This week, Violet Njuguna, from our Technology for Development team, speaks about straddling the line between product manager and solution architect, and how she is combining her purpose and passion for tech into a powerful mix that is transforming lives.
- Solutions Architect is not a job title you come across often. It sounds fancy. What does it mean?
When you think of an architect, what comes to mind is a person who plans, designs and reviews the construction of a building. A solutions architect on the other hand crafts and designs solutions to address customer requirements.
- So how does being a solutions architect help you fulfil your current role as a product manager?
It’s an intricate part of what a product manager does, which is to develop products for an organization. To come up with a relevant product, you first need a design that will guide you as you bring this product to life. This design is the heart of the product, so you need to get it right in order to deliver a viable product.
- What’s it like, working in product development? Do you see a problem and try to solve it, or do you develop a product and find a problem for it to address?
One would be remiss if one were to approach it from the latter. I resonate with the aspect of Human Centered Design, in that you need to understand the inherent problem from a human perspective to come up with a product that addresses the problem. This is what I find fascinating about the role. I am able to see the product come to life.
In solution architecture you work with the products or solutions that are available and tailor them to the customers’ requirements, but you can also build a solution.
The pivotal aspect is what drives me. Getting to transform lives and seeing the solution’s positive impact of once it goes to market gives me a rush.
- Is this your dream job?
Most definitely! I love my job because it gives me a sense of purpose, and the fact that I can perform the roles of product manager and solutions architect interchangeably is extremely exciting and fulfilling. Being a techie at heart but now being driven by purpose and guided by business principles is a challenge that not only motivates me, it makes me look forward to how else I can contribute to society.
- How did you get here, was it chance or design?
I was once an innovation champion during my tenure at Vodafone Global Enterprise (VGE) and got to interact with the then Social Innovation team a lot during co-creation workshops. Some of the solutions we demonstrated in these workshops, such as Connected Farmer (Kenya) and SMS For Life (Tanzania), have made a significant difference to society.
When the product manager role at Safaricom was advertised I immediately applied for it, as I was looking for an extension of the sense of fulfillment I got when running the innovation workshops.
- What do you find most interesting about your job?
I enjoy the fact that I have a chance to make a difference in people’s lives. The product or solution, if fulfilled right, will make a positive difference in society. I also enjoy the opportunities I get to work with multiple stakeholders with diverse needs, experience various platforms and technologies, and to learn every day.
- What’s the one project you’re most proud of? What about it makes it so dear to you?
I’m currently working on a platform that provides information on Non-Communicable Diseases (NCD’s) such as cancer, diabetes, hypertension and mental illness via SMS and a web portal.
Making it work is what drives me. It also gives me the chance to interact with people from a wide range of backgrounds, a diverse group of partners, and those who are most vulnerable or affected.
Every one of us, including myself, is affected by NCD’s in one way or another, and I’m inspired by the opportunities available for us to use technology to save lives. These conditions do not have to be a death sentence.
- Do you ever get frustrated, or overwhelmed, by your job?
I do sometimes, and it’s normal. Sometimes you want to freeze time so that you can get the product right because you’re working with a very narrow window to deliver, and the pressure to build something that will save lives or change fortunes for the better can be intense.
You can also get overwhelmed by emotion when you interact with those you’re building the product(s) for, especially when you realise how inequality creates barriers that prevent the most vulnerable from accessing much needed solutions.
- How do you deal with that?
By giving my best every single time, staying positive and finding ways to work with greater precision so that we can deliver faster.
- You worked for Safaricom for three years, left for Vodafone then came back to Safaricom. Why did you return?
The opening in Technology For Development (T4D) gave me a chance to fulfill an interest that had been piqued during my tenure at VGE. I love working with people from different backgrounds and being exposed to diverse cultures, so the VGE role excited me.
Coming back to Safaricom presented an opportunity to put in to practice some of the skills I learned while at VGE and to learn new ones, and I simply couldn’t pass on that.
- What’s that experience like? Leaving a company then coming back – because most people leave and never look back.
I love both organisations. Going back to Safaricom after my stint at VGE felt like being a child who has grown up, gone to college and come back home to make good use of the skills learned, which in this case meant applying my knowledge and experience to support Safaricom’s purpose of transforming lives.
- There’s a lot going on in the health sector right now, lots of challenges to be solved. You manage the health portfolio at Safaricom. What are you working on now?
I am currently working on a global epidemic prevention project together with a number of partners. The solution will seek to make use of Big Data and analytics to deter the spread of infectious diseases.
I am also working on scaling Fafanuka, a platform we built in partnership with the Ministry of Health and Non Communicable Disease Alliance of Kenya (NCDAK) that disseminates information on NCD’s.
- If you could pick one thing to fix within the health sector, what would it be and why?
Well that’s tricky since they are all equally important. For example, if you look at human resources within the health sector, the patient-doctor ratio is a huge concern.
Achieving Universal Health Coverage (UHC) is also critical because it will allow more Kenyans to afford quality healthcare, but if we don’t have the resources to support this noble initiative achieving it will be a challenge.The rising burden of NCD’s is also a major concern that requires concerted efforts to address.
But I believe that if we collectively address these issue then our joint efforts will make a difference.
- What is it about creating social impact that drives you?
I once travelled to Lamu for work, and while there I learned about the lengths it takes for an expectant mother to get to King Fahad Hospital. Can you imagine being heavily pregnant or in labour and having to endure a three-hour boat ride just to see a doctor? Being a mother myself, it pains me to imagine what these women are going through, so if I can in any way reduce their burden, I will.
This is what drives me; having the chance to make a difference, no matter how small it might seem.
- Most valuable lesson(s) you’ve learned on career your journey?
Be open to learning every day. It’s the unexpected that you latch onto when you are open, and it comes from the most unlikely of sources.