Why Airbnb’s shift in the PM function isn’t an indictment of product managers, but a celebration of Airbnb’s progress.
Brian Chesky, CEO of Airbnb, was speaking at Figma’s Config 2023 and casually dropped the line “we got rid of the classic product management function… <applause> Apple didn’t have it either.” That led to me seeing this tweet and thinking, “I think the designers are applauding for the wrong reason.”
Anyone who’s spent some time working as product manager, especially those who have moved around a bit, knows that the function can be vastly different depending on the product, the team, and the company they’re at. In fact, between the trinity of Design, Engineering and Product, product probably has the most variation. So what did he even mean?
I think he meant “we have our product managers doing the most important thing they could be doing at our company, and it’s not the typical function most people think.”
Do we even need product managers?
No. Bet you didn’t see that one coming. As someone who LOVES being a product manager, I will tell interviewers straight to their face that I think product management is an unnecessary function. (usually you can see the ears perk up after that). I tell them, in an incredibly well functioning company, where everyone can work together in harmony… i.e. high levels of alignment, communication and trust exist, you don’t need product managers. But I’ve found very few, 0 for me personally, companies where that’s the environment.
Tony Fadel has a quote in his book, Build: “The superpower of every truly great product manager is empathy.” You might think, oh yeah that’s obviously, you have to empathize with your customer to know what to build. You’d be half right. I believe that the best product managers have empathy for ALL of their stakeholders but primarily voice their emapthy for the customer. If you can build empathy for your engineers, your designers, your marketing team and every other team you support, you can bridge any divide you need. Designers want to design, engineers want to engineer, but doing each role in a vacuum doesn’t usually result in something the customer loves.
Product at its core, is just that missing gear in the machine that connects all the other gears together. Sometimes it’s small and just needs to connect two parts, sometimes it’s big and connects a bunch of parts. If the machine is put together right, you don’t even need it. Product managers want to think of themselves as a necessary asset, when instead they should think about themselves as the glue that holds things together. The confidence to bridge the gap, and the humility to not fix what isn’t broken.
Ok, so we don’t need product managers, but what is a product manager?
Richard Banfield, in his article, “These Product Leaders Are Crushing It. They Gave Us Their Reasons Why.” Talks about product sitting in the middle of the a venn diagram of tech, design and business.
Great product managers must have deep experience in at least one, literate in all three, and fluent with the practice of each.
I’d argue there’s a few more hats to wear, marketing being the big one that comes to mind, but the principle is there. Product managers have to serve as chameleons that can sit among their stakeholders, learning, empathizing and, ultimately, synthesizing.
A great product manager is a Swiss Army knife. The more experience you have, the more tools that are in that Swiss Army knife, the deeper those experiences are the better one individual tool is. Take this to the natural conclusion and it becomes obvious, the capabilities of a product manager and the effectiveness of a product manager are not one and the same. Just cause you have more skills doesn’t mean you’re more valuable to your company. Because companies need different things from their product managers.
Google PMs are known for being more technically proficient. Amazon’s PMs are more customer obsessed and are known for working backwards from the customer. Apple PMs are great storytellers and marketers. Facebook PMs are known for their data driven approach to product management. There’s no one BEST way to do it.
If there’s no best way to do it, why do you think Airbnb’s view is right?
The question isn’t whether it’s the right way to manage, the question is whether this is the right way for Airbnb. Brian Chesky was introduced at the beginning of his talk as the “only designer CEO in the Fortune 500.” He provides context about the change by asking “who’s the product manager of a building, the architect.” He then goes on to say the view of the designer at Airbnb was they were the “architect.” This frees up someone with the title “Product Manager” to focus on filling the other gaps in the organization.
One of the responses to the tweet I shared at the top was, “ok designers. enjoy working directly with the engineers. you guys will love each other”. The classic definition of product management probably puts PMs as the first line of the defense for engineers. Typically, you’ll be interfacing with the engineering team so they don’t have to interface with other teams as much. Give them the Jira tickets, the PRD, the user stories and let them do their thing. Most of the time engineers aren’t fluent in design or vise versa. I don’t think Airbnb would push their PMs to be more marketing focused if their engineering and design teams were NOT working well together.
Only time will tell if this will be the best way forward for them. But based on the results during the rest of the talk, I’d say they probably have figured out a set of roles and responsibilities that work pretty well for them (just like how Apple figured it out for themselves).
Alright, so what should I be focusing on in MY product role?
The most important thing you can do.
HA, you thought I just stopped typing mid sentence didn’t you? I didn’t. Unfortunately, if there’s one thing to take away from this post is that product managers live in a world of constant contradiction. Dave Wascha gives a talk about what advice he’d give himself 20 years ago. Unsurprisingly here are some of the things he would advice his younger self to do:
- Listen to customers
- Don’t listen to customers
- Watch the competition
- Don’t watch the competition
- Get paid
- Stop worrying about getting paid
- Say no
- Stop saying no
See the pattern yet?
When I was at Twitch, the most important thing I could do was to understand streaming through the lens of a streamer. When I was building delivery station tools at Amazon it was becoming an expert in the operational process of a delivery station and building tech to fill the gaps. Keep asking question until people having answers, chances are you’ll have mapped out your place in the org, now you just have figure out where you’re needed the most.
Your value as a PM is your ability to determine what is the most valuable thing you could be doing and then doing it. It’s a judgement call. In the beginning, someone else is going to make that call for you (right or wrong). Later in your career, you’ll be making that call (right or wrong). When it’s in your control, try to get it more right than wrong.
Did I just read this entire thing for you to tell me that I should just try to be right more often than I’m wrong?
When I saw that tweet, I immediately threw a bag of popcorn into the microwave and started going through the comments section. I found exactly what I expected to find: “product managers are useless”, “product managers are the most important thing”, “a world without PMs is the future of product development”.
Very few people stated the obvious: Airbnb found out what worked for them. If you’re a product manager sitting there thinking “I’m the most important part of this team, without me things would go to shit,” I’ve got news for you, you might be right OR you might wrong, but you’re most definitely wasting your time thinking about it.
Spend your time figuring out what the team needs the most, and start doing that. I guarantee you’ll create value this way.