The product has always been an important part of any tech company’s success, but product leaders haven’t always had a seat at the executive table.
At Amplitude’s annual conference in Las Vegas last month, the chief product officers of Box, Kumu, Okta and Wish spoke with Protocol about how else the role of the chief product officer has changed, from becoming a more strategic part of organizational design to being a pathway to CEO.
Given the necessity of product management in today’s digital age, it’s easy to forget that the role is fairly new. “If you look around — sales, marketing, engineering — these have been around for a much longer time, and product management is probably the newest of the disciplines among all of that,” said Wish’s Tarun Jain.
It may seem like every tech company has a chief product officer now, but product leaders don't necessarily think the number of CPOs has gone up. “We have the same number of people doing product work, but now there's more eyes on them,” said Kumu’s Crystal Widjaja.
This role wasn’t always an executive role, either. “The CPO role now has a seat at the table, at the C-suite. But before, he might have been part of another organization — that also changed over the last few years,” said Box’s Diego Dugatkin.
Road to the top
As product development becomes more central to a tech company’s growth strategy, it's forcing product leaders to think differently than they did in the past. That’s why today’s CPOs can be involved in everything from business development and marketing to engineering and data analytics, according to the panelists.
In the past, “the product leader used to take in requirements and help translate it for engineering to build a good product,” said Okta’s Diya Jolly. Now the job involves “driving the revenue, driving customer growth, ensuring that support can actually support your product [and] ensuring that marketing understands how to position it,” she said.
That’s why it's vital for CPOs to have good relationships with CFOs, CMOs and chief customer officers, as well as other executives. “The congeniality and the partnership with other C-level executives, where you have to work in close coordination with sales and also with marketing and also with engineering” is essential, said Box’s Dugatkin.
The expanding remit of CPOs may also prime them for tech’s top roles. In the future, the CPO role could be a pathway to the top job. Bret Taylor, co-CEO of Salesforce, was formerly a CPO, as were Sundar Pichai at Google and Ryan Roslansky at LinkedIn.
“You do see more and more companies promote their CPOs to CEOs, so LinkedIn did it very successfully as an example,” said Jolly. She considers the role to be a great training ground for taking over the reins because “it gives you the most holistic view of the different functions and how to coordinate and drive plans across all the different functions.”
“It's a role that can actually be groomed into a CEO,” said Wish’s Jain, because the employee has to think about the product, strategy and vision, and how to rally employees.
Dugatkin agreed that it's possible, but the pathway isn’t always clear. “In order to be a good CEO, in addition to product, you have to manage finance, you need to understand sales, you need to work with investors … product is not sufficient, but it's necessary.”