With over 30 years of experience, Mike Bauer is a product and strategy executive who has managed and overseen more than 100 products across data communication, enterprise software, connected products, the Internet of Things (IoT), marketing automation, embedded systems, and big data. He’s served in many senior product management roles at notable enterprise technology companies, including 3Com, Innovu, Avnet (NASDAQ: AVT), and Timesys before joining Sopheon in 2021.
At recent industry events like ProductCamp, he shared his wisdom on emerging trends in product management.
1. Defining a product-first company
As product management expands beyond its traditional scope in software and technology, product people, from those new to product management to seasoned CPOs and CEOs, are asking what makes a company “product first.”
“A product-first company,” Mike explains, “is one that focuses its efforts first and foremost on the product and its customers’ pain points, needs, and jobs to be done, and then positions all of its resources around successfully delivering a product that offers the most value to those customers.” To be successful means a constant and iterative cycle of testing and learning around customers’ needs as they relate to product and business value.
“It does not mean engineering or product management centric,” he clarifies. Rather, in a product-first company, what’s critical is that a company understands the product and its users, regardless of how 'product' is defined.
A product-first company is collaborative and market-centric across the board, from understanding the customer and market needs to the final delivery of the product. “All parts of an organization play a critical role,” he adds, “it’s just that the focus is on servicing the products it brings to customers.”
2. More product people in the C-suite
Today, over one third of Fortune 100 companies have a Chief Product Officer (CPO), while over 2,000 CPO jobs are currently open on LinkedIn. Large enterprises of all kinds are realizing the value of hiring product professionals and driving the demand for product people in C-Suite roles. Products that Count predicts that 70% of Fortune 1000 companies will have a CPO by 2027.
“The growing realization that product management, as a discipline and a job function, needs a seat at the table and that its principles and techniques bring enormous benefits, even to internal applications,” Mike says.
3. Expanding into new industries and areas of business
“Most companies produce a product of some kind, be it digital, physical, or a service, that can be improved with a product-first mentality,” Mike explains, “companies of all kinds are beginning to understand that to be successful, this cannot be buried in R&D, Marketing, or some other part of the organization.”
Increasingly, product management applications are used in retail, the service industry, and companies that sell physical products. “Anywhere people are taking a ‘product’ focus on how they make business decisions and how they drive their innovations, products, and services into the market, whether internal or external to the company,” Mike adds, “we’re seeing this across the board in CPG, Chemical, Aerospace, Defense, Manufacturing – just as it could be applied in the software industries.”
4. Increasing specialization
The demand for specialized expertise is increasing as more companies integrate product management roles and realize that not just one person can do it all. “We see this already across companies – they want people with knowledge of their space, their customers, and their problems first and foremost – this is no different than a lot of other functions,” Mike says.
He adds, “Especially in more tech-specialized areas, companies may want to hire product managers with experience working on products at the same stages as the ones they have, whether pre-product market fit (PMF) companies, scaleups, or established products.”
Despite this, Mike says, “There are core skills people must master regardless of their specialization or experience. No different than that you need to have the basic skills of a doctor before you become a heart surgeon specializing in clogged arteries.”
5. Remote collaboration continues to grow
Remote work has its perks, but it also presents unique challenges for product managers – the biggest obstacles, Mike says, are those to collaboration and discovery.
Making collaboration simple and easy, both internally and externally, is an important part of the product management process. “A lot of what product people do is communicate,” Mike explains, “that works fine if you can get on a whiteboard, share documents quickly, and get face-to-face.
The solution to collaborating remotely comes with the new tools. He says, “Tools specific to product people will enable better collaboration and sharing of ideas and concepts, and less document passing.”
When it comes to performing discovery, virtual environments can make it harder.“It’s more difficult to get interviews and direct face-to-face time and a lot easier to be distracted compared to having someone physically in a room focused on providing direct feedback,” Mike explains. As a result, product managers are placing increasing emphasis on indirect feedback through analytics.
6. Rise of low-code and no-code platforms
Gartner predicts that 65% of application development will depend on no-code or low-code tools by 2024. The rise of these low- and no-code platforms has many wondering about the impacts they could have on the role of product managers, as well as the product landscape as a whole.
Mike’s thoughts: “Ill-defined products that are developed faster due to more people available to create products faster because less coding is required will still be ill-defined products. You will just get to failure faster. So on one dimension, it will be positive, but on another dimension, it will encourage people to not use proper discipline to understand the problem or need before jumping into the solution.” It will encourage just throwing stuff on the wall to see what sticks which will frustrate customers and users to no end.
“Product managers need to stay away from the how and leave it up to the people responsible for developing the products. The impact for product people,” he explains, “will be that the test-learn-iterate cycle will be faster, which means product people will also have to move faster. It doesn’t change the responsibility of understanding and communicating the basic ‘Why’ and the ‘What’.”
7. IoT continues to drive growth
Another technology-led impact on product management is that the role has become more data-driven than ever before. “With more and more digitalization and the ability to collect info from even various types of physical products, understanding how to use data to inform decision-making will be even more critical,” Mike says, before adding, “The IoT devices and the data associated with them have exploded. According to Forrester, the worldwide number of IoT-connected devices is projected to increase to 43 billion by 2023, an almost threefold increase from 2018. The presence of all of this data provides market opportunities for analytical product managers.
8. The impact of AI on the rise
According to IBM, 21% of product managers use AI, putting them in the top 10 AI user groups across the world.
Mike sees product people incorporating AI and Machine Learning in their products and features and to better inform decision-making. “The hard part,” he cautions, “AI is not a panacea no matter how cool ChatGPT is for creating text and other AI systems for creating images – even with all the hype, it cannot be underestimated that there are things that need to be understood and managed at a detailed level to get the value out of AI and Machine Learning. They are tools, very valuable tools in the toolkit of the product manager.” But you have to understand the problem and what you are driving as outcomes for the user to pick the right flavor of AI/ML.
9. Discovery becomes crucial
Mike sees discovery getting the most attention in 2023 – he explains, “People understand the front end is absolutely crucial to reducing risk, getting to the heart of real customer problems and needs, and picking the most valuable things to move forward with.” “Digitalization,” he adds, “will make this 'test and learn' process a lot simpler, even for companies selling physical goods.”
“Agile, or lean, techniques coupled with sound product management principles also continue to gain traction in non-technology industries as companies across all industries continue to try to shorten time to market with new and updated innovations and products,” he says.
Looking to the future: How will product managers need to adapt?
Product managers need to adapt by:
- Tying product health with product objectives, the things being done within the “product.”
- Aligning KPIs with product capabilities in the releases to address the why and the business value associated with your decisions.
- Understanding analytics and bringing that information into the analysis and decision-making – we will be expanding
- Being less ad-hoc about defining personas, managing trade-offs, and being clearer about what is the plan going forward and being better at communicating these things across the organization and up the chain of command.
- Clearly taking the time to discover and understand the needs of the customer and what you are trying to solve before jumping into solutions.
- Learn how to test, learn and iterate at an increasing rate based on the multitude of data flowing in.
Sopheon addresses these changing demands and skills by focusing on these jobs. To help product people, Sopheon has created a family of software products, including Acclaim Products, Acclaim Ideas, Acclaim Projects, and Accolade for portfolio and strategy management.