You might’ve heard about the buzzing tech role, product management, or you might be interested in what it is all about, but there is so much information about this role and about what it does already, that it confuses you. Well, I can relate to that, and that’s one of the reasons I’m writing this article to you.
Learning anything new can be sometimes tasking and exhausting. The best way to understand a new concept is to relate it to what you are familiar with. The product management role is very modern with modern principles. The agile method of development which is one of the core principles of product management was created in 2001, which is very very recent considering the earth is way older than 2001.
The basic understanding of the word ‘product’ is that it is something tangible that can be bought or sold; the world has been doing this for a long time before 2001. So I think this establishes that product management is not a new concept but just like everything that exists globally, it has metamorphosed into the modern role with modern principles that we know today. For example, the concept of foreign exchange and trading markets did not exist in the stone age, but it’s mainstream today.
THE MODERN ROLE:
When forming a mental model about a new role, I believe it helps to know how that role came about and what needs it sought to solve.
The modern product management role was birthed in the FMCG field (Fast-moving consumer goods) and can be traced back to a memo written by Neil H. McElroy at Procter & Gamble. Niel McElroy saw the need for more hands in his organization and asked for extra hands with the description ‘Brand men,’ but it has shaped what we know as the product management role today.
The Memo which was an 800 word description of what this Brand men roles and responsibilities will look like was centered around prioritizing where more energy or more work should be done, studying the companies weaknesses and proposing possible solutions to it, working with the sales team to optimize sales and also communicate and collaborate with every team leader(District manager) in the organization.
The company responded by hiring two brand managers and adopted a brand-centric approach, which was alien to most organizations at this time. Interestingly, McElroy also helped found NASA and also went on to become the secretary of defense. Another interesting thing, which I think is the most remarkable, is that he advised at Stanford where he was able to influence Bill Hewlett and David Packard, who later became the founders of Hewlett-Packard.
The Hewlett-Packard Way, which was heavily influenced by McElroy’s memo has sustained HP ever since and is the reason for their 50 year record of unbroken 20% year-on-year growth between 1943 and 1993. This way prioritized the customers needs, which was influenced by the product manager. This shows that this modern theory started with accelerated business growth as it was injected into the organizational system
So we can see that HP, one of the early adopters of this modern system, saw massive growth. Another very successful Japanese company, TOYOTA, adopted this system after the war because Japan needed to increase production massively to help their economy. Two people, Taiichi Ohno and Eiji Toyoda (the nephew of Toyota’s founder and eventually chief executive and chairman of Toyota Motor), ran with this idea. They focused on an effective production system, just as outlined in the memo, reducing waste. They had noteworthy philosophies: Kaizen — improving the business continuously while always driving for innovation and evolution and Genchi Genbutsu — to go to the source to find the facts to make correct decisions. Naze- Naze bonseki(Why- why analysis) means when we make mistakes, we think about why we made a mistake once but once is not enough because we need to find the actual cause. I’m a big fan of these Japanese principles, by the way.
This philosophy developed by Hewlett-Packard which prioritized the customer’s needs soon spread through silicon valley and was adopted into the products that we see today.
AN IMPORTANT PART OF MODERN TECHNOLOGY
The early product managers in Tech were focused on a customer- centric system which was born out of their marketing job description. To fulfill the customers’ needs, they needed to find the perfect mix of the Right product, in the right place, at the right price, using the right Promotion. Since the product management role originally started in the FMCG space, the early product managers focused on getting the right mix of packaging, pricing, promotions, brand marketing, etc., leaving the development of the product to others.
This brought about a very obvious need to bridge the gap between the marketing and production sections of the company. As modern tech companies essentially build to satisfy customer needs, these needs mustn’t be isolated in marketing. This created a massive appetite for product management in the big tech companies because aligning the production with the customers’ needs became essential to building products
The building of products early on in Tech took a Linear approach and offered no flexibility. Companies built products using the waterfall method, which was slow and gave little room for flexibility or alignment with all teams involved in the building process. There was always a hand-off from one team to the other, which left a possibility of the final product being completely different from what was originally envisioned early on in the building process.
There was a need for a faster and more flexible approach and one that will not make trade-offs between teams difficult. So many agile methodologies have different methods of providing a solution to this, like Scrum, DSDM, XP, and Kanban, which was created by Toyota, a company heavily involved in the history of product management . In 2001 though, seventeen software engineers got together in a ski resort and wrote the Agile Manifesto, building on the work of these different methodologies and articulating the principles behind them.
The Agile Manifesto became a watershed moment in product development not just because it freed up software engineers from being conveyor belt coders churning out exactly what was specified (no matter how dumb the specs were) but because it also freed up Product Management from focusing on deliverables like specs to focusing on customer collaboration.
This focus shift was profound on many levels.
This helped the relationship between product management and engineering by making it more collaborative thereby making the building process move like a well-oiled machine rather than being just hand- outs on deliverables with lack of collaboration. Scrum invented the role of the Product Owner, but really all agile methods embraced communication between the Product Management role and the Engineers as the best method to figure out how to build the best solution to a customer problem.