In Conversation: Ander Dobo (Product Manager, Flutter at Google)

Ander's career path has seen him go from working with Dimension Data and Orange in Botswana to working for global tech giants Amazon and Google and supporting burgeoning digital commerce entrepreneurs on the continent. What started off as satisfying the curiosity to solve problems has culminated in much success for the University of Botswana alumni.

In this interview, he takes us through his career beginnings, how he got to work for global tech giants, the lessons he has learnt along the way and shares some nuggets with wannabe technology professionals.

Please tell us more about yourself and your career journey in tech

I grew up and went to school mostly in Botswana, though I spent a little time in Ghana when I was younger. As a kid I was always fascinated with and tinkering with technology. I finished high school in Botswana and went on to the University of Botswana (UB). I’d really wanted to do a Bachelor's in Management Information Systems in Australia because it was at the intersection of my interest in both computer science, and business. I had the grades but due to a technicality I went to UB (story for another day haha).

At UB I was accepted for a Bachelors in Business Administration (BBA). There was no MIS or other combination of business and computers at the time. I figured out that I could use my spare and elective credits to complete the courses required for a Minor in Computer Science by the time I graduate. So after consulting with and getting the go-ahead from professors in both the Faculty of Business and Faculty and Science, I pursued that path.

While at UB, I worked part time as a Team Leader at a call center. I ended up helping with technical support of the servers, computers and PBX, which were all business critical. I also partnered with a friend who was also a Team Leader and struck a deal to build an internal intranet and knowledge base. Through that I built a relationship with Dimension Data Botswana who did the technical support for the call center and did an internship there in my final year at UB. I joined full time in 2005 when I graduated, initially as an Account Manager, and later on became a Project Manager.

In 2008 I joined Orange Botswana as the Corporate Solutions Manager. I built a Presales team and partnered with various technology partners to build customized solutions for corporate customers including fixed internet services, microwave radio links, and tailored mobile voice and internet packages. I got an opportunity to act as the executive leader of the business unit responsible for all B2B business, custom corporate solutions, roaming and interconnect, and the Internet business.

In 2012 I started an MBA at Hult International Business School in San Francisco. It was an incredible year of shared experiences with fellow students from over 100 nationalities. I got to immerse myself in the Silicon Valley ecosystem through meetups and hackathons and internships. That had been a huge dream of mine.

I joined Amazon in 2014 and moved to Seattle in Washington State where the headquarters is.I became a Product manager and found I absolutely loved the role. I worked for a few years on cross-border ecommerce, then later on payments.

In 2021 I decided to leave Amazon and spend time on other pursuits I’d been wanting to do for a while, including travel. International travel was still restricted at the time due to COVID but I took the opportunity to do a couple of road trips across the US and introspect on what I wanted to do next in my career. I joined a group called Sufficient Capital angel investing in digital commerce in Africa. I also spent time learning about Machine Learning and doing some advising work.

In 2022 I decided to jump back into a full time role and fortunately joined Google as a Product Manager for Flutter.

How would you describe your role as a Product Manager for Flutter?

Flutter is open source software (a UI toolkit) that enables developers to build applications that can run on mobile (Android andiOS), the Web and Desktop (Windows, MacOS and Linux) from a single codebase. I’m the Product Manager for Developer Experience and Tooling. In short, I talk to and learn from customers (developers) globally about how we can continue improving the features and tools for building with Flutter. I then partner with engineers, UX researchers and designers to build and improve Flutter’s features and tools.

You have been based in the diaspora for a significant part of your career. What has been your experience working in tech abroad compared to work in tech in Botswana?

The most significant difference for me is at Amazon before, and now at Google, I get to build products for customers around the world which is something I always aspired to. As a part of that I get to work with teams and partners who are distributed around the world and some of the best in their fields. The level of scale and complexity is much higher than when I was in Botswana, which is an added challenge that I enjoy. When I was at Dimension Data and Orange in Botswana, I worked with talented teams mostly locally and some from South Africa to build solutions for customers in Botswana which are great experiences that I’ve built upon. 

What are some of the lessons that you think the Botswana ecosystem can learn from an advanced ecosystem like that of the US?

It’s important for our innovators to aspire to build products for a global audience. To really think big in that way. For one the Botswana market is quite small, and secondly, by just aspiring only to the Botswana market, we miss out on opportunities to truly contribute to the global tech ecosystem. We should aspire to operate at the same level as the rest of the world in any area of technology. I think it starts with fostering a core belief that we can be world class technology experts. Of course there are some innovators in Botswana who are pursuing this goal, but I’d love to see much more.

We could also learn from the Silicon Valley culture of not stigmatizing failure and rather learn from it. Technology innovation is all about discovering and defining a problem well, forming a hypothesis about how to solve it, then experimenting by building solutions, breaking things, failing and learning fast to build the next better version, or solve the next problem. 

Another factor is funding. Building stuff in tech requires significant infusions of capital at various stages from inception to maturity. It's vital for our ecosystem to have access to that kind of funding if it’s to grow. We have to figure out the right funding models which will foster tech entrepreneurship. 

What advice can you give to young people who are interested in pursuing a career in tech, be it through the entrepreneurship path or working for tech giants like Amazon and Google?

I’d say leading with curiosity is a vital part of being successful in tech. That is what enables you to solve problems that have not been solved before and address problems that have never been addressed before. Never be too afraid to ask questions, take risks, try things out, step back and try to formulate unique solutions. Time is on your side when you’re young. 

Building resilience is important. Be prepared to face and work around inconveniences, and navigate bad luck and hard situations. Don't let those break your spirit because you are going to encounter them a lot. A personal example. I applied for and got accepted to an MBA  in 2011 but didn’t have the money, nor did I have any idea how I would raise it. So I had to defer my admission. I now had to figure it out, which I did and was able to start in 2012. If I’d waited until I had the money before applying, I might never have had the urgency to really double down and figure that out.

Maximize your chances of having “good luck” by forming and fostering relationships with as many mentors as you can. By mentor in this sense I mean anyone you could learn. Also give back by helping and mentoring others. These relationships, when approached genuinely pay dividends in the form of opportunities that come your way through your network. The bigger your network, the bigger your chances of good luck.

The beautiful thing about software today is that you can build it once and sell it many times at no or very little marginal cost. And you can do this from anywhere in the world, learning from mostly free resources on the Internet, and using tools which are mostly free (at least initially). Grab this opportunity to build things, share them with the world and contribute to open source projects. Find global problems and try to create solutions for them, because you can!

What is the best advice that you have received in your career thus far?

Early in my career a manager who eventually became a friend, told me that to increase your chances of success, put your energies into endeavors you naturally find most fulfilling. Basically, align the career you pursue with things you absolutely enjoy doing and draw your curiosity. Don’t bow to social pressure to do things you’re not passionate about.

In a field like tech where failure is part of the game, you’ll give up too easily if you don’t feel energized by trying, failing and retrying to solve really hard problems. As you’re figuring out or are early in your career, don’t be shy to switch careers if you find whatever you’re doing just always saps your energy.

What is something you know now that you wish you knew earlier in your career?

I think looking back, I wish I’d plugged into the global open source community earlier in my career. It really would have accelerated my learning and path to working on software that reaches customers across the world. Open source software underpins a significant portion of today’s technology. However, I don’t live by regrets and the many experiences I’ve had due to my curiosity have taught me a ton. I’m still intentional about continuing to learn as much as I can to this  day.

Lastly, what would you say is the proudest moment of your career so far?

It’s not so much a moment as it is a consistent theme of building a career around curiosity, cognitive empathy, critical thinking and a bias for action. It’s translated to the following basic question framework that has enabled me to effectively help customers in different roles. 1) "What is the customer's problem?", 2) "What’s at the root of that problem?" (5 Whys), and 3) "What should we build to solve the problem?". I’m most proud of consistently honing that skill set and using it to serve customers across a career spanning call centers, IT infrastructure, ecommerce, payments, consulting and today, building software at global complexity and scale.

Interview has been slightly edited for clarity

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