, just general accessibility, disabilities. And so there’s just a bunch of things that we want to think about, and that we want to include and that we want to showcase. And so just just very excited for the future volumes as well.
Karen Swyszcz 43:27
That’s awesome. And with respect to Product Hunt, like I know actually, a lot of the goals from people in Co.Lab are is to launch on Product Hunt, so given the fact that you’ve already like launched a product on Product Hunt, what is your advice to people who are looking to do the same?
Sefunmi Osinaike 43:44
I think, just be genuine, ask for feedback. I think that’s ultimately the biggest thing is you’re putting your stuff out there and you want to be vulnerable you want to be you want to know how you can improve like launching, I always tell everyone, you know, in the How To Product course, product managers launching is just when you start to get customers, right. There’s not this big ceremony of like, you know, you launch once and like that’s it, it’s just the step. But it’s an interesting step, because it’s an easy way to just get a lot of people, get a lot of eyes on your product and get a lot of feedback. So it’s like optimizing for feedback is one of the best things you can do. So when you treat it that way, you release the pressure and you’re able to enjoy it and have genuine conversation. I had so many interesting conversations with so many people yesterday throughout the launch. I have like, you know, your previous question about here, when’s the next volume? I feel like we’re already backlog with like so many stories of, you know, people I want to tell my story, I want to tell my story. And that to us is a sign of success that, hey, people want to be vulnerable because in the book, people were very real about the challenges that they went through and the fact that other people want to say do you know what, I want to contribute to this movement and say look, getting into tech is hard. This is like my way. I actually had a call this morning with someone whose philosophy background. He was like I made my way into tech. And obviously it wasn’t easy. So that’s, that’s like a win for us. So it’s like figure out what win, what your win is and what you want from it. And I think then it will be a great avenue for you to, you know, move things to the next level.
Karen Swyszcz 45:18
Yeah, that’s really great advice. I’ll definitely keep that in mind when I decided to launch my, our product on Product Hunt. So looking back on both of your journeys so far, was there anything that surprised you along the way?
Helen Huang 45:32
At least for me, because I was very outside of the startup bubble. It was, I mean, I knew it was gonna be hard. But I feel like it’s harder than I thought it was going to be. Because you have like the wins, and you know, we see all the impact that we made. But then other times, you’re also it really is like this type of roller coaster. And I feel like that’s, it’s just very interesting. It’s just very different than my previous job at Microsoft, where it felt a lot more stable. But I think that’s, you know, this is what happens when you’re passionate about something and you give it your all, right, to see it succeed. So I don’t know, I think I definitely just had the normal learnings, but there’s still learnings nevertheless.
Sefunmi Osinaike 46:13
Yeah, I think for me is the altitude sickness. I think I heard about that term. Like many years ago, like four or five years ago, I didn’t get it. It was like the oh you know, founders, they have to like, go high and go low. I think the most surprising like how frustrating it is, I think, for me, I’m like, I guess not frustrating , but like just something you have to deal with, or you have to manage. Because there’s the execution where like, I feel like we’re executing every day, every single day. But there’s all these important huge, big strategic things that need time, and need thought, back, careful thought like, it makes a long time to make a decision that would impact something for months to come. So that balance is very, you know, finding that balance very surprisingly difficult. Um, I think it’s something that we know, we will keep learning, I’m learning every day on how to make that, that also healthy too, because like you have all these things at the back of your mind while you’re executing on it gives you stress and all that. So it’s like, how do you balance that?
Helen Huang 47:17
Oh,I actually did realize one thing, and I think it’s, it’s the changing of relationships, after you sort of start down on this journey, I think, especially with Sefunmi and I going full time and like not having time previously. Right. And now we’re going full time. And it feels like wow, there’s so much at stake. I think the two of us are still really trying to figure out okay, what does what does balance look like for us? Right? Because on one hand, it’s like, oh, wow, we need balance to sustain ourselves in the long term. And then on the other hand, is, are we in a place where we can balance just yet? And throughout all that, it’s also, you know, how do we maintain relationships with our families, with our friends? Not to mention, it’s COVID right now, right? So already things are a little bit different. And, you know, we don’t always want to be talking about Co.Lab. And yeah, it’s it’s just, I think that’s been an interesting challenge.
Karen Swyszcz 48:09
Yeah, that’s really interesting. Thank you so much for sharing. So if people wanted to connect with you guys, and learn more about what you do, where can they find you?
Helen Huang 48:18
So I mean, for me, you can definitely find me on Twitter. At heyyo, Helen, he YO, and then H-E-L-E-N. And actually,that’s the handle that I use on LinkedIn as well. And so I’m pretty active on both LinkedIn and Twitter. And so they can find me there or you know, they can just email me but email is on the joincolab website.
Sefunmi Osinaike 48:38
Yeah, for me, yeah, Twitter. I’m trying to be a lot more active on Twitter these days. So yeah, sefunmioshy. like Sefunmi, first name S-E-F-U-N, I feel so weird having to spell my but yeah, so yeah, Twitter, just like, search me up on Twitter. I’m trying to be more active on Twitter, and LinkedIn as well. And happy to like, chat with us. with anyone, I just have conversations over there.
Karen Swyszcz 49:01
Amazing. Thank you so much to the both of you for taking the time to share your stories to be transparent and to really inspire people and let people know that they do belong in tech.
Helen Huang 49:11
I mean, thank you so much for the opportunity, Karen. I mean, I just so glad that you went through Co.Lab that you still want to keep in touch with us. You know, you weren’t Oh, my gosh, this is so chaotic. I’m gonna leave. And I know that we just have a lot to look up to you as well, in terms of all of the hustles that we know you do.
Sefunmi Osinaike 49:30
Yeah. And yeah, just to echo that point, Karen. I’m very, very grateful for this opportunity to like speak here, share our story. So thank you very much for that. I think you were a very awesome addition to our community. Your product was super amazing. I loved every single bit of it that solves like a very particular problem. And I think you know, you and your team you’re going places andI can’t wait to you can choose to celebrate you all on the have you in the community.
Karen Swyszcz 49:58
Awesome. Thank you so much. Thank you. everyone for tuning into the episode and stay tuned for more episodes in the future. Ciao for now. Bye.
Helen Huang 50:07
Sefunmi Osinaike 50:11
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