Nicole Fu

The Future of Product Management in 2018

Nicole Fu on

Apple, Coca Cola, and Nike are just a few examples of consumer brands who have managed to stay relevant over time, in no small part due to strong product management.

High-tech product management, on the other hand, is considered by some to be a young and relatively immature profession. But despite its infancy, a number of leaders have emerged over the past several decades.1

At HelpDocs, some companies that we look up to include Deliveroo, Spotify, and Zapier, and so in anticipation of the the new year, we asked members of these companies to weigh in on how they see product management evolving in 2018.

But first: what is the current state, or “shape” (s/o Ed Sheeran), of product management?

State of Product Management

Here are 4 learnings based on Mind The Product’s most read posts of 2017:

  1. Innovation is broken in large enterprises. Janice Fraser, CPO at Bionic Solution, advocates pushing for organisational change in the form of entrepreneurship (read: small, cross-functional startup teams).

  2. Product Managers actually have to manage people (and not just build product!), and that is largely agreed to be the hardest part of the job.

  3. Tools, tools, tools! In 2017, Product Managers experimented with:

    • Experiment-based lean product roadmaps
    • Data-driven product management
    • 2x2 matrix and lean prioritization
  4. Process isn’t everything. Instead of being concerned with a process, Jonny Schneider, Product Principal at ThoughtWorks, advises teams to “challenge how they think and try new things, embrace the things that work, and learn from the things that don’t.”

You code, I code, everybody code

In 2017, our CPO Jarratt Isted noticed a big push towards teaching more people to learn how to code.

He himself knew nothing about development just over a year ago. “But with more tools and resources available than ever before to help you learn, there's really no excuse not to know a little HTML, CSS, Swift or JavaScript,” he says.

With this shift, he thinks the product management role has changed quite dramatically—modern Product Managers are not only expected to steer the product and marketing in the right direction, they are also expected to know what the engineering team is working on and how they will get to the end goal.

Jarratt thinks this shift is good thing—with a basic grasp of some programming languages, Product Managers can better understand development processes and how long tasks might take.

They can better plan for releasing features and prioritise resources to certain parts of their app, whether its refactoring the backend to make it snappier, rejuvenating the frontend to increase user-friendliness, or releasing a feature highly anticipated by customers.

While Jarratt isn’t sure if the Product Manager position will exist in five years time, he “would not be at all surprised if it merged into the tech lead role.” But for now at least, he thinks Product Managers learning to code has been the biggest trend in 2017.

Product Management Changes in 2018

Sepand Norouzi, Spotify Product Manager Spotify Product Manager Sepand Norouzi (formerly at Yelp) thinks that trends are hard to identify given the variation in product management objectives between organisations.

Case in point: Product Managers of consumer products like Spotify, which has tens of millions of users, can’t just ask their customers what they want since the variability in use cases is likely enormous. But B2B or SaaS Product Managers, who build products for a smaller base of users, might have that option available.

Thus, in Sepand’s view, “the change we will see in 2018 is in the type of tech or problems that are being solved.”

But when pressed, he admits to having noticed an increase in both the use of machine learning (for applications beyond ad optimization and content curation) and the importance attributed to qualitative user data.

The latter can help companies to better understand their users and what they deem valuable. "Being overly reliant on quantitative metrics has the risk of leading to local optimisations, whereas using a more balanced mix of both quantitative and qualitative may help unlock user behavior and allow companies to build products which push metrics towards higher mountains to climb," he says.

Roadmunk co-founder and CEO Latif Nanji has “always been fascinated with Spotify’s famous squad, tribe, Survivor-esque sounding setup—especially as agile becomes status quo for product organisations, and more companies shift to this specific engineering culture.”2

He recommends this video on Spotify’s engineering culture which “delves into the motivation behind their culture and offers learnings that Product Managers can apply to their own culture.”

Roadmunk is a product roadmap tool. Every startup seems to have a “product roadmap”, and as mentioned earlier, experiment-based lean product roadmaps is something Product Managers experimented with this year. Jarratt thinks that it is interesting to see how the product roadmap has evolved from spreadsheets to Trello, to startups making tools for this specific purpose (Roadmap, Productboard, Aha!, ProdPad). Joca Torres argues that the Objectives and Key Results (OKR) framework is the future of product roadmaps.

He lead product at Locaweb—Brazil’s leader in web hosting and SaaS applications—for 11 years, and in 2015, replaced their product roadmaps with OKRs. This framework was birthed at Intel, and is currently used by many leading technology companies, including Spotify. Now that’s something HelpDocs has to try in 2018!

Another company that we love is Deliveroo. Besides our obvious UK bias and their adorable kangaroo branding, we admire how they expanded so quickly.

Deliveroo bears all the hallmarks of hyper growth only five years into their founding.3 Telegraph also recently reported that Deliveroo could be worth £1.5bn to UK economy by 2019.

One learning from 2017 that we pointed out above is “data-driven product management.”

Alexey, Head of Special Projects at Deliveroo We spoke to Alexey Samkov, Head of Special Projects at Deliveroo Germany and formerly a Product Manager at HSBC. He believes that in 2018, everyone, from Analysts to VPs will start looking at delivering value to the customer through a Product Manager’s lens.

They will make decisions by taking into account data insights and running experiments. As such, decisions will be distributed more evenly across the organisation, in particular to teams that are closer to the end-user.

Product Managers will become like orchestral conductors

Alexey also thinks that as decision-making becomes increasingly distributed across the organisation, the Product Manager role will become more and more akin to the role of an orchestral conductor.

While a traditional conductor is one who “directs the simultaneous performance of several players or singers,” a “Product Conductor” will act more as a guide of the product team.

She'll direct the overall vision for the product while harnessing the organisation’s “hive mind” (team and stakeholders) to optimise decision making, ultimately delivering value to the customer.

In Alexey's words: “the primary duties of the conductor are to interpret the score created by a composer (read: transcribe topline OKRs into product-specific OKRs) in a manner which is reflective of the specific indications within that score (assess, communicate viability and feasibility of product features), set the tempo (develop and manage product roadmap), ensure correct entries by various members of the ensemble (align resources, team, and stakeholders), shape the phrasing where appropriate (drive overall product strategy), and to relay their vision to performers (drive & communicate product vision).”

Frameworks are Product Managers’ buzzwords

Chris Geoghegan, Zapier Product Manager “As Product Managers, we can become obsessed with new frameworks (e.g. minimum viable product, lean canvas, design sprints, etc.),” says Zapier Product Manager Chris Geoghegan.

Zapier has managed to build a great product with a remote team of 100+ people spread across the world. Chris is based in Vancouver and has been in the software industry for over 15 years, 6 of which spent managing product.

While he acknowledges that these frameworks can prove to be really useful and they “provide a sort of shorthand to problem-solving”, he feels that Product Managers have “this tendency to overuse them and imbue them with meaning and purpose they were never intended to have.”

For 2018, he’s excited by two trends he sees: “first, more emphasis on the outcomes teams have over the specific process, framework, or methodology they use. Second, seeing the frameworks, processes, and methodologies as tools in your toolkit (or plays in your playbook, if you prefer a sports metaphor), rather than the right or only way to achieve good results.”

To keep moving the debate around product management forward — how do you see product management changing in 2018? Have anything to add to the trends above? We want to hear it! Just leave a comment below.




Nicole Fu
Nicole is a marketing consultant for tech/startups. She is living the #4HWW, learning Python, and trying to be an Effective Altruist.