In a recent post (which you can read here), I observed that Product Management is in a state of flux right now. Questions are being asked about the future of the role, especially as regards to its seat at the Executive table.
Whilst there is little/no debate about the value of good Product Managers at the operational level, founders and investors are understandably examining their costs and asking which C-suite executives (CMO/CPO/CTO/CRO/CFO) on six-figure salaries they really need.
When circumstances change, it’s necessary to adapt and evolve and (as we enter a leaner, more capital efficient era) I believe we will (and probably should) see some of these roles collapse into hybrids.
Adobe’s Chief Product Officer, Scott Belsky, is a forthright advocate of ‘collapsing the talent stack’ in modern technology firms,
“There is a consistent unfair competitive advantage I’ve witnessed when the talent stack was collapsed — when the lead designer was also the product leader, when the front-end engineer was also a designer, when the designer is also a great copywriter, when the product leader was also the founder/ceo, etc.”
If a single candidate can oversee more than one function they offer better value for money and help reduce the bureaucracy and miscommunication that stops companies in their tracks and frustrates the hell out founders.
My prediction is that, as only the biggest companies will be able to justify a standalone ‘Chief Product Officer’/CPO, we will see accelerated adoption of the following hybrids; especially at seed-stage startups:
- CPTO — managing across Technology (eg engineering) and Product functions
- CPMO — managing across Marketing and Product functions
- CPRO — managing across Sales/Revenue and Product functions
Chief Product & Technology Officer (Product + Engineering)
Combining product and engineering is the most intuitive move and the most established route that companies have taken to date. A LinkedIn search returns an increasing number of people with this title, especially at early-stage startups.
To be credible, the successful candidate needs to have an engineering background which precludes product managers who lack coding credentials.
Of course, not everyone who can code is an effective product manager so the risk is that the broader remit of the role gets downgraded in favour of engineering delivery. This could mean that decisions about prioritisation and what to build (and the value of Product Discovery) are more likely to be taken outside of the product function.
Some CEOs might not object to this…
Chief Product and Marketing Officer (Product + Marketing)
AirBnb’s decision to combine/collapse the product management and product marketing roles proved to be the catalyst for the great debate that ignited around product in 2023.
For what it’s worth, I have never personally worked with Product Marketers despite ~15 years as a Product Manager. Likely, PMMs are confined to either Big Tech firms in San Francisco or companies above a certain size.
There is evidence of other Product/Marketing hybrids emerging. For example, people using the title ‘Product Evangelist’.
When I have personally encountered Product Evangelists, their responsibilities were primarily content marketing, giving talks/webinars, writing blog posts and speaking at conferences.
Rarer still are those that have the title ‘Product Enablement’.
The leading writer/blogger in the Product Management space is John Cutler. He currently lists his day job as ‘Product Enablement’ at Toast (and was previously Product Evangelist at Amplitude) so is the foremost exponent of this role. As a pioneer in the space, this could portend more taking on this title in the future.
From what I can see, the Product Enablement role is predominantly inward facing, ensuring that all internal stakeholders understand the product and its value proposition. Once again, inclination to invest in a role of this nature will be restricted to companies above a certain size.
Chief Product and Revenue Officer (Product + Sales)
Sales is by far the most overlooked skillset in the technology sector, especially in B2B startups in the UK. Technical expertise is historically valued at a higher premium, even though most startups fail because they are unable to sell consistently, not because they can’t engineer a product.
Many seed stage startups get by without a formal sales function for longer than they should, relying instead on the founder to sell.
This makes sense up to a point but doesn’t scale, especially when the founder is uncomfortable in a sales role and reluctant to dedicate the lion's share of their time to this endeavour.
As sales is self-evidently critical to business success, and the most experienced people are the most credible in a sales setting, it is axiomatic that all the Executive Team should sell.
Examples of the product/sales hybrid do exist, albeit in large, established technology companies whether scaleup or enterprise level.
‘Product Solutions Consultants’ are probably the most common, typically at the pre-sales end of the funnel, assessing client needs and working with them to configure the right solution.
An alternative title for what is effectively the same job is ‘Sales Engineer’, clearly signalling a hybrid skill set in a technically complex context.
These examples notwithstanding, combining Product and Sales seems the least common of the three options under evaluation.
This may be because many product managers (like engineers) are often uncomfortable in a direct sales context.
The benefits of combining Sales with Product in the context of B2B technology are many. Foremost among them are:
- B2B software is becoming exceptionally nuanced and complex. Communicating its value requires deep knowledge of technology, information security and data; not to mention customer needs and benefits. To sell effectively therefore requires expert levels of both product knowledge and sales craft.
- Software startups are increasingly selling to Product Teams at larger companies as they require engineering to implement. The Product Teams are usually the decision makers (and frequently the budget holders too) for 3rd party procurement decisions. If a Product Manager is selling to other Product Managers, there is immediately a shared language and understanding of where the paint points are and the corresponding solutions.
- Once the initial version of the product has been completed, its development priority should be to enable sales conversations and help accelerate sales. Having a single person overseeing both functions will streamline this and ensure that objectives of the two teams are aligned.
- A frequent cause of tension between product and sales teams occurs when the sales team sell (or commit to) the development of specific features without consulting the product team and then ‘chuck it over the fence’ ie. demand the team deliver it by a certain date on the grounds that ‘the client requires it in order to buy the product’. If product and sales are unified this wouldn’t happen and the product team should/would trust sales rather than fear them.
- In a world where all knowledge workers are looking over their shoulder for an AI Copilot designed to take their job, the craft of B2B sales seems a comparatively safe haven.
The biggest challenge for anyone looking to get hired right now is chronic oversupply in the Product Manager job market. The extent of this continues to be exacerbated by big tech companies enacting large scale redundancies and startups going bankrupt.
A glut of Product Managers at all levels of the market is great for companies that are hiring but bad for candidates, hence the shabby treatment most candidates are experiencing right now in terms of the application experience.
The key to success lies in the extent to which candidates can differentiate themselves in terms of the value they bring. As Michael Porter was fond of saying, the essence of good strategy is ‘competing to be unique.’
As such, I think there’s a large, untapped opportunity for seasoned product professionals to leverage expertise across multiple disciplines and forge a path that combines the two.