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Defining the CPO: Inside Scoop with Ryan Polk

Insight Partners | September 20, 2020| 1 min. read

If you’re a tech founder and product visionary,  how do you know to hire a CPO to own the customer experience and the product roadmap? If you’re a CEO with a go-to-market background, how do you know when it’s time to add a CPO to your executive team and what type of leader you should hire? This month, Insight’s CPO-in-residence, leading Onsite’s Product Center of Excellence sheds light on the role of the CPO.  Spoiler: the CPO owns why, what, and when; the CTO owns how; the CEO owns the trade-offs.


Earlier this year, Insight’s Onsite Team welcomed Ryan Polk to lead the Product & Technology Center of Excellence and advise the ScaleUp CEOs and product leaders of our portfolio companies. In the video above, Nikki Parker, Insight’s Head of Marketing & Communications, interviews Ryan to learn more about how he will support Chief Product Officers who refine product strategy and design products that sell. Watch the video above or read the summary below!

What does it mean to be a Chief Product Officer (CPO) in today’s environment? 

In today’s market, the roles and positions that sit beneath the CPO vary. Before joining Insight Partners, I was the CPO at Carbon Black, a public company, where I was responsible for running Engineering, Product Management, Infrastructure & Operations, Support, and a few other groups. At other companies, a Chief Technology Officer, Chief Operating Officer, or CEO may direct a subset of those functional areas.

At growing ScaleUp companies, a successful CPO is the top leader who is focused on product management and strategy, and develops a strategy that bridges the business and technology.  

As a company grows, how would you describe the evolution of the product function? 

When a company is still in the startup phase, often the Head of Product is the CEO or CTO. As the business evolves, multiple engineering teams form to work in different areas and develop various strategies. The first product hire is usually a Director or VP of Product whose responsibility is to bring the concept of product management into the organization and drive a core set of activities, especially on the delivery side. At this stage, the executive team is still the group that is focused on how the product relates to the larger business strategy.

When a business reaches the ScaleUp phase the CEO typically needs to spend more time focusing on the market and sales, as well as continuing to be the conduit between the business and its investors. Similarly, the CTO begins to have a larger organization to manage, so they tend to focus more on driving culture and being an evangelist for technology throughout the organization. This is when the gap in responsibilities emerges and the need for a CPO become evident.

The CPO will translate the vision of the leadership team into a product strategy and then coordinate with the CTO to execute that strategy. When both leaders and their functional groups work together, companies begin to truly flourish.

What are some common problems that CEOs experience when bringing on their first CPO during the ScaleUp phase of the company’s growth? 

The responsibility of the first CPO in an organization is to gather the expertise around them and bring people together to focus on a strategy that they can believe in. Therefore, as a CEO, the first skill that you’re looking for in a CPO is a facilitative leadership mentality.

The second problem that CEOs run into is the gap between product and engineering, which is usually worsened by companies that take a longer time to invest in product management. It’s important to bring in a CPO who's focused on building out the team, having the right expertise on the market side, and is highly collaborative with the engineering organization.

Another common issue is bridging the gap between sales and marketing. How do we develop a bi-directional communication path between the technical and customer facing sides of the business? While it is important for sales and marketing to know what we’re building, it is just as important to understand why we’re building a product. As a CPO, it is your job to connect and rally the whole organization around the product strategy, while taking input from the market and competitive landscape.  

What are some key characteristics of a great CPO?

When hiring a CPO, the first few qualities that people look for are technical expertise, an understanding of their market, and an ability to drive a product strategy that aligns with business goals. A soft skill that is often overlooked but critical to success is the ability to be a facilitator, a leader who brings the team together around a strategy. If a company has a CPO who can get all functions rowing together as one, it will be positioned for success.

Another quality to identify is the ability to build strategies using defined frameworks. Rather than relying on their knowledge of the market, data from small experiments, or gut intuition, it is far more important to have a leader who will come into an organization with a clearly defined framework to drive strategy as a mechanical or research process. One of my favorites is what’s called “where to play, how to win.” Lastly, it is important to have a CPO with some technical acumen, especially when you're building a highly technical software product.

Overall, I believe the optimal CPO is somebody who first is a facilitator and collaborator, but then brings a whole host of tools to that conversation to help make decisions and drive the company further.

Why are product operations a critical piece of a CPO’s responsibility?

One way to think about the CPO’s role is that product strategy is a compass and product operations is the map. Together, they will help guide you to your destination.

There are a few core pillars of product operations. One is visibility into where you are today -- where am I on the map? How am I delivering my product? How well is my team performing? How much budget am I using?

On the other side of product operations is the research arm of your organization. This is the team responsible for user experience and gathering data from your customers. With this information, you can develop a strategy to help you chart the path to your destination on the map and navigate detours along the road.