90 years of Product Management: A Brief History

Product Manager Nov 23, 2021

Sometimes, to perfect what we are doing we need to know what came before us. Know what happened and why. That’s why history is so important, both in long term and short. Your last product didn’t work? why? But also, why are you interested in tech products in the first place? revisit how that came to be; what was the trigger that made you choose that path in particular? Checking out the past can be incredibly useful and, even when for some reason it is not, it might leave you with some very interesting trivia for your next conference or speech, so you might as well dabble in it every now and then.

That’s why today we want to briefly talk about the history of product management: how it started, why it started and how it has evolved.

Once upon a time, 90 years ago...

Product Management as we know it today might be traced back to 1931. More specifically, it can be traced to a particular document, an 800 word memo written by a man named Neil H. McElroy, who at the time worked at Procter & Gamble (oh! and also he later became Secretary of Defense and helped found NASA. No big deal at all this guy). What McElroy stated was that “Brand Men” were needed to focus and take responsibility for the management and marketing of products, the tracking of sales, and a lot of field testing and interaction with customers.

He also happened to be a huge influence on some other random guys named Bill Hewlett and David Packard. Hewlett-Packard followed this idea of “Brand Men” and went even harder on it. Now the product managers were basically channeling the clients’ voice to the teams developing the products. The company also started the structure in which each product is almost a self contained organization, which undoubtedly rings a bell to this day.

Something always happens in Japan

A few years later, on the other side of the world, in Japan, Toyota was making the next great move for product management. Post-war struggles made the company take new routes and develop stuff like just-in-time procurement and Kanban (this is 1953, we are talking about). Toyota, then, made its priority to focus on mitigating the waste as much as possible, have a mindset of innovation, and go to the sources to get what’s not working and correct it.

The 90's

During the 90’s technology started to take a massive leap and this called for a restructuring that could keep up with it. Companies like Microsoft had Program Managers, who most times were basically engineers. This meant there was a lot going on internally in companies, but not enough feedback from the customers, not enough bilateral communication. This led to a general (but not absolute) transformation from the Program Managers to Product Managers with values more like the ones seen outside tech. Methodologies also evolved, with Scrum popularizing in 1995.

A New Millennium

What about the last 20 years? Well, the early 2000s saw a game-changing event, particularly for software development: The Agile Manifesto. Innovation was everywhere by 2001, and more and more products were getting to the market, but many of them didn’t solve customer problems or didn’t arrive timely. “This was such a pervasive problem that it led to the Agile Manifesto in 2001. We needed to do for software development what Toyota did for manufacturing. How do we get the risk earlier, move faster, and ensure we’re delivering that value as fast as we can, at the right time when the customer needs it?”, says Annie Dunham, VP of product at ProductPlan. And well, Agile was a segway to things such as MVPs and product-led growth, so it definitely revolutionized the industry.

Product Management Today

Today, the Product Manager role is one of authority, one that has earned its seat at the big table after years of trial and error, experimentation, methodologies and manifestos. A role that has been vital in the success of numerous huge companies and startups. But there’s still room for improvement and PMs today are starting to notice what they need in order to  perform at their full potential. They have been running marathons with weights in their legs, and still deliver. But it’s time to take the weights off, to make even leaner and more efficient this role that we have seen might make or break an organization.

And that comes with No-Code software. With the democratization of software development, comes freedom, and with that, comes creativity and innovation. Using No-Code tools, Product Managers will now be able to refine their tasks to the point that they will not spend huge amounts of time on operative processes, but automate them in a matter of minutes and really take care of what McElroy said 90 years ago. Back to strategy, to marketing, to roadmap and to defining priorities.