The function of product management has changed greatly over the last decade. Product management is one of the fastest-growing roles and is moving to the center of business strategy (and not just for technology companies).

As we enter a new year, we wondered:

  • How will the product management function continue to adapt in 2021?
  • What will companies face as they look to hire product management talent?
  • What challenges will they face?
  • What will emerging technologies be impactful?

We were fortunate to have Dave Wilner, Auth0 CRO, discuss (over Zoom, of course) these questions with five product management leaders from various sectors to get their predictions for 2021. Their answers gave us an inside look into the trends that will impact product management in the coming year.

The Product Management Leaders

David Flinton, Chief Innovation, Technology and Product Management Officer, Xylem

In this role, David is responsible for leading the company's global technology and innovation activities as well as managing the entire life cycle of our offerings. His organization plays a critical role in ensuring Xylem develops advanced technologies and disruptive innovations that will create value for customers and commercialize them rapidly and effectively.

Gene Farrell, CPO, Smartsheet

Gene Farrell is the Chief Product Officer at Smartsheet, responsible for driving product vision and technology strategy across the company's product management, product marketing, and experience design functions.

Shiven Ramji, CPO, Auth0

As Chief Product Officer, Shiven "Shiv" Ramji guides Auth0's product vision, innovation, design, and strategy, and brings more than 15 years of experience in B2B and B2C product management, engineering, operations, and business development.

Thomas (Tido) Carriero, Chief Product Development Officer, Twilio Segment

Tido Carriero is the Chief Product Development Officer for Twilio Segment. He leads engineering, product, and design teams. Prior to his current role, he led the Product Engineering team at Dropbox and was an early member of the Facebook ads team before that.

Ziad Ismail, Chief Product Officer, Convoy

At Convoy, Ziad is responsible for data science, design, product management and program management. Before Convoy, Ziad was the Chief Product Officer of Marchex, Chief Executive Officer of CitiKey, and served in other leadership roles at Microsoft.

The 2021 Product Management Predictions

Dave Wilner: A recent blog post from productboard revealed that product management is one of the hottest and fastest-growing roles in business right now. In just two years, the number of product management roles in the US has grown by an astounding 32%, outpacing the increase in demand for overall roles by 5x. Do you think this trend will continue into 2021?

Tido Carriero: Great question. So I think about the product role, maybe going back to the beginning of my career a little over a decade ago, and I just feel like the role has advanced, so, so, so much over the last decade or so. I think the appreciation of the craft itself, for instance, the expectations on both qualitative research, quantitative research, informed by numbers, just before you actually decide to start actually building something, the level of rigor to me just feels like it's gone through the roof.

I started my career in the late-stage startup days on Facebook. Honestly, we were "building stuff." We had an idea, slap it together in a hackathon, then spend another month or two getting it out. I was a product engineer at the time, but it just felt like that was the way the product was built a decade ago. Fast-forward to today, and it just wouldn't be acceptable for an engineering team to say, "Hey, we slapped together a hackathon with no qual or quant research, and we're going to ship this thing in two months." It just feels like the expectations have changed, which I think is great.

David Flinton: Yeah, and for a couple of reasons. One, we have a kind of renewed emphasis on the product management role. If you think about all of the companies that are offering a set of "products" in some form or fashion -- whether that's services, hardware, etc. -- then the ability to manage that really effectively is just as important for customers, meeting customer demands, and the business's success. And I don't see that changing. I think there's just an increased recognition across what those incentives are.

The second thing I would say is, if you think about the nature of a product management role, it's generally one of those roles that doesn't have a whole lot of folks reporting to them, in most organizations, but it requires them to move mountains when it comes to the product portfolio. That requires a lot of really strong leadership skills, influence, general management type of skills. And so, again, we look at this role as a potential feeder role for future general management roles. So, just in terms of succession planning, it becomes really important as well. I think there's a growing recognition of that.

Ziad Ismail: Yeah, I think that in general, there's obviously a lot of companies that are transforming themselves from traditional companies into technology companies. That, along with a couple of other factors, I think is going to drive substantial growth of the product management discipline. What I see happening is that in particular for senior principal-level talent, there will probably be more people that are going after that talent and focusing on it.

The reason is that, if you think about product management, it really is a discipline that is a 10X factor in the productivity of your organization. And it can be a 10X factor in a positive way or a 10X factor in a negative way. A typical product manager will work with maybe 10 people directly within a product engineering data science-type organization. If they do a great job, you immediately see tremendous leverage in how that team is operating and functioning. And if things aren't going well, then the whole thing, the whole enterprise is essentially struggling.

Dave Wilner: How has the fact that product management is such an in-demand role impacted your organization?

Shiven Ramji: Yeah, I think on our side, we've made a big investment in adding product managers to our team. So I remember when I joined, this is just going back over the last year, we had a relatively small product managing organization that has now increased at least 3X since I got here. So there's a sort of focus on investing in driving value for our customers. So that's the good stuff.

I think the hard part is that there is still a need for this talent—it's very hard to hire product managers. And I think the other thing is, increasingly, the product managing role is getting fairly technical. So I think finding the right people continues to be a challenge for us. And I'd imagine similar companies like ours probably have the same or similar challenges.

Ziad Ismail: Every company is different. From Convoy's perspective, the things that make our experience in product management and technology hiring somewhat unique is that, first of all, we're a Seattle-based company. And so Seattle, if you think about it, it has two of the five largest technology companies in the world, with Amazon and Microsoft both headquartered here. But relative to the number of startups in Seattle, there really is a strange imbalance. If you think about the Bay Area having three of the five largest tech companies in the world, there are orders of magnitude more startups in the Bay Area than there are in Seattle.

I think that creates a very, very attractive opportunity to build startups in the Seattle area that I think exists nowhere else in the world. That certainly favors Convoy being one of the fastest-growing startups in Seattle, along with our peers, which generally are starting to thrive in this market.

Dave Wilner: For many organizations, the real impact of product management was often misunderstood, and PM teams were not given the resources needed to carry out their best work. Today, they now own the product strategy and vision and play an active role in the future of organizations. Do you foresee any changes in 2021 around the strategic role that product management plays within a company?

Gene Farrell: Yeah, absolutely. I think the way you articulated that was really spot-on. If you go back five, six, maybe even ten years, what has evolved into product manager roles was really program management. And program management, I think for a lot of companies, was more about keeping the trains running if you will, or coordinating and making sure that all the different functions involved in delivering a product or service to the market were working in harmony (or at least somewhat efficiently together). I think where product management has really broken out is this realization that it's not just about coordination; it's actually quarterbacking, right? It's actually leading and calling the plays and making the decisions, and applying business judgment.

Before Smartsheet, I spent five years at AWS, and I think Amazon, in particular, was a bit of a pioneer in this space. We used to hire, and then they still hire, freshly minted MBAs out of some of the best schools in the world to come in as entry-level.

That was like the first product management role that you would take at Amazon. And they were really looking for the best and brightest, ambitious, strategic, innovative, driven folks that want to go build businesses. And they're competing with investment banks and all these other folks. So it's a very different profile. And I think that's why you've seen this evolution in the types of folks that pursue product management. And also, I think you're getting a lot more value out of the role when you have folks that are really thinking like owners and driving overall strategy for the business.

Shiven Ramji: Yeah, I think I still believe the product role can be different at a lot of companies and will probably continue to be that way. I think it's hard to say that there is just one type of product manager or product managing organization. Certainly, if you look at if you're building a software product versus a hardware product, there are different considerations.

But I do think the strategic value or importance of the product management organization is certainly appreciated more. So I think that product organizations are getting more attention and probably more funding. If you look at also just the recent trend of companies that have been successful again, using the stock market or financial performance as a metric, you see a lot of companies talk about cloud products leading growth and companies being successful because of that. And so I think there is more recognition now that product can be very impactful in an organization. And so supporting the growth and investing in an organization is being recognized for it. And I suspect it will continue next year.

Dave Wilner: SiriusDecisions' 2020 Pulse Survey on Product Management Leadership Priorities cited "Improving the overall product innovation and life cycle management framework/process" as the number-one challenge facing PM organizations. What do you think is the biggest challenge and the biggest opportunity for 2021?

David Flinton: I think prioritization is our biggest challenge. As I mentioned, we've got a decent framework for managing our portfolio. The challenge comes in actually prioritizing the things that we should be working on and focusing on. I guess it's a really high-class problem. No shortage of really good things to work on, but with finite resources, management time, etc., you really have to get good at prioritizing. And we haven't cracked that one yet. It's something that we work on a lot.

It's gotten a little bit easier during the pandemic because it's really just completely crystallized what are our customers' most important pain points. And that has helped guide us to prioritizing everything in those funnels. So it's been a little bit easier because of the pandemic, but I think that's just a challenge that everybody wrestles with, and which we certainly wrestle with in our company.

Gene Farrell: Yeah, I think so, but it's a fairly nuanced answer. This product life cycle management, I think people would probably define that in very different ways. I framed the problem a little bit differently, particularly when you're bringing all of these really smart, talented people into product management roles, and they're all very ambitious. What I have found, both at Smartsheet and in prior roles, is that when you have great product leaders, you have no shortage of amazing ideas to go build. And the challenge is always where do you place your bets, and how do you actually innovate and build fast enough? Because it's much easier to come up with the idea than it is to actually go build it and then get it to market and then iterate based on the feedback and the signal you get from customers.

And so I think, in my experience, great product leaders live in this constant state of discontent because they have these big visions, and they spend a lot of time thinking two years out or, in some cases, three or four years out. And they're always anxious to see that vision come to fruition. And at the same time, I think many companies struggle from trying to do too much. So you have both impatience plus this inability to make hard trade-offs. I think those two things combined can make it really challenging. And so it's not surprising to me that product leaders would say, "We need to do a better job of life cycle management." I think what they're really saying is, "We need to figure out what's most important and most impactful to the business and execute better and faster while, at the same time, removing the distractions and stop putting resources and investment behind areas that are unlikely to pay dividends in the short term. Or just stop doing things that are no longer relevant."

Dave Wilner: What are some emerging technologies that you think will impact product management in 2021?

Tido Carriero: I feel like the keyword I've heard probably three times a week for the last two months at least is ML/AI (machine learning/artificial intelligence). I think, certainly, with Segment being a really large kind of hub of data, that feels like that is the technology that everyone's trying to emulate. Obviously, you have the famous Facebooks, Amazons, and Netflixes of the world, that have these incredible ranking and content recommendation systems. I do think every company in the world right now is looking to see how they can build that. To date, the Segment has spent more time getting data cleaned up and into an ML/AI-ready state. But one of the things we're most excited about with the Twilio acquisition is that Twilio has a bunch of ML/AI team. So by taking the clean data that is ML/AI-ready and helping produce offerings that I think will really solve and help mimic some of these capabilities that the Facebooks and Amazons, and Netflixes of the world have, we can democratize that kind of data for everyone.

I think there will be a lot of great products built in the next couple of years that really start to bring the promise of ML/AI. We've been talking about it for a very long time as an industry, but I think people are finally starting to get the data infrastructure set up. And then do all of that data collection and data cleaning work that will set us up for real success in ways that I think only a couple of companies to date have really, really leveraged.

Dave Wilner: Is there any important product management trend for next year that we have not discussed today?

David Flinton: Yeah, I think in general, more and more of our customers are concerned about the impact of their products on the environment. And some of that may be the nature of the industry that we work in. It's a little bit closer to home for us, working in the water industry, but I think that's a trend generally. And so product sustainability and product stewardship, I think, is something that is really important that we're starting to put some real emphasis on.

Not just understanding how many tons of CO2 my products emit or something over the course of the life cycle, but really looking at it from a more holistic kind of product life cycle approach to product sustainability. We should be leading the way in terms of take-back programs and things like that. But there's a lot of potential business model opportunities around that as well. It's not so much just a feel-good thing. There's a lot of potential business model opportunities around making the product sustainable. And I think we've got to take a more holistic approach to product sustainability, not just reporting the impact of our products, but really looking at it throughout the whole life cycle.

Shiven Ramji: I do think certain fundamentals of product management will get a lot of attention from an academic perspective, meaning product management will be taught more readily, and there will be some sort of certification that will come through. And I suspect even analyst firms will sort of jump on this trend of offering help, whether it's something that they've built or they utilized.

I do expect that both the teaching of and getting some certification around product management will become an emerging trend that is now being talked about. But I do see some leading organizations that are starting to invest in this idea that you can teach a lot more people to be product managers and hence accelerate their impact in all organizations.

To hear from the product management leaders directly, watch the video interviews.

About Auth0

Auth0 provides a platform to authenticate, authorize, and secure access for applications, devices, and users. Security and application teams rely on Auth0's simplicity, extensibility, and expertise to make identity work for everyone. Safeguarding billions of login transactions each month, Auth0 secures identities so innovators can innovate, and empowers global enterprises to deliver trusted, superior digital experiences to their customers around the world.

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