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My Pivot Journal: Taslim Okunola’s search for purpose led him to Google

Business

For most of us, Google has become an active participant in our lives. We use it for productivity, entertainment, navigation and, most importantly, searching for answers. But for some others, like Taslim Okunola, Google played these roles more intimately. From random ventures in Akure to managing global strategy and operations at Google, here is Taslim Okunola’s pivot journal.

How it started

My career started with uncertainty. I studied Agricultural and Resource Economics at the Federal University of Technology, Akure. But as of the time I got into school, I felt too young to understand what I wanted to pursue. I just wanted to get into the university. 

And so when I got into the university, I started looking for the things that would interest me. I got into student politics in my first year, thinking I could become a politician. But that didn’t end well. I realised that I couldn’t deal with godfatherism.

Then I tried standup comedy. My high school teachers used to tell me I was funny, so I thought I could make money from that. I remember travelling down to Lagos from Akure to audition at Standup 9ja. The experience was memorable because I was the youngest person at the event. Everyone around me was much older, and many had been doing comedy for years. If you’re wondering how that went, well, let’s just say the judges were really kind.

Then I tried a newsletter idea that seemed so brilliant when I started. It involved printing a newsletter on A3 papers and pasting them across the school. So I wrote content, self-learnt Corel Draw and designed this poster. Then I would go from one Faculty to the other overnight to put my newsletter on their notice boards. By morning, I would see people reading what I posted.

My monthly allowance was very little, so the plan was to eventually monetise these posters. So when the newsletter gains enough traction, I would start selling ad space. But again, that didn’t end well. Before the day ended, my newsletter would likely have been pasted on or removed by someone I didn’t know because I had no control over the notice boards in the first place. So what was next?

Epiphany

One day, I got a text that changed everything. I was at home in Ibadan because schools were on strike when I received an SMS asking me to come to school for Google Students’ Club. It was a training program organised by Google Student Ambassadors about Online Basics. Before then, my only tech-related bragging right was using free data code in Opera Mini browser on Java and Symbian phones for free internet browsing. And I was not seeking a tech career because I didn’t even know that existed as a career path

But after I saw the text, I packed my bags and travelled that 5-hour journey to Akure. People thought I was crazy.

The training was basically about using the Internet and that taught me several things I didn’t know. Before long, I started teaching others. And when the final exams came, my score was pretty high. Then I went on to become a Google Student Ambassador.

Becoming an ambassador helped me meet people, have role models and access mentoring. But I noticed that the people I looked up to were excelling through one of two paths: coding/computer science or digital marketing. I had no plans to reinvent the wheel, so I followed suit. It’s true that you can’t imagine beyond what you have seen. And for me, these were the paths I saw at the time.

Taslim Okunola (Photo Credit: GDG Lagos)

Transition

I started learning how to code at first. But it didn’t take long to know that path wasn’t for me. So I went into digital marketing, starting with Google Ads. For some reason, I focused my early learning on Search Engine Marketing. And for the first time, it felt like a lot was within my control. Metrics drive everything in this field. So I can see what is working and what needs work.

The next thing I did was start teaching other people what I learnt. I wasn’t an expert and did not even have any practical experience. The challenge with search engine marketing is that you can’t test your knowledge at will. It’s expensive. I wasn’t getting a lot of allowance from my parents, so there wasn’t much room to wiggle. But I wanted to share what I knew with others: it was fulfilling and helped my learning. I started posting pictures of those training sessions on Facebook, and gradually, I gained an identity.

One day, Mark Essien made a Facebook post saying he was looking for a digital marketer. Then a friend of mine, who I still haven’t met to date, recommended me for the job. I got on a call with Mark over the weekend, and that was my interview. He asked me to start on Monday. Fortunately, my school was on break then, so I had free time. I packed my bags to Lagos to work on Google Ads for Hotels.ng. This was 2015.

Before then, everything I knew about digital marketing was theoretical. Hotels.ng was my first practical experience, so I still had to learn on the job. Mark Essien was very involved in Hotels.ng’s growth strategy, so my one-month stint there was eye-opening. After going back to school, I had a lot more clarity. Then I applied for Google’s sales internship. It wasn’t a regular sales job. Instead of focusing on bringing new businesses, I did more on building relationships and analysis.

Since then, I have discovered a lot of things about the marketing world. The best practices in 2018 are not the best practices today. For instance, many people attributed a lot of confidence to last-click attribution. But these days, the model is being debated. Back then, most of our search engine marketing was keyword targeting. But now, there are different kinds of targeting and methodologies. Yet one has to stay ahead of the curve, know what works in the present and shut out the noise. This mindset has helped me progress a lot in my career and even move fluidly between roles.

How it’s going

Today, the scope is a lot broader than when I started. I now work as a Global Strategy and Operations Manager at Google. The bulk of what I do is help marketing leaders run efficient businesses. I support Marketing teams like Android and Google Photos in this line of work. I also work on some special projects that cut across our suite of platforms & ecosystems. It took me over five years in Google to get here. Just last year, I was a product manager for the Chrome Browser, working on the “Discover” section of the New Tab page.

All these experiences have shaped my perspective. I have learnt to care more deeply about the users than before, but I have also learnt to equally care for the company’s business. I used to be frustrated when we took big proposals to business leaders, and they weren’t as excited as expected or suggested a different approach. But today, I get it. And it was because I wanted to start thinking and functioning as a business leader I pivoted to Strategy and Operations. I was winging it in my early days, but that’s not the case anymore. Whatever you see me doing now is precisely what I want to do. I think of my career in phases, and that guides every decision I make.

Career hack

Nothing is going to beat plain old hard work. But the first real advantage you can give yourself is to strive for clarity. Then, optimize for luck.

When I moved to Lagos after school, I did not yet have a job or even a promise of one. I did great work during my internship, but people don’t spend their whole lives thinking about me. So I wanted to make sure I was around and in the faces of people who would either need my skillset or want to recommend me. It’s the same reason I moved to San Francisco. I want to be in places I have higher chances of getting lucky.

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