I wasn’t all that shocked when the co-founders of Instagram resigned last Fall — it’s rare to see entrepreneurs stay on very long after being acquired by a giant like Facebook — but my eyebrows raised when I saw who was replacing them.
Even if the name Adam Mosseri means nothing to you, his job title speaks volumes about the increasing influence and responsibilities of those who hold it. Though his former title was VP of product, he might as well have been called its chief product officer, particularly since Mark Zuckerburg, Facebook’s CEO, called the departing Instagram co-founders “extraordinary product leaders.” Rather than showing you can create a great team, establish a strong corporate vision or build a community of customers, proving yourself as a CPO may soon become one of the quickest paths to the top.
Of course, you might dismiss Instagram as a consumer-oriented company, but its core product — advertising — is essentially offered towards other businesses. In more enterprise-focused B2B organizations, the CPO makes even more sense, given that products might need to tailored to specific vertical markets, company sizes or use cases.
Some people outside of the startup world might wonder if CPOs are just a new way of describing chief technology officers. A blog post from Aha, which makes software to develop product roadmaps, the distinctions are clear:
The CPO is responsible for the “why” of the product — the stratetic approach to what will be built . . . The CPO studies customers and the market and looks for what direction the product can and should take in the future . . . They represent the customer internally, communicating learning through research and analysis, sharing insights with internal partners such as marketing and sales leaders, and encouraging the product team to talk directly with customers.
That last area feels particularly relevant to me, considering a phrase you often hear in technology circles: that if you’re not paying for the product, you are the product. If a software tool is free, in other words, the company providing it is probably collecting user data that can be monetized through advertising or other services. While it makes sense that vendors would want to learn more about the communities of customers they serve, the controversies we’ve seen regarding Facebook’s use of data have sparked concepts like “surveillance capitalism” and understandable wariness among regulators.
In that sense, CPOs might also come to serve as the conscience of companies. B2B tools aren’t often completely free, but they may require an organization to input substantial amounts of confidential or proprietary data in order to work properly. As more artificial intelligence (AI) capabilities get woven into such products, vendors may seek access to that data — even if it’s anonymized and only used in aggregate — to become “smarter” about what they do. A good CPO will strike the right balance between achieving those kinds of goals while respecting the boundaries customers need to maintain trust among their vendor partners.
We’re calling March “The CPO Issue” on B2BNN and will look in more detail about how product management is evolving into product leadership. This feels like a title that is very much here to stay — even if it is very much a product of our times.