I have been in product management for half my career and today, product management is a function that is found in almost all companies. Product team members are today involved in all aspects in the product lifecycle and are considered, (and rightly so) as the CEOs (and COOs) of the product. But it wasn’t always like that. Product Management is actually a very young function compared to more traditional roles. So where did the field come from? Let’s explore how product management was born.
Product 1.0: “Brand Men”
Since the industrial revolution, it’s arguable that product management has existed for as long as there have been products to manage. But it was never a formal role until the 1930s when Neil McElroy at Procter and Gamble wrote a 800-word memo in which he described a new role he called “Brand Men”.
As outlined in the memo, the “Brand Men” would hold responsibility for the brand. They’d oversee the management of the product, including its marketing and sales. If the product’s branding was weak, it was the duty of Brand Men to research why and devise a strategy for improvement. This is historically the first example of a brand-vertical organizational structure: every branded product from a company could have a dedicated budget and team behind it, and so a fair shot at market success. That year, McElroy hired the first two product managers in history.
Product 2.0: Hewlett Packard
Following his memo and his success, McElroy went on to do some advisory work at Stanford University and this is where he met and inspired Bill Hewlett and David Packard – who would go on to further the evolution of product management. Indeed, Hewlett and Packard interpreted the evolution of “Brand Men” as putting decision-making power as close to the hands of customers as possible. The customer-centric approach was born and it became known as “The Hewlett-Packard Way”: Brand Men, aka Product Managers, would act as the vessel for the voice of the customer. They would inform the development of the product based on customers’ needs and desires.
Everyone knows Toyota invented Kanban, which is today adapted to agile software development methodologies and super popular in high tech. But do you know how this went by? At the end of World War II, companies in Japan were suffering from drastic cash flow issues. These issues pushed a few innovator companies to develop “Just In Time” production and manufacturing. One of those companies, Toyota, formalized this lean manufacturing trend and invented the “Toyota Production System” – a system combining waste reduction in production processes with two essential values:
Both kaizen and genchi genbutsu are now major components of Kanban product management.
And back home in the U.S., Hewlett Packard heard of these Japanese lean manufacturing practices and in turn incorporated them into their product management system.
Product 3.0: the tech industry
Until the advent of the tech industry in the 60s and 70s in Silicon Valley, product management remained predominantly a marketing capacity focusing on brand and a customer-centric approach. But with lean manufacturing and the emergence of the semiconductor industry in the 70s in California, product management spread past marketing and into development. As the industry matured and shifted away from semiconductors into software in particular, a separation between development and marketing efforts proved problematic and product management expanded to fill the gap. It combined the understanding of the market, brand and customer with the development of the product. As a result, product managers could ensure that the values of a product aligned with the values of the customer.
Ultimately, it’s been the advent of product management as a role in the tech industry and especially software over the past 12 years that made the field what it is today – the management of a product from its inception until the end of its life. Today, product managers follow the values of kaizen and gentsuba, using data to optimize the product to achieve business goals. The must understand and know the voice of the customer inside out as much as the limitations and abilities of their developers. Product Managers are the ones that look after the product from start to finish. They understand that developers need time to code. They make decisions about what features should and shouldn’t make it into the product — from a place of understanding the customer needs. And they collaborate with marketing, sales and customer service, and shape the overall user experience of the product.
Ultimately, it was this uptake of product management as a role in the tech industry that made the field what it is today. That is, a field that involves governing a product from its inception until the end of its life.
Today’s product managers follow the values of kaizen and genchi gentsuba. Their goal is to optimise a product to achieve business goals. They must understand the voice of the customer, as much as the restrictions and abilities of their developers.
In other words, the product manager is the one that looks after the product from start to finish. They understand that developers need time to code. They make decisions about what features should and shouldn’t make it into the product — from a place of understanding the customer needs. And they collaborate with marketing, sales and customer service, and shape the overall user experience of that one product.
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My name's phil mora and I blog about the things I love: fitness, hacking work, tech and anything holistic.
Head of Digital Product
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