Was Henry Ford the world’s first Chief Product Officer? The assembly line he created at Ford Motor Company, which reduced the time it took to build a car from more than 12 hours to two hours and 30 minutes, was a radical shift from American manufacturing practices of the early 1920s. For the first time, Ford conceived of an entire moving process — what he called “flow production” — capable of breaking down car assembly into 84 discrete steps and producing more than 10 million Model T’s by 1924.
The best CPOs, it’s been said, are mini-CEOs. Like Ford, they’re able to steer separate functions, which today include engineering, data analytics, design and marketing, toward a clear vision of what customers want and ultimately need from a product. And they aren’t just able to develop better processes for bringing these business functions together, they also possess the “soft skills” needed to get departments with different cultures and vocabularies pulling in the same direction.
There’s currently no clear pathway to becoming a CPO. The CPO’s job, like that of the product manager’s, is broad and attracts practitioners from a wide range of disciplines. In fact, colleges and universities are only just beginning to formally train people for this role. But informal pathways into the field are already emerging, along with core skills in business, design and technology that are helping professionalize product management at startups and enterprise companies alike.
The Management Consultant
In the words of tech entrepreneur and investor Ben Horowitz, “good product managers know the market, the product, the product line and the competition extremely well.” It’s no wonder management consultants are increasingly putting their skills in data analysis and strategic decision-making to work in product management roles. Their ability to analyze markets, identify the right business models, and track and forecast spending and revenue make them reliable custodians of the product.
At the upper levels of consulting, time spent presenting complex data to clients and key stakeholders are only further helping aspiring CPOs make their career transition. Of course, many consultants lack critical skills related to design and technology–at least two areas in which they’ll need to seek education through courses in UX design and design thinking and training in agile project management, or else learn them on the job.
The Product Marketing Manager
Product marketing managers recently made it onto LinkedIn’s list of “Most Promising Jobs of 2019.” It’s telling that LinkedIn includes “product management” and “product development” among this job’s required skills, alongside “cross-functional team leadership,” “product marketing” and “digital marketing.” As the bridge between left-brain and right-brain, between analytical and creative thinking, product marketing managers are well positioned to take up the uniquely interdisciplinary role of the CPO. The product marketer’s proximity to customer data, experience identifying and communicating the product’s core value proposition, and ability to manage complex projects and cross-functional teams make them natural recruits for tomorrow’s product leadership roles.
“Relevance score,” a feature of Google’s paid advertising platform that helps ensure users see only the most relevant search results, was created one Friday afternoon in 2002 when Google co-founder Larry Page decided to stick a note onto a kitchen bulletin board. His note, which included a print-out of the offending search engine results pages (something about searches for Kawasaki H1B motorcycles returning results for H-1B US Visas), included just three words: “THESE ADS SUCK.” The following Monday morning, Google engineers famously returned to the office with a working prototype for what would become a multi-billion-dollar solution.
Obviously, engineers understand what it takes to build great products. That’s one reason Google loves hiring them for their PM roles. However, engineers still face a steep learning curve if they’re going to succeed as CPOs. Engineers may know how to build a product, but it’s the CPO’s job to determine what to build in the first place. Other tasks, like product strategy, product design and product marketing are not typically part of the engineer’s job description. But engineers who can develop these skills while placing empathy for users at the centre of the product development process may nevertheless find themselves moving quickly along the CPO track.
How to Train Your CPO
This list isn’t by any means exhaustive. Successful CPOs are currently rising in increasing numbers from the ranks of business, sales, technology and design departments across North America. Colleges and universities are starting to take notice, with dedicated product management courses appearing only recently as part of MBA curricula (see Queen’s Smith School of Business, MIT Sloan, Tepper, Kellogg, and Harvard Business School for new product management specializations), and stand-alone courses.
Meanwhile, product management courses and training programs at BrainStation, Bitmaker General Assembly, Product School, Product Faculty and Ryerson University’s Chang School, to name a few, are creating accelerated pathways into product management for professionals looking to make a career transition. Many of these aspiring CPOs will go on to complement their training with UX design, agile project management and data analytics courses.
But the hardest thing to teach, and the thing successful CPOs will need beyond these skills, is vision. CPOs in the B2B space won’t just know their customers’ business–they’ll need to predict their future. So, don’t be surprised if you find your future CPO in an unexpected place. And if you want to one day become a CPO yourself but worry you lack the technical skills, take a page from Henry Ford’s playbook–and start building.
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