Remember the Pontiac Aztek? That weird-looking, underpowered mid-sized crossover sport-utility-wagon-hatchback-sedan-mashup that debuted in 2001 and was lauded as a new direction for the struggling General Motors ? Yes, it certainly was a distinctive-looking vehicle, to put it mildly, but also was one of the most ill-conceived and poorly received product launches in recent memory. What was supposed to usher in a new, innovative and rejuvenated General Motors instead became a lesson -- a lesson that is still resonating today.
And it's part of the job of a chief product officer (CPO) to help avoid these kinds of spectacular failures, says Tom Willerer, who's currently the CPO at online educational technology company and MOOC provider Coursera. Aligning engineering, design and analytics with the larger business strategy and the demands of a digital-savvy customer base is tricky, he says, but it's fun.
"The Aztek example obviously isn't in the IT field, but it's one I think is really, really important for a CPO to remember. You can actively solicit feedback from customers, and you can actively work within the needs of your organization -- strategy-wise, budget-wise, innovation-wise -- and you can still get it completely wrong. That's the balancing act, because there's a layer of interpretation that has to go over everything. People say they want X, Y, Z, but what they really want is Q, and you have to figure that out. It's sometimes more art than science," Willerer says.
Willerer's career began in advertising, cutting his teeth for large enterprise clients like BlackBerry. He then moved to product-focused roles at Netflix, where he rose to the rank of vice president; he also worked in research roles at the streaming media giant. But the underlying expertise he continually fell back on, and which drives his success today, is a deep understanding of consumer desires and behaviors.
"The CPO role is fairly broad. I lead design, engineering and analytics, though not in a technical sense. My job is to take my deep consumer understanding and apply that to build a product to satisfy, delight and be useful to people all around the world. I'm constantly curating and executing a vision of what product means to Coursera," he says.
Tech skills not required
Most product-focused roles are filled by folks with a more technical background than Willerer, but it's not entirely rare to see a CPO with similar experience, says P.K. Agarwal, regional dean and CEO of Northeastern University, Silicon Valley.
"It can be helpful to have a technical background, but it's not entirely necessary," says Agarwal. What's more important is understanding that there are usually three different departments that must coordinate efforts to design, develop and build a winning product and a successful CPO must be able to manage all those effectively.
"There are design folks, analytics and data folks and engineering folks involved in the general 'product' space. They all have to come together even though they are fairly separate areas, functionally, so you need a CPO who can manage three different cultures and worlds of their own. The best CPOs are, in essence, mini-CEOs," Agarwal says.
Courses in project management, planning, business, management, design theory and design thinking, marketing, advertising and sales are all important for students considering a career path in product design, development or engineering, he says, but soft skills and management skills also are critical, he says.
Willerer has a bachelor's degree in business and a master's degree in media studies. And while he did take some technical courses that related to design and delivery, he had no idea that roles like those he would land after school even existed.
"When I graduated college, I wanted to work in business because I felt that I could have a big impact on the world, and it seemed exciting. I was thinking I'd be a sort of creative leader, unlike what I thought was the norm in most traditional business, so I went into advertising. But when I interviewed at Netflix and the vice president of product explained what product roles were all about, it clicked -- this was what I wanted to do with the rest of my life," Willerer says.
There's also an element of psychology, especially in his current role at Coursera, says Willerer.
"The product, whatever it may be, should, at a minimum, be able to satisfy the desires and practical needs of consumer. But more than that, it has to satisfy an emotional and very personal need; for example, here at Coursera, in the education technology field, we know a lot of our students struggle with anxiety and fear about learning, coursework, testing. So, we have to understand how to ensure they know they aren't going to fail, that they can succeed," he says.
To succeed in a product-focused role, Willerer says, there are four critical things to remember. The first is vision and an understanding of the trends that are impacting potential consumers and how those trends will change and evolve. The second is communication.
"I have to communicate very clearly to the CEO and the executive team where the product and the company is going, and I have to communicate the importance of the product and its vision to employees. I can't just demand they follow along without inspiring them with that vision," he says.
The third is structured thinking, which allows you to break down goals and strategies into manageable chunks so that projects can be compiled and products designed and delivered. Finally, Willerer says, design thinking is an important aspect of his work. Design thinking can be used to consider issues and resolve problems with a product that's more broad than traditional design practices. In this case, it means incorporating use cases and potential drawbacks into the design of the product.
"You need to build a product that understands and uses consumer insight, but it also has to be polished and professional and have a deep aesthetic sense. Apple is a great example of this kind of thing put into practice," Willerer says.
Breaking the mold
The demand for product-focused professionals in all industries, but especially in IT, has never been greater, and it shows no signs of slowing down, says Matt Leighton, Director of Recruitment at digital marketing and IT staffing firm Mondo.
"This is definitely a newer role, but it's one we're seeing a lot of. Everything from CPO to head of product to user experience (UX) is really hot. These roles are a mashup, in a sense, of marketing and IT, especially in areas like software and applications. These folks have to talk to customers, shareholders, finance, project management, internal marketing and development teams -- they all have to align with the mission of the company and the needs of the customer," Leighton says.
While Leighton says that most candidates in this space, at least those placed by Mondo, do tend to have a technical background, Willerer says there's enough room in the growing field for professionals with unorthodox backgrounds.
"There's a traditional route which involves a technical background, and that's great, but if you want to stand out in the crowd, well -- there are so many people already with that same background. I would say there is plenty of space for people who can combine business and creativity to be leaders in this area! Don't think that you're not a fit just because you don't fit the mold -- don't get discouraged. Part of this role is understanding how to make things that delight people, and that means breaking the mold," Willerer says.
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