“You can’t develop products unless you know how to talk about the products.”
That’s what Brian Chesky (Co-founder & CEO at Airbnb) said about product management. Chesky surprised many during his conversation at Config 2023 when he mentioned that the company no longer has traditional product managers.
His remark created waves of reactions in the product community, speculating that Airbnb's move signals "the end of product management", while others stressed that it's a simple shift in roles.
Chesky further clarified and expanded upon the topic in a detailed interview on Lenny's Podcast with Lenny Rachitsky.
Chesky's comments on Airbnb's shift in product management roles is more than just an isolated trend—it's a clear reflection of broader, transformative movements in the industry.
Despite the initial misunderstandings, Chesky’s insights reveal not the end, but the adaptation of the product manager role. As businesses like Airbnb continue to refine and redefine this position, the core importance of product management in aligning customer needs, market trends, and business objectives remains more vital than ever.
Were Chesky's words a signal for PMs to reconsider their career paths? or was there a deeper meaning behind them?
Rather than removing the product manager role entirely, he stated that they had moved towards a product marketing manager style position, similar to what we see at Apple.
He also added that all the program management functions that PMs were doing at Airbnb were handed to actual program managers.
Even during the conversation that sparked this wildfire, Chesky said, “Product managers are critical, but they shouldn’t be doing the job of a designer.” So, really, Airbnb’s “abandonment” of the traditional product management role was simply a transition of the role to better suit their product.
“The designers are equal to the product managers” is another aspect of his statement. Airbnb’s rejig of product management empowered designers to lead the project alongside the product managers. This makes sense coming from Chesky, who is a designer and has worked hard to build a design-led company.
He had actually spoken about this shift back in May in an interview with The Verge where he said, “We have no pure product marketers who don’t do product management.” Senior product managers at the company are now working on outbound marketing. This helps maintain context for development, including who they’re building products for. It also allowed Airbnb to reduce team sizes, elevate design, and improve productivity levels.
The result of this for Airbnb are reportedly hugely positive. They are shipping faster, they’re not bogged down by bureaucracy, and the company has become much more productive.
Chesky noted that there was strong opposition to the move, with fears of stifling innovation and the company becoming too top-down. However, the mood seems happier for those who stayed through the transition.
So, while the headlines ran with, “Is this the end of product management?” the reality is that the role is simply moving away from design-focused towards a commercial-focused role.
Itamar Gilad, a respected product coach and former Google PM, acknowledged the boldness of Airbnb's move to discard conventional practices in favor of a centralist, CEO-led approach, citing Chesky's inspiration from Steve Jobs.
However, he expressed skepticism about the efficacy of this model. He warns that such a drastic reduction in product management roles, replaced by a CEO-centric decision process poses the risk of "Decision-by HiPPO" (Highest Paid Person's Opinion), which can lead to misdirected efforts and wasted resources. He emphasized the value of having dedicated product teams with a deep understanding of business, strategy, and market needs, suggesting that few leaders have the exceptional product insight of Jobs.
Malte Scholz, CEO of airfocus believes that Airbnb's approach, represents a unique case, largely not scalable or applicable to other organizations. He noted the unusual involvement of leadership in bi-annual releases at the task level, a practice uncommon in other product organizations.
Despite appearances, Scholz pointed out that Airbnb isn't eliminating product managers but is redefining their roles. "He's just changing how the organization works," he explained, underscoring that tasks like discovery, planning, and launching still need to be addressed.
He views this as a "very interesting and brave move" and a "healthy thing to experiment with." Scholz regards Airbnb's experiment as an opportunity to explore and redefine product management's boundaries and applications, highlighting its potential impact on the field.
Andrea Saez, a product management and marketing expert, argued that PMs are not becoming obsolete but are instead being pushed to gain a stronger commercial perspective.
She pointed out a common shortfall among PMs: the lack of understanding or reporting on how their decisions impact the business's commercial side. Saez emphasized the importance of considering factors like target audience, solution packaging, and effects on sales, marketing, and customer success.
She believes that while founder-led development might be effective for small, early-stage teams seeking customer traction, it might not be scalable for larger organizations. She cautions against the potential downsides of micromanagement in a large company.
Saez also agreed with Chesky that Agile methodologies have inadvertently harmed product management. She criticized Agile for transforming PMs into project managers, disconnecting them from the commercial impact of their decisions, distancing them from customers, and hindering strategic execution. Her analysis suggests that while Chesky's approach may have some merit, a balanced view is crucial, considering both the increased commercial awareness required of PMs and the risks of founder-led product development in larger companies.
Saeed K., an advocate for effective product management, referenced Chesky's statement about eliminating the "classic" product management function, which raised many eyebrows in the industry. He emphasized that the interpretation of "classic" in this context is crucial.
According to Saeed, Airbnb's version of "classic" product management was more focused on requirements and delivery, rather than a holistic approach that truly embodies the essence of product management. This holistic approach, as he sees it, should seamlessly integrate business and product aspects, driving product success.
In the interview, Chesky elaborated on how Airbnb now operates, with Product Marketers taking on roles that blend product development and go-to-market strategies. This, in Saeed’s view, aligns perfectly with what product management should ideally be: a comprehensive, overarching view of the product.
Chesky's talk wasn’t supposed to be a big announcement that would change the product management game. He was simply stating what had already happened within the company. So the significant shift in responsibilities and “the end of the product manager role” some were forecasting hasn’t actually happened.
That said, product management is a rapidly evolving role, and change is inevitable. There will be some companies that have pivoted (or will pivot) in the same fashion as Airbnb, and there will be some that have shifted (or will shift) in different ways. It’s a contextual role with no one-size-fits-all solution.
That's why it’s helpful to keep track of current trends, and to remember that what works for one business may not work for yours.
Regardless of what comes next, product management is still as vital as ever and will remain a crucial part of many businesses. Customer centricity is currently the main focus for many businesses, and that mentality can only be maintained with a product manager at the helm.
Airbnb's experience underscores several important considerations for today’s product managers:
Embrace customer-centricity: The shift toward a marketing focus puts customer needs and perspectives at the forefront of product development and will enable product managers to tap into customer trends in a new way.
Leverage data and trends: Product managers should utilize sales and marketing data to better understand and anticipate customer needs. This ear-to-ground mentality helps bridge gaps between development, marketing, and sales. For PMs early in their careers, this will be an essential, highly sought-after skill going forward.
Adopt new technologies: The integration of AI and other technologies in product management can streamline routine tasks, allowing PMs to focus more on strategic aspects like marketing, and there’s lots of advanced tools that help have a wholesome overview of their work, (think an all-in-one product management software like airfocus).
Stay flexible: As the role of product management continues to evolve, PMs need to remain flexible and responsive to new trends. Approaching such moves with curiosity and analyzing how (or if) it can work for you and your organization can help you remain agile.
Product management may be changing, but this discipline is still evolving and can take many shapes and forms depending on every organization's needs. To say it in airfocus terms, it's a modular role.
It’s also clearer than ever that product managers need to adapt and evolve with the profession. Never a boring day for PMs.
Stay tuned to the airfocus blog to keep up with the latest developments and trends in product management!