#BackToTheSwitch: Adaobi's 'Odyssey' comes full circle
“I need to feel connected to the problem I am solving, it is fundamentally who I am”
What makes someone leave a company thirteen (13) years after joining fresh out of university, to go pick up a mouth-watering offer at a global big tech, only to return ‘home’ barely a year after?
Adaobi Okerekocha, Chief Innovation Officer at Interswitch joined #TheSwitch as a junior software engineer straight out of a Computer Science with Economics Degree at the Obafemi Awolowo University in 2008 and for 13 years, traversed the breadth of engineering, core ops and product management tells us exactly why and how she made what some may refer to as a ‘controversial’ switch back to where it all began. In this engaging sit-down, we chat about milestones that have inspired her career trajectory, the remit of a ‘CInO’ at one of Africa’s leading fintech & digital payments companies, what it takes to not only survive but thrive in a fast-paced tech environment, and what about Interswitch consistently pulls its people back.
Enjoy this latest in our series of #SwitchStories, and what’s better than a #BackToTheSwitch ‘episode’? 😉
What is your job role at The Switch and what does it entail?
I like to call it more of innovation management. Now that does not mean that I am the one responsible for innovating within the organisation, it just means that I help the organisation structure how it innovates, the right process, the right tools, the right frameworks, the right training for capacity building. My job is to simply provide the best organisational structure that will bring about the best value from ideas coming from employees, partners, and customers.
How long have you been in this field?
In my former life at #TheSwitch, I used to be a product manager, so I have helped create products, I have played integral roles in the development of essential payment technology platforms services and managed products and platforms. So, I would say I spent maybe a good seven years in that space, but then, speaking about Innovation management, while I’ve only been formally in this present role for a short while, intrinsically, I’d say it’s what I’ve championed and always been enthused about in all my roles at Interswitch for many years!
Based on our current ecosystem, what are your thoughts on innovation in Africa especially in the technology space?
Over the last decade or so, we have seen some extremely innovative solutions coming from across Africa, and it is only a given – First, one would agree that technology companies do not use the term ‘Innovation’ simply because it is a sleek buzzword, but because innovation is majorly driven by the need to solve problems. Also, Africa is a place where there are many problems to solve and that is why I would say Interswitch is the place to work if you are passionate about driving innovation in Africa.
At Interswitch, innovation is at the core of who we are and what we do. We want to be able to replicate the successes of the last 20 years in other sectors outside of financial services, whether it is in the transport, education, or energy sectors, we are positioning ourselves to solve those challenges; like Mitchell says, we are not a fintech but a technology company.
What about Interswitch are you the proudest of?
I will answer that on two levels. One; the vision at Interswitch is audacious and I think that is partly what is responsible for me always finding myself back at The Switch, no matter what. We dared to dream when what we were trying to create seemed almost inconceivable and I think that is what has led to our success in everything we have ventured into.
The second thing is the people. I always say this, some of the smartest people I have ever worked with are here at Interswitch. In my career I have always been very particular about not just giving value to an organisation, but also doing and learning from that experience. If I am not learning and I am not being challenged, what is the point? I am just getting a pay cheque. So, for me, it is the talent; being able to bounce off an idea and grow that idea because you are ideating with a lot of other very intelligent people who are also passionate about solving these problems.
How did you get into Interswitch?
I was just about rounding off my final year in university and then I got a buzz from my lecturer. He just finished a lecture at the time and said he wanted to talk to me. He asked me if I had ever heard of a company called Interswitch, to which I responded “no”. I did not have a clue what Interswitch was or what they were about. But he mentioned that there were some alumni that were in the company and that if I were looking for somewhere to start, it could be a good place. So, he gave me the phone number of the CIO (Chief Information Officer), Babafemi; (He was then Divisional Head for ‘TechQuest’, as software development at Interswitch was called then). After months of trying to reach him, one day, I eventually got a response, and he asked me to come in for an interview. I had no experience so I showed him my university portfolio and I emphasised on how eager I was to learn, whatever it may be, and the rest as they say, is history.
You left Interswitch after 13 years, spent over a year away and then returned; what inspired your return to The Switch?
I wrote two notes to myself while I was making this decision because it was tough. I wrote the notes to have something to refer when things get tough. The first note was reasons why I could not stay where I was at the time, and the second note was “why Interswitch?”. Leaving a global big tech was not because of Interswitch; it could have been anywhere else, but after evaluating, nothing else compared, it had to be back to Interswitch! 😊
One of the things I struggled with when I changed jobs was that I did not feel connected to the problem I was solving. I was in Nigeria and building for someone on the other side of the globe, it did not connect. You see, here at Interswitch, every time you see a transaction go through the system and you know that your energy went into that possibility, there is a feeling of fulfilment you get, and it was just missing when I left. Connection is fundamentally who I am.
In addition, the work culture there was more relaxed, and it was not something I was used to. At Interswitch, there was always an opportunity to solve a problem, and nothing compares to that chase and the results. The last litmus test was the overwhelming feeling that this was going to be a challenge; that is what made me realise that it was the right thing to do.
What is something you took for granted at Interswitch that you later realized was unique? `
Autonomy. At Interswitch, I began to do things that were not in my job description, I would even begin to walk around looking for problems to solve. The environment supports it, and this privilege became almost invisible. But in stepping out, you begin to see that not all organisations are run this way. Some are run with sometimes monotonous processes, a long line of people you need to get approvals from; there’s work that is dependent on 5 other people which is not necessarily always a bad thing, but at Interswitch the resources are at your fingertips, there is an atmosphere where people see the company as theirs and so there is an eagerness to solve these problems.
What was it like being away for a year? Did you still feel connected?
Definitely, Yes! There was something that always connected me to Interswitch. Earlier in the year I was invited for the 20th year anniversary which was amazing. I also would stalk people on LinkedIn occasionally. You know, there has been a running joke that maybe my umbilical cord is tied at the foundation of one of the Interswitch buildings and to be honest you cannot just take away 13 years; a lot of my relationships were built here.
What milestones have Interswitch achieved since the beginning of your career here?
Although I was not present at the time, the first thing I would say is the day the first ATM went live. It set the pace for other things that we have achieved. It is an essential part of our history as an organisation, everything we have is centred around that. Secondly, Verve. What gave us the guts to challenge a Mastercard and a Visa? How could we dare? It tells our story very well; boldly solving African problems with African products.
What is your favourite Interswitch product?
It’s got to be Quickteller. A lot of the work we do in-house is aggregated on that platform. Everything we do is to create the rails and create the capabilities for services like this to operate at home, but the endgame is aggregating it for the consumer. It also solves problems for me, I pay my bills and buy my airtime on the app.
What is your most memorable day at The Switch?
The launch of Paydirect. Typically, you had to spin out a new database for each new client coming on board the platform, but then I was given the opportunity to work on an enterprise version of Paydirect where we would onboard three customers in one day on a single platform. We take it for granted now as it seems like a no brainer, but it was not at that time; that definitely was a memorable day in my career.
What is something you wish you knew earlier in your career/life?
To embrace the roadblocks. Do not assume that these roadblocks would not happen. Trying to convince people to buy your ideas might be hard but do not let that stop you. If you cannot go through the problem, find a way to go around it. People would not always take what you say because you said it, sometimes you must prove to them why they should take it. Embrace the fact that a stumbling block could be an opportunity to approach things differently. Do not be rigid.
There is an ongoing hypothesis that a majority of tech founders and intrapreneurs are alumni of the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ife (OAU), seeing as you yourself are an alumna and you left one tech company for another, what would you say it is about the university that creates this ‘bias’ for tech?
For one, it is a competitive school with an impressive technology programme. An average Technology program in OAU takes you through carefully curated experiences ranging from classroom lectures, lab work to industrial attachments working with different companies which exposes you to various phases of your field of study. There is also a considerable amount of rigour you will pass through as a student running any degree program in OAU, and I think it translates to creating the necessary backbone to survive out there, as running a start-up or working in tech is not easy.
If you were not currently doing what you do, what would you be doing?
I would be a rock musician. I still have dreams of myself with a microphone, singing in a hall! However, I never passed the church choir level. I would say my top 3 musicians are Imagine Dragons, Whitney Houston and Jesus Culture, but you can get me anytime with any rock song. In terms of Afrobeats, I really like that song by Spyro, ‘Who’s your Guy’.