My guest for this episode is Nikolai Francis. Nikolai has been in product for over 15 years. He comes from a family of engineers and currently works at WePay as a Vice President of Product Management. Compared to what's considered to be traditional tech products, Nikolai loves the payments space because of how interesting the problems are.
Why He Decided to Pursue an MBA at NSU, Florida? [01:10]
Is an MBA Necessary to Be a Good PM? [05:09]
Did He Ever Think He Would Be in the Tech Industry? [08:01]
How He Discovered the Role Of PM? [12:05]
What His Day to Day Looks Like as a PM or, As a VP of Product [13:55]
Parts of Product Management the He Enjoys the Most [18:06]
Examples of Problematic Product Launches [20:33]
His Experience as a Black Person Working at Different Companies [21:56]
How Does One Know When Enough is Enough? [24:46]
What Interests Him About Working on and Building FinTech Products? [25:30]
His Advice for People Looking to Get into PM [27:18]
(Show notes from our interview have been edited for clarity and brevity.)
Nikolai Francis 0:01
That's where I learned about product management. Actually, a very good friend of mine at the time said, hey, there's an open role available in product, I think you'd probably be pretty good at it. And, you know, I thought about it
Kimmiko James 0:14
eagleeye Francis has been a product for over 15 years, he comes from a family of engineers currently works that we pay as Vice President of Product Management, compared to what's considered to be traditional type products. Nikolai loves the payment space, because how interesting the problems are. And he's quite good at it, too. So excited to share a story with you. Let's get into it. Hello, and welcome back to the black enterprise network, podcast that shares the stories of black professionals of tech and entrepreneurship. My name is Kimmiko James, and in this episode, I'm going to be talking with Nikolai Francis, the Vice President of Product Management at we talk about why they like MBA, if you actually do what he loves. I just want to know why you decided to pursue an MBA at LSU, Florida, because you know, MBA, a lot of people have thoughts on that. So why did you decide to pursue it?
Nikolai Francis 1:14
Well, it's really twofold. So first reason is the opportunity came about. And one thing I learned about opportunity that you should never engage is when it when it comes across your path, it is not a frequent visitor, and you definitely have to take advantage. So at the time, I was actually working at first data, and I believe, a year of free few months prior, I just got my bachelor's, I was actually like a late starter when it came to school, I didn't quite know what I want to do. And I finally ended up in business. So with that, I finally finished my bachelor's. And then our pre came about at first data where they were offering to pay for the MBA, not only that, they're actually going to bring in Nova Southeastern University Professors to the workplace. So the work life balance could be further enhanced. So right after you're done with your workday, you could go into class right at the facility, which was awesome. My boss at the time, was actually signed up for a program, he tapped me, Bill Lewis, at first, I wasn't sure about it. And he was like, Yeah, yeah, let's do it together. And we signed up and did it. Now, the second reason for actually doing it was well, I don't know very many of my peers. And I'm talking about black professionals that actually have their MBAs and to get the opportunity to do it. And not only have it fully paid for, I felt was a slam dunk for me. And further my career for the my progression of where I was, I was actually already director in product management. So now the sky was kind of limit. I was like, You know what, let me become more subject matter expert. let me dive into this and see how this can help my future.
Kimmiko James 2:51
If you actually think about it, there aren't a lot of black professionals that go for the MBA, because we're not always sure what opportunities can come from it. As well as we're not even sure if it's worth the potential debt as well. Getting an MBA is also not always a set path for people that look like us. Nicholai agrees with this point, but adds on to the value an MBA can add and why he specifically decided to pursue it.
Nikolai Francis 3:14
Because I mean, where we sit, the benefits of that aren't supportive enough, they aren't promoted enough to say, yeah, go forth and get it. And so there isn't a reason to your point, there isn't a reason to just go out there and get it. But think about it, versus a four years bachelor, mph, what two years of your life. So two extra years? No, especially at a good school like Nova Southeastern or even another school, it doesn't matter, right. And to actually have that behind your title. And to learn more, I mean, it I will say that doing that was the hardest thing academically I have ever done in my life, hands down. And it's because that it was more than just memorizing facts and figures, it was actually applying everything, applying everything to theory, applying what you learn to how this works in the real world. And then writing 25 page papers about it. Plans were, of course, career advancement. But I think I touched on this earlier is really to be that subject matter expert, not only in what I'm doing and products in the tech field, but how can I apply that to the overall business? What are Corporation working on? How can I provide that to supply chain management to how we're going to make make experiences better for the customer thinking outside of the box and applying solutions? Because a lot of times what product managers do when they come into roles is that they manage a product that really means maintenance maintenance is a supply chain, just keeping the products fulfilled for the customers. Well, I want to go a step beyond that. Right. I want to think about what are The next steps manage that product product roadmap, how can we apply this to future? What are the next technologies that we need to build on to make this more valuable?
Kimmiko James 5:09
So for me, the most conflicting part about applying to pm jobs is the constant need for an MBA, even at the internship level. So ask Nick, like, if he thought an MBA was necessary to be a good pm?
Nikolai Francis 5:20
No, I don't think you need an MBA to be a product manager. I do however, think you need an MBA to be a senior leader in product management. Because the MBA goes beyond just managing a product, as I referenced before, you're talking about things like supply chain management, business law, and where there's applicable compliance, whether or not to include certain regulations in your device based on whether it's needed. And what's the justification behind that. And you have to be able to explain and create a picture that for when you're talking to CEOs, because the people I have reported to our CEOs, right, we're talking leaders of companies that are looking at not just your product area, but they're looking at operations, they're looking at support desk, they're looking at manufacturing. So when you're on your small part of product, how do you create that clear picture for them, so they can make the best decision on going forth in the product roadmap?
Kimmiko James 6:23
That is an interesting take, because I do agree, if you hire, let's do it, let's just say me, for example, if you hire me like a young 20, something year old to be a senior level PM, obviously that would not transfer over because I don't have the industry experience,
Nikolai Francis 6:41
you may think that you're coming in with great energy and a lot of knowledge and that Yeah, you can do this. Sure, sure, you can. But do you understand the back end and how these processes tying in and how it impacts organizations like operations, compliance, legal, and all those are the areas that you're not working in?
Kimmiko James 6:58
So would you kind of say that, it kind of expedites the process of being a senior level PM, because, again, I could come in without that much experience. But who knows, five, five to seven years, I could be at that level. But if I had the previous work experience, got the NBA then came as a senior level pm, then I'm just I'm already there.
Nikolai Francis 7:18
In a way, I do think that the work experience is also valuable itself, actually working within the product realm. And there's something that in, in my industry, they call wins, getting wins, rolling out actual product, and then maintaining that from the set, it actually hits the market. And it's actually in an end customers hands. I think that's critically important as far as training, because then then you, then you can understand the company side, I think you can only understand the company side, if you're working on the projects. But understanding also the customer side after the products actually go to market is critical as well.
Kimmiko James 8:01
Did you ever think you'd be in the tech industry?
Nikolai Francis 8:04
So answers properly? Yes, I did think I'd be in a tech industry. I did not however, think I would be in payments. So you know, when you apply payments to tech, it's a whole nother ballgame. I hate to refer to things as complex to be because complex to mean means that it just has more parts to figure out. Okay, so let me just substantiate that. I do think that the payments industry is huge. It has so many different parts. So beyond what I'm doing, there's a lot of other things going on in payments, right? So tech, I love to I've always loved tech. I've always loved tech since I was a kid. So I always thought that I'm I might be in something technical related being that my father is a mechanical engineer. My sister is a nuclear mechanical engineer. And he kind of kind of runs runs in our DNA, where like all engineers are you're some kind of background like that. Right. So so that yes. But yeah, payments is a whole nother ballgame. Yeah. So I want to break it down for me, I really discovered as is that, that plane between technical engineers and developers and translating that to how to apply real world, right? So you're kind of that go between you're not you're not a salesperson. You're not an engineer, but you understand the concepts. And that's the thing about product is you have to be able to understand the concepts. That layman's we're always being a learner. I'm always diving in trying to understand new concepts as an example, part of my daily routine. I listened podcasts first thing in the morning and the podcast I listened to, you'd be surprised. I mean, I listen to things like CNET and your podcast Actually, I do listen to that as well. I listened to snacks daily, which is a stock business podcast by listening to various podcast. Because you never know where solution will come from. And it's surprising sometimes where they do come from. So my I guess going back to the original question is I dive in. So I believe that every concept can be understood, at least on a high level. So if there's something I don't quite get, I actually lean back on the things that I have access to just sitting up, I still have my Nova Southeastern alumni access. So I can actually dive into their library of resources with my login and understand these concepts. And yeah, maybe sometimes the information isn't totally up to date. But you can get an understanding if you just it's kind of like setting yourself back to school to get it. Because like you said, No one understands every concept. It's just impossible. There's just so much do you have to always be willing to research, we tend to treat life in separate chunks. So you have your home life, you have your maybe workouts, you have your work life, and we do treat them all as separate things. You manage your kids here, and then I have you stopped looking at life that way. Even when it comes to work, I look at work as something I do. So to me, why should it be this traditional nine to five thing that I have to report to all the time I look at it as Okay, yeah, there are certain hours that need to be available. But I need to be able to answer those questions. Because you never know when questions gonna come, I need to be able to actually do the work, maybe when I'm feeling the best. And maybe that might be at 8pm at night, you know, I mean, so I don't treat it as a separate thing I do I treat it as just another one of those things I do in my life, because I enjoy it. And my recommendation to any listeners out there. If you don't enjoy something, stop doing it. Always do something you enjoy. If it's not adding to your life or not making you grow, then find those things that will help you grow.
Kimmiko James 12:05
So how did you discover the role of PM,
Nikolai Francis 12:08
when I started at first data, I actually started at the help desk, I started at the help desk and went on to do software support. I did some training and development. And then I kind of took a left turn and I went into business continuity planning. So if you know what that is, that's actually moving people and departments at the time of disaster when Yeah, when a disaster hits. So like a hurricane is a good example. So you would move a whole department of people from one site to another to make sure operations are still functional, right? And what was great about that is it let me touch every single part of the organization. And I couldn't learn about what every single part of the company did. That's where I learned about product management, actually, a very good friend of mine at the time said, hey, there's an open role available in product, I think you would probably be pretty good at it. And, you know, I thought about it, I knew about the products already from my training background and software support. So I decided to give it a shot. Well, I gave it a shot got the role as a as a base level Product Manager. And I took off, I mean, it was exactly what I want to do. I love this, so much dove into the various technologies. But keep in mind too, that when I got into product management there, I call it kind of soft product management a little bit because Product Management at on the acquire side, doesn't dive into the hardware as much as you might think it's more marrying the software in compliance with that up to the hardware to roll out a product for decisions that were made or ready at senior level that they were going to go forth with this product.
Kimmiko James 13:55
At a high level what is your day to day look like as a pm or even more specifically, as a VP of product.
Nikolai Francis 14:03
As soon as I started into my day, I start with I guess the emails of the pop my list because I get you know, anyone know how many emails I have my unopened emails in my inbox. So I start with those and I tried to get a handle on them and answer whatever inquiries or questions or try to get things done, then, usually throughout my day is involves the chairing or participation in a few meetings. When I'm actually chairing the meeting. I'm usually answering the what right I'm usually answering Okay, here's, here's the problem we're tackling this is what we got to do. And then I have like the engineers or whoever's on a meeting to kind of chime in and then we work through resolution in part of that process. I'm always looking for Okay, what are the next steps and when are we going to deliver on those steps? So I'm always doing that. Now when I'm a participant in a meeting in mainly listen mode. I'm always Asking the who, what, where, when and why. Right? Because none of us are perfect. And when someone else is presenting a concept is very important, as a participant, to be able to ask the questions, that other people may be a free task. I think part of being a product manager is being brave. There's a lot of hierarchy and protocol that comes with working with a corporation. And I think that I am not a very political person. So I kind of break that a little bit. And I try to ask the questions, because if you don't ask questions, you you may not realize it, but that thing that you didn't ask may come back to beat you to to hurt you at that project or product, right, your launch. That's kind of what I do. And I usually ask the questions based on previous efforts on what I've done before, but I don't necessarily lean on that, per se, mainly is a point of curiosity for me, so we can get to the next step. And yeah, sometimes we it takes us down a rabbit hole. And we might waste waste a little time, but at least we got through it. Now, towards the end of my days, though, this is kind of a low time for me, I'm usually good up until 2pm. And then after, I would say, the 2pm to two to 6pm. Because I usually work my hours that usually work between 7:30am to 6pm. So between the two and six is kind of when things are kind of slowing down a little bit mentally for me. So I basically use that time to catch up on all the things that I probably didn't tackle earlier on, maybe there were like old cases or old to do's that I need to do. And I usually use that time to do that, I'm still attending meetings, I'm trying to get that stuff, right wrapped up because I I do believe in. And this is probably gonna be a controversial point on your podcast, I do believe we we as black people do not have the opportunity, and we cannot afford to fall behind as some of our other counterparts is gonna say it, we don't. And we are judged even more under a microscope to deliver. So if you're that black person, and you prove time and again, that you cannot deliver, you will probably be out of your role much more quickly than someone from a different background.
Kimmiko James 17:21
So do you lead over a team of product managers? Or do you get to build the product as well? Or do you just hand off, you know, so different things are?
Nikolai Francis 17:31
So product management is a very interesting role in that sometimes you'll have a team of people like in the past, I had a team of I think 11 people that reported to me and one really bad one time. And then I have gone a long time period without having anyone to report to me. But I still we're always working cross functionally. So right now, I don't have any direct reports. I'm seeking them, you know, as a way to just fully do my job. But many times you're leveraging cross functionally other departments to get the work done.
Kimmiko James 18:06
What parts of product management Do you enjoy the most? Because, yeah, I feel like there's just, I mean, if you enjoy everything, that's amazing, but it's about the job.
Nikolai Francis 18:18
So a couple of things, I do enjoy launching new products, because probably the most satisfying part of my job is when I'm about out and about in the world. And I'll visit a business and I see my device on the counter, and people utilizing it for payments. And people have no clue that I was integral to making that thing get to market. That's the best part of my job. Now with that said, too, I also enjoy the day to day thing aspects of my job, too. I love the consultant part of my job where people come to me because they know I have some deep experience and they will ask me, well, what's the proper way to do this or that in the job and I'm pretty much a sponge when it comes to those and I'm a Product nerd. So I'm like, Yes. Okay, this is how it's been done. This is the best way I've seen it. This is the worst way I've seen it here. Here are your options, you know,
Kimmiko James 19:14
Hey guys, Pardon the Interruption, but I just wanted to take a minute to talk about the new black enterprise network podcast website. If you've ever been curious about what a guest looks like, or what their social media links are, then we have detailed guest profiles for each episode. And there's also detailed shownotes with time markers in case you wanted to find a specific point or piece of advice without listening to the entire episode. There's also readable episode transcriptions. And also the website allows you to easily sync questions and feedback if you want to get in contact with me. Just know that the website will be updated on a weekly basis. So if you don't see something done already, then it will be done soon. Check it out at Black enterprise network.fm.
Nikolai Francis 19:55
The worst parts of my job and I think you touched on this a little bit with your co thing is sometimes the day to day managing, I would say managing problems can get a bit tiresome. Whenever you launch a product, when you have a product in the market, there are going to be problems. I have never launched a product that doesn't have issues in the market, okay, it just does not happen, there are better launches and their worst launches, the worst launches are the worst, because a number of issues do pop up, and you have to manage through them. And it does get tiresome at times. So you do have
Kimmiko James 20:33
Could you give an example of what those problems might look like? We all buy something that doesn't turn out the way it's supposed to. And then a few months later, the company releases a newer version, and it's already too late. So I guess Could you give an example of not an unsuccessful product launch, but you know, one that has problems, like you kind of just mentioned.
Nikolai Francis 20:54
So I see, I can give a pretty banal example, one of the products I launched in the past, but certain chip cards, contactless cards, if you're familiar with the contact and contact chip cards, one of the chip cards when you insert it into the chip reader, it wasn't reading certain chip card types. And it turned out that I think it was the frequency with which the chip was communicating to the actual device was a bit higher, and there wasn't enough copper shielding around the contact port of the terminal to allow her to read successfully. So it was getting failures on those two breeds. So what would happen is that the transaction itself would fall back to magstripe. Or they would have to swipe the card and process it that way. So that's a very light example. But that's just an example of something that has to be fixed. Because you don't want your device on the field and they can't read. It can't read certain cards that are totally compliant. Right?
Kimmiko James 21:56
Yeah, that has actually happened to me quite a few times. I don't I don't think it's because of you, Nikolai. But that's happened a few times. But guys just adding on to the most difficult moments. And of course, I tell people, you don't have to say the company name that you've potentially experienced this app. But going back to how you said, when you are a person of color, especially black, you are put under this magnifying glass at times and your role. So for you have you experienced that accompanies?
Nikolai Francis 22:25
I think I experienced that every single day? I think I do. It's not obvious, it's more passive and price subtle, but it is there, and you have to be aware of it. And you have to be aware of where you're coming from. One of the things I tried to do is not to take a I would say a self gratitude type of attitude towards things I don't believe. And I try not to think that I deserve better just because I'm here. You know, I don't I don't go with I don't approach with that I approach with the I am blessed because I have this opportunity to work on this problem. So that's, you know, I lead in with that, and it helps me stay motivated in seeing things through to the end. I mean, we're such a minority when it comes to these positions that Yeah, I can I can say with confidence, I look around. And that's, you know, it's difficult to see, you know, people in my background in that same position.
Kimmiko James 23:23
Yeah, it's, it's a tricky thing, because honestly, you wouldn't want to be an engineering manager who wouldn't want to be a VP or director of engineering? Who wouldn't want that. But I just I think the double edged sword of that is like, we just kind of talked about just the pressure, the constant pressure to be perfect the constant pressure to be on all the time versus your counterparts where I wouldn't say they're cruising because no one's cruising when they're directors or stuff, but they just kind of get passes. But you have to be perfect. And it's something I think about so
Nikolai Francis 23:54
yeah, absolutely. How do I get past it is I focus on the things I love, whether it be the product itself, the tech itself, my wife, and kids, you know, what I'm going to do later on as far as my workout or whatever, that's what I focus on. Because you're absolutely right. I mean, the pressure is immense and is there but if you always bring yourself back to center, I guess when you're learning the basics of tennis as an example, one things first things I learned when I was playing tennis is you always come back to center when you're playing singles. Because then you can cover your ankles, you know, you always come back to to center, because if you're too busy looking at how you were wrong, and how the problem is, you will stay stuck there. And then the other important things come out, you won't be able to react in time, you won't be able to handle them appropriately because you're already stuck.
Kimmiko James 24:46
That's a positive way when it comes to thinking about that because something that crosses my mind and maybe others minds is just how do you know when enough is enough? Like how do you know when the stuff you enjoy about your job? Just can't outweigh the bias and terrible things going on at your job, especially when you see, I mean, not you specifically, but other people, when they see again, more counterparts getting promotions, and you're still waiting for years patiently and working hard, you know, how much is enough? I mean, when is enough? That's,
Nikolai Francis 25:18
that's actually a pretty easy question. When I have fitful sleep at night, or if I wake up in the morning, and I don't look forward to doing what I'm doing, that's how I know.
Kimmiko James 25:30
But what really just interests you about working on and building financial tech products versus, you know, the traditional quotation marks, SAS products, you know, like, yeah, the stuff that we use that we don't think about, like slack or Netflix or Google stuff like that,
Nikolai Francis 25:47
I believe that the tech, you're referring to that SAS stuff is totally oversaturated. There's so many people paying attention to and working on that stuff, that I feel great being in the space, I am in payments, that I can maybe take a piece from that SAS model and apply it to what I'm doing, and make it better. Because, you know, one of the huge things in the payments industry is security. That's like the first thing, right? You have to worry about consumer security out there. And how do you protect that? Because you cannot use every piece of those models to apply it. So if you do you have to consider what can you layer in behind that to make sure it's delivered efficiently. So what's great about the payments industry is that it is totally unique. So whatever tech you're going to apply to it. It's a very old model, you'll see out of date, out of compliance devices working there in the market today, just because a they're cheap, be they're still working and and see, you know, they're pretty sticky. Once a merchant, they decide that they're going to use a point of sale credit card terminal. A lot of times they will move on that device for a long, long time. They're pretty sticky. So that's why I think is unique about our industry that that makes it a pleasure to to work in. Because it's always a puzzle to work out how you can apply new concepts and innovative technology and thinking to the products.
Kimmiko James 27:18
I agree. Like traditional quotation marks, companies and products, they're very much so oversaturated. Like, literally in my first summer as a front end engineer at slack. I was like, I want to work on consumer facing stuff. And then I realized I was monetization. I was like, Okay, well. I mean, I did get to work on some stuff in the checkout page that they do see, but it's not like the actual slack product itself, which I thought was really cool at the time. It's still cool, but we're gonna monetization. Like, like I said, like, we both agree there are a lot of complex pieces to it that you I don't think personally, you would see on the consumer facing side. So definitely recommend. I don't know how people can try it out. But if you're able to try it out, definitely try working on a money team at your company. It's challenging, but I would say very rewarding. Absolutely. Would you have any advice for anyone looking to get into PM, you know, it's, it's pretty difficult given the popularity, unlimited spots at certain companies, and also the NBA requiring me like we discussed way in the beginning. So how can people stand out as candidates,
Nikolai Francis 28:28
I would say dive into products you love, learn what makes them successful, dive in and research the background behind that. I mean, one of the things I one of the products, I love our apple products, I'm totally an apple person. So you know, I've read the Steve Jobs book and you know, dove in and watch all the all the movies about him and and you know, just learn by him as far as it goes. He's one of my idols. But I did that because I want to understand how he did it that I do think people don't agree, but I do think he was one of the best product managers out there. And I think that to stand out, you need to model your own way and your own theory about what you love about products. And I would also recommend not to try to stand out so much as to just learn your craft. You know, if you learn your craft, and know your craft, you will actually get more opportunities because people look at you and they say, you know, that person actually does understand the concepts and how they apply. And that's more valuable to more companies than people give credit for.
Kimmiko James 29:38
Where can people follow you and your journey.
Nikolai Francis 29:41
I have LinkedIn, I'm not on Twitter. I gave that up. Probably a year or so back to schedule instrumenting things coming at you on LinkedIn Most definitely. I'm also on Facebook, but I don't check that as much so so mostly, mostly LinkedIn. I do have my little YouTube channel.
Kimmiko James 30:00
Thanks for coming on nickel. I definitely appreciated having you on sharing your takes and your your controversial quotation marks takes as well. So thanks for coming on. Thank you for having me. Thank you for listening to this episode of The Black enterprise network podcast. Join us next one in which I talked with drawn Teddy, CEO and founder of color stack. We talk about what it's like to be a nonprofit founder and a young founder and how you can do the same see you that it would be greatly appreciated if you could leave a review on Apple podcast or any platform that has reviews