Product Transformation Marty Cagan

Disruptive Technologies

NOTE: As many of you know, I am in the midst of publishing a series of articles on the various product competencies.  However, I’ve been getting so many questions about the impact of ChatGPT, Midjourney, GPT4, LLM’s and Generative AI in general that I thought it’s best to interrupt my normal articles to acknowledge the dramatic impact this new technology is already starting to have on our industry, on product teams, and specifically on product managers.

I’ve lost count on how many people – product managers, designers, engineers, product leaders, and company leaders – have wanted to talk about the impact of the recent new technologies on their business, their product offering, and potentially on their choice of career.

Some people are more excited than they have ever been.  Others are more scared than they have ever been.  Some seem to be experiencing both emotions simultaneously.

The reason I decided to pursue a career in technology and product is because I love building things, and especially I love building things that are just now possible.

I consider myself incredibly lucky to have experienced several disruptive technologies over my career.  

My career began during the introduction of personal computers, and it’s hard to describe to people today just how profound it was to talk about the idea of a computer in every home and every office.

That was actually a very fun time, but in truth these devices were like little islands.  It wasn’t until client/server computing and fast networking that we could tackle some much tougher problems.

Then the Internet happened, which literally caused companies to revisit nearly everything about how we live and work, and in the product world, the Internet also profoundly changed how we build, test and deploy products.

As an industry, we flirted with mobile for over a decade before the original iPhone really did change everything once again.

Cloud computing, edge computing, the list goes on.  It just depends on how granular we want to define disruptive technology.

I realize that the earlier disruptions sound quaint today, just as GPT4 will sound quaint in a few years (maybe even a few months!).

But in every case, some companies became more valuable than ever before, and others were left behind.

In strong product companies, we live for these disruptive technologies.  

We are constantly asking ourselves: “how can we use this new technology to solve problems for our customers, that we have never been able to solve before?

I used to stress about figuring out the impact of new technologies as fast as possible because I felt the clock ticking.  But now I’ve learned that it’s really not possible to truly predict the impact of disruptive technologies.  

We can predict a few first-order effects, but the really interesting impacts are usually second or third order effects.  And I think this has never been more true than with AI.

In Benedict Evans’ latest analysis he said: “There’s an old saying that when we get a new tool, we begin by making it fit the old way of working, and then we change the way we work to fit the new tool.”  I think he’s spot on.

I hope you are spending time with your product teams learning about these new enabling technologies, creating some early prototypes, exploring the implications and the opportunities.

Since just keeping up with the pace of innovation today is so time consuming, I increasingly depend on tech industry analysts. My current favorites are Ben Evans and Ben Thompson.

Every disruptive technology has certain common traits, but one thing about this current wave is that it will likely not just impact our products, but it will also likely impact each of the roles on a product team.  

The most obvious impact is on engineers (GitHub Copilot is an early example), but I expect impacts on design and product management as well.

While I hesitate to make predictions on something so disruptive so soon, I do believe that the coming years will shine a very strong light on product management.

Remember that product managers are responsible for the value and viability of what we build, and those risks are right at the center of this new wave of disruptive technologies.  The ethical implications alone can keep a strong PM busy.

Since I’m by nature an optimist, I am hoping that this new wave of technologies will help accelerate the move from feature teams to empowered product teams, and hopefully push many more companies to realize that they need to transform in order to take advantage of these new opportunities, and respond to the serious threats.

Since I also try to be a realist, I am also concerned that the race to market will ignore many of the unintended consequences to people and society. Sadly our industry does not have a good track record in terms of paying attention to the ethical risks. Some of these risks are already obvious, and many more are sure to emerge in the coming months and years.