Thomas Arend Interview with Thomas Arend, Airbnb

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First of all, could you give our readers a quick overview of yourself and your work?

Sure thing! I have always been fascinated by technology that touches people’s lives. When I was 13 years old I taught myself to program. Back then I was certain that “within 20 years” computers would be so much smarter that they wouldn’t have to be programmed and that they would automatically anticipate a user’s need. In a way, I am glad that I was so wrong back then, because otherwise I would be out of a job today. Honestly, though. I started my career in Enterprise apps and discovered my passion for building awesome consumer web and mobile apps. When I started at Google I built on this passion and on my international background to help the company build delightful international user experiences. At Google, the focus on international users and their diverse needs and desires has been as much part of the mission (“Organize the World’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”)  as it is for Twitter (“Reach every person on the planet” – one of 10 core values). Airbnb is most fascinating due to the fact that it is inherently highly international: the platform connects guests with hosts from 192 countries and over 34,000 cities. This makes Airbnb one of the very few start-ups with built-in international viral growth and the huge opportunity to build an amazing and revolutionary international experience which connects cultures.

You have been in International Product Management for over 20 years now. From your perspective, how has the industry changed over the years?

It has for me, and that is very individual view since I migrated from SAP via Google and Twitter to Airbnb. However, I can see how the way we build products has also been changing. 10, 15 or even 20 years ago, apps were called “Software”, the web wasn’t really as ubiquitous as it is today, very few people had clunky cell phones and hence product management of the time somehow reminds me of manufacturing processes. That was when “waterfall” was considered the path to product success and when product releases happened every few months or even years, depending on the product. Many companies didn’t even have Product Managers. I remember working in an Engineering role back then. My manager at the time must have considered me the odd kid out at best and an under-performer at worst: instead of writing code only, I went out to talk to all kinds of users, to explain the product and to bring back many great ideas which were based on their unmet needs and desires. My role changed dramatically over the years: multi-year plans were replaced by shorter cycles, waterfalls were killed by Scrum and iterative processes, “fail early, fail often” introduced new ways to execute and innovate much (much!) faster than ever before. In many cases web users were used as Beta-testers – and they gladly accepted the honor. Today, product development is rapid, the web gives us more opportunities than ever to connect more directly with users, and mobile devices help us find out in real-time how to improve a product or service through the wisdom of the crowd.

In your opinion, what’s the main difference between large cooperations and start-ups when it comes to building new products?

The obvious: larger corporations tend to be slow. They might have processes which are required to keep them operational, while much smaller companies can be much more agile and significantly faster. However, that is not always an advantage for obvious reasons. “Process” is a bad word for every start-up. However, it can actually help build better products: through sharing of user insights and alignment of production processes based on user needs.

Airbnb is well known for its amazing service. What is the secret sauce behind that global success story?

Ha, the ingredients of that “secret sauce” is secret, of course. But I can tell you that my talk will let you in on some of the main components. Walt Disney’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” from 1937, the world’s first full-feature animated movie, did not just have a big cultural impact. It also inspired a new school of User Researchers and Product Managers as well as entire companies to build products that delight global users. I will cover this topic in my talk for sure.

What are some of the main challenges for Product Managers in the upcoming years?

Let me call them “opportunities”. And they will be similar to the ones we have seen for the past decades: know your user! Or in other words: finding the right answer to the two core questions “who is this for and why would they care?” has been key. Along with this classic question, the next big opportunities lie in globalization and the wisdom of the crowd: building products that have global aspects built in to their “DNA” is key to global success. And: leveraging a world-wide community of passionate users and experts will soon allow Product Managers to define and launch products in real-time together with their user communities. Think about it as a new and fancy version of interest groups. Now it is on us to understand these user needs and desires and to turn them into amazing products and services. Exciting times!

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