The words of Brian Chesky, founder and CEO of AirBnB, resonate at Figma’s annual conference. The applause of the designers in the room reacting to the end of Product Managers should not be interpreted as such, rather the fact that they have been put on their level at a time of uncertainty as was the beginning of the pandemic due to COVID-19.
It was January 2020 and 80% of AirBnB’s business in China had collapsed. In the following eight weeks, Chesky gathered all his managers and told them about a series of changes to be made in the company so that AirBnB would survive the pandemic. One of those changes is the evolution of the Product Manager role to a kind of Product Marketer, inspired by Apple, a company where design is at the center, and Product Managers work in the Marketing department.
What is this “Product Marketer” they have at Apple and now at AirBnB? To me, it’s nothing more than AirBnB’s way of putting people doing what they do best. I don’t care about the name. Let’s not look at the finger, let’s look at the moon.
A Product Manager who only manages a backlog (like so many others out there), is not a PM, it’s something else. In the same way that a Product Designer who only paints screens is not a Product Designer, he is something else. The name doesn’t matter, and in the case of AirBnB what they have done is to give more marketing impact to the Product Managers, they haven’t fired them directly, although some of them could have been among the 1900 employees laid off in May 2020.
In the video with the full interview, Brian Chesky explains very well things like “metrics are not a strategy, growth is not a strategy, we all want to grow”. This direct involvement was key to shaking up the company and making things happen. If he had sat around waiting for the umpteenth Power Point from the PM of Europe with fantastic figures, maybe today AirBnB would be a thing of the past.
A Product Manager is not a mini-CEO and never will be. A PM is something else. And a CEO is a CEO. These kinds of changes, these dynamics and these bets only work well when they go from the top down. That a PM only manages the backlog is not because that person only knows or wants to do that, it is because whoever hired him has decided that he should do that and only that.
And while Brian explains very well how he made that change, it takes him 14 seconds to start answering the question “if you are not the founder of the company, how do you drive a design-driven strategy in the company?“. After those 14 seconds of hesitation, his answer is not so good anymore, but he does give advice to designers to apply this approach: “if you do A/B testing, you need to have a hypothesis, don’t just focus on services but on user flows and only launch something you are proud of”.
Leaving Product Managers behind at a critical time
There is a more conspiratorial reading of Chesky’s decision regarding AirBnB’s Product Managers, and that is that at the first sign of problems, he removes them and the rest of the executives to perform the series of functions that were delegated to them. In exchange, they are placed in a role closer to Marketing, but one might think that, in this situation, the role that is most endangered in a company is that of PM.
There is a similar case, and that is Twitter. It crystallizes the vulnerability of a role that is discarded when a new owner appears, who puts engineering (not design, in this case) at the center of the company. The reality is that since Musk’s arrival, the product is worse, no novel functionality has been built and business objectives are nowhere near being achieved. Correlation does not imply causation, but….
The AirBnB case should also be taken with caution, as the reality is that the founder takes the helm when the storm coming over the horizon is too big to ignore, and prefers to be the one to set the course. I don’t think PMs at AirBnB do what Chesky only wants to do when he feels like it anymore. It’s important to understand that Chesky is a designer, so it’s logical that he would want to put Design at the center sooner rather than later, which is still balancing them out to Product Managers, not putting them above them.
In other companies, with CEOs with other profiles and professional experiences, I am sure that the best people to take the helm in a storm are the Product Managers.
What is a Product Marketer?
So, is this Product Marketer thing going to catch on and now PMs are going to go from JIRA to Facebook Business Manager to place ads? That’s far from the point.
Let’s look at Apple, since Brian Chesky mentioned it: Apple does have Product Managers, although it’s clearly not easy to know how they work in light of this tweet from an Apple PM.
What we can do is to intuit it from their job offers. For example, Apple is looking for a Product Manager for its sports-focused TV app. The job description is nothing unfamiliar:
- Work on product strategy for personalization, and relevant impact on search, recommendations, analytics, etc across our services and products.
- Developing features and strategies for multi-service personalization and recommendations. Communicate and evangelize to executive and collaborator teams.
- Work closely with data science and engineering teams on research and development for new features.
- Analyze project performance, constantly finding new ways to improve and apply content knowledge in innovative ways. Design performance metrics centered on accuracy and experience.
- Work closely with other machine learning and algorithmic product managers to align with Apple strategies.
- Collaborate with other Apple teams to promote cross-team technology sharing.
It is clear that we cannot take the words of AirBnB’s CEO as a prelude to the future of the Product Managers position. It does serve to question rigid corporate structures in fluid and agile contexts. It can also serve to stop the role from being in its infancy and move into adolescence, to better understand what a PM is and what is not, where it impacts more and better; also, why not all digital companies need or are prepared to have a Product Manager.
If you ask me, for me a PM has more impact being closer to the business (and therefore, marketing, as reviled as the word is) than to the development backlog. I’m not the only one who thinks so. What I’m not so sure about is the future of generalist PMs…