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The History and Evolution of Product Management (Part 1)

Rafayel Mkrtchyan
Nov 12, 2018 · 6 min read

Introduction

It’s hard to imagine a modern-day tech product company which does not have a Product Manager role in it. Tech product companies and product managers come in one package, and the role of a Product Manager is indisputable in making the products successful. The best tech companies value the role of the Product Manager, since the latter not only directs the company to the realization of their product vision, but also brings empowerment, product ownership, and activates the product culture.

The Product Manager is the visionary of the product and the customer-facing person who decides what to build and most importantly why to build it. At the same time, the Product Manager acts as a leader for the product team. They are present when the first line of code is being written up until the moment when the product is shipped. This cycle repeats with every new feature or product version release. Thus, the Product Manager is responsible for the future of the product. Through the right and positive influence, great Product Managers help bring success to many companies that currently lead the software industry.

Both new and skilled product managers often ask themselves where this role came from especially because it has some overlaps with other organizational roles. There is no definitive history of product management though. But it is useful to try to find out at least some roots and understand how this role evolved through time. The birth of product management, most probably, dates back to the 1930s. However, I will start with a little pre-modern history by Phil Hopkins.

Pre-Modern History

Phil Hopkins in his Medium article Human History is Product Management argues that the world history is not only about great inventions but also about managing those inventions by extraordinary people and turning those inventions into great products that could change the course of human life.

As an example, Hopkins touches upon the invention of gunpowder by the Chinese in the 9th century AD. Back then, the compound was being used to ignite fireworks. And the Chinese were doing this for two centuries. However, in the 13th century, they started creating and using arrows and early precursors of bullets to shoot through lances.

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Earliest surviving recipe for gunpowder, Chinese Song Dynasty, 1044 AD

We can view this as a classical example of great product management—the Chinese figured out a way to utilize a scientific discovery as a basis for a new product.

The 1930s

In 1931, Neil H. McElroy from Procter & Gamble wrote a famous memo as a justification to hire more employees. This company is an American multinational consumer goods corporation specialized in a wide range of personal health/consumer health, and personal care and hygiene products.

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The original memo

McElroy’s memo became a cornerstone for product management. It was an 800-word document which was describing the role of “Brand Men” and their responsibilities. According to the memo, the “Brand Man” was responsible for tracking the sales, managing the product, advertising, and promotions. Following is what the memo consisted of regarding the “Brand Man”:

  1. Study carefully shipments of his brands by units.
  2. Where brand development is heavy and where it is progressive, examine carefully the combination of effort that seems to be clicking and try to apply this same treatment to other territories that are comparable.
  3. Where brand development is light: (a) Keep whatever records are necessary, and make whatever field studies are necessary to determine whether the plan has produced the expected results. (b) Study past advertising and promotional history of the brand: study the territory personality at first hand–both dealers and consumers–in order to find out the trouble. (c)After uncovering our weakness, develop a plan that can be applied to this local sore spot. It is necessary, of course not simply to work out the plan but also to be sure that the amount of money proposed can be expected to produce results at a reasonable cost per case. (d) Outline this plan in detail to the Division Manager under whose jurisdiction the weak territory is, Obtain his authority and support for the corrective action. (e) Prepare sales help and all other necessary material for carrying out the plan. Pass it on to the districts. Work with salesmen while they are getting started. Follow through to the very finish to be sure that there is no letdown in sales operation of the plan.
  4. Take full responsibility, not simply for criticizing individual pieces of printed word copy, but also for the general printed word plans for his brands.
  5. Take full responsibility for all other advertising expenditures on his brands.
  6. Experiment with and recommend wrapper revisions.
  7. See each District Manager a number of times a year to discuss with him any possible faults in our promotion plans for that territory.”

McElroy hired a “Brand Man” and an “Associate Brand Man,” thereby turning Procter & Gamble into a brand-centric organization thus leading to the birth of the Product Manager in the field of fast-moving consumer goods companies.

The 1940s

McElroy later became Secretary of Defense and helped found NASA. During the years of being an advisor at Stanford he influenced two young entrepreneurs. Those were Bill Hewlett and David Packard. We can say that this duo set the ground for the next round of the development of product management as a separate profession. But before that, let’s just mention that these people founded Hewlett-Packard which was a multinational American information technology company providing both hardware and software solutions to consumers, businesses (small and big), and even the government.

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Dave Packard (left) and Bill Hewlett (right) by MIT Technology Review: https://www.technologyreview.com/s/602961/four-lessons-for-silicon-valley-from-its-first-startup/

What was so special about the Hewlett-Packard way? Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard were putting decision making as close as possible to the customer. The precursor of the modern-day Product Manager had to make the customer’s voice heard. Hewlett-Packard introduced a unique structure where each product group had to become a separate organization responsible for its development, manufacturing, and sales. And once the organization gets larger than 500 people, it gets split into smaller organizations which are easier to manage.

The 1950s and Beyond

To be continued…

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Rafayel Mkrtchyan

Written by

Product Management Consultant • HIVE 30 Under 30 in Tech • 400,000+ views 45,000+ claps • Need help? Email me at contact@productguy.io

Agile Insider

Exclusive and practical insights that enable the agile community to succeed.

Rafayel Mkrtchyan

Written by

Product Management Consultant • HIVE 30 Under 30 in Tech • 400,000+ views 45,000+ claps • Need help? Email me at contact@productguy.io

Agile Insider

Exclusive and practical insights that enable the agile community to succeed.

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