Airbnb and the future of product management

Published Jun 30, 2023
Despite their much-publicized elimination of the role, PMs are here to stay—and have never been more critical.

Late last week, reports that Airbnb had eliminated its product management (PM) function took the product world by storm. “Big day for all product managers to rethink their career choices after the Airbnb talk,” was a typical response to the announcement on social media. Many wondered if the tide might be turning for a role whose importance had been steadily growing up to now.

Airbnb’s move raises real questions about the future of product teams. PMs are already facing massive change brought about by widespread AI adoption; does this decision by such a respected brand pose a real threat? Has the traditional product manager role become obsolete? What has changed (or needs to change) about how PMs work? And how do they best serve the goals of the greater business? 

These are important questions, but as they consider them, product leaders should be very skeptical that the PM function is going away. To be sure, the role is evolving, but in a manner that sees product managers as doing more work, not less, that’s critical to driving business outcomes. To understand why, let’s take a step back.

The PM role isn’t going anywhere

First, it’s important to consider the reality of what Airbnb actually did. As CEO Brian Chesky later elaborated, “I should have been more clear. We morphed the [PM] function into an Apple-style product marketing function.” In other words, the change wasn’t so much one of substance as of semantics. The PM title may be going away at Airbnb, but the work they do and the outcomes they drive are still critical. Great PMs have always been market-focused, and this is true more than ever now. 

Aligning product management and product marketing is of course important. Here at Pendo, we recently moved product marketing out of marketing and into product for this exact reason. How a product is marketed should reflect the value it adds, the pain points it solves, and the joy it brings to customers. Within product teams, having a marketing focus matters. What’s more, this kind of alignment has been the norm in many B2C companies for some time. (Whereas in B2B companies, it’s only now beginning to take root.) In essence, individual roles may change or go away, but the work required for a product to succeed does not. 

But great product managers matter for a company in so many other ways. They’re business leaders who sit at the nexus of customers, markets, designers, and engineers. They analyze and balance inputs from each of these spheres in order to craft and ship experiences that deliver on the right outcomes for the organization. And they’re increasingly the center of the wheel for greater business motions.

Your product is now the center of your business

PMs have become and will remain absolutely essential to business health. That’s because as business as a whole has shifted more to digital, the product experience has never been more important. 

Think about it: In 2023, your product is so much more than whatever core good or service you provide. You can deliver so much of the customer experience inside your products, from support, education and surveys to driving awareness of additional functionality or product offerings. With the power of your product to drive customer growth and expansion, combat churn, and improve brand sentiment and NPS, it’s never been more important to optimize the product experience. Business health is becoming synonymous with product health, which is why product talent is increasingly in demand at non-tech companies.

Why PMs are here to stay

Those who say product management as we know it is over are right in one narrow sense. Will product managers remain a niche, engineering-adjacent role that does little more than coordinate on and ship product and feature updates? Of course not. The role has and will continue to evolve as products and the data and insights they provide become more integral to successful business motions. But as that happens, businesses will need more from their product leaders, not less. That’s why reports of product management’s death are greatly exaggerated, and why I believe Airbnb may realize they miss their PMs.

Interested in learning the many ways companies have been rallying around product teams of late? Check out Pendo’s report on the power of product in an economic downturn.