A brief history of product management

Author — Sohail Rao Madala (LinkedIn)

A brief read on how product management started, evolved over the years and where it might be headed next.

How did the PM role start?

It all began when Neil McElroy, a marketing manager at Procter & Gamble decided to write an 800 words memo that laid down the concept for a new role which became popularly known as “The Brand Man”. The Brand Man would be responsible for tracking the sales of the product, for advertising promotions and would constantly work to improve the product. This person would focus on one and only one thing — the product.
However, while McElroy may have been the inventor of the product management role, it took others to make the role mainstream or so to say to “industrialize” the role. The Henry Fords for product management were, in fact, Bill Hewlett and David Packard — the duo who created Hewlett Packard. It was at Hewlett Packard, that “The Brand Man” truly became the voice of the customer — the person voicing the customer’s view through the product development process. Most modern-day product managers would understand this and identify their responsibilities with this definition.

What happened in the FMCG industry?

The PM role has evolved a lot over the past decades and perhaps what happened in the FMCG industry is a great example of it. FMCG is where product managers would rely heavily on the 4Ps of marketing for their work. However, the product development cycles of FMCG products are extremely long and so the majority of these PMs would tend to focus primarily on the last 3Ps of marketing — place, price & promotion. They would spend the majority of their time and efforts in pricing the product right and focusing on packaging and promotion of the product rather than on the development of the product. Much of this changed when product management came to the tech industry.
Scott Cook, the founder of Intuit was a former “Brand Man” from Proctor & Gamble himself. No surprise that when he started Intuit in the eighties, he evangelized this concept within the company and Intuit went on to play a major role in formalizing and making the role of product management mainstream in the software industry. A few years later Microsoft introduced a new role called “Program Manager” which was heavily inspired by the concept of product management. This helped further formalize the role in the software industry.

What’s next?

Product management has surely come a long way from the time of “The Brand Man”. This leads to a very important question — how will the role evolve over the next few years?
Some people say product management is an art. Some say it’s a science. Maybe the truth lies somewhere in between. But seeing how product management has evolved over the past few years — the answer seems to be certainly leaning towards science. While customer empathy still lies at the heart of product management, the reliance on data and analytics is now more than ever. Maybe it’s not a surprise that even today some of the highest-earning product managers in the world are specializing in data science, artificial intelligence and machine learning. They often transition into product management from one of these roles. Here is an interesting post on Medium if you’d like to know more about Data Science PMs.
At the end of the day, we would probably be better off being the kind of product managers we like being and are good at being. If you’re a PM or an aspiring PM who enjoys the UI/UX side of product management most, maybe that’s what you should do. Core elements of product management like UI/UX, business acumen and customer research will of course continue to remain essential to the job. But it may soon prove hard to ignore the reality that data science will take its place at the very heart of product management.

An interest group at the Indian School of business, India. We write about technologies & their applications in businesses.