Product Management

The Story Behind Product Management

Most often, a Product Manager is responsible for understanding customer requirements, defining and prioritizing features, and then working with the engineering team to build them. 


Product management is an important organizational role. Product managers are typically found at companies that are building products or technology for customer or internal use. This role evolved from the brand manager position that is often found at consumer packaged goods companies.

The product manager is responsible for the strategy, roadmap, and feature definition for that product or product line. The position may also include marketing, forecasting, and profit and loss (P&L) responsibilities.

Activities span from strategic to tactical and includes the following objectives:

  • Set a product vision and strategy that is differentiated and delivers unique value based on customer demands. This includes defining personas and analyzing market and competitive conditions.
  • Define what the product team will deliver and the timeline for implementation. This includes creating a release plan, capturing actionable feedback and ideas, and prioritizing features.
  • Provide cross-functional leadership, most notably between engineering teams, sales and marketing, and support. A key aspect of this is communicating the product roadmap and keeping everyone informed of updates.

“Good product managers take full responsibility and measure themselves in terms of the success of the product.”


The product management role was originally created as a brand management position. It was first defined by a New York advertiser during the Great Depression. In 1931, Neil McElroy wrote a memo to Proctor & Gamble. The young advertising executive proposed the idea of a “brand man” — a role with specific responsibilities to manage the complete product brand and be accountable for its success.

This concept of product ownership is at the core of product management today. McElroy spoke about product ownership in a marketing context. He wanted “brand men” to “take full responsibility, not simply for criticizing individual pieces of printed word copy, but also for the general printed word plans for his brands.”

McElroy’s memo struck a nerve. Over the next half century, many companies adopted a brand management approach. This practice came to be known as consumer product management, and many of the same principles were adopted by the software market as it grew during the 1980s. McElroy followed his work at P&G — where he went on to become President — with positions as President of Harvard and Advisor at Stanford. His work at Stanford led him to meet David Packard and Bill Hewlett.

Brand management knowledge became so coveted that many brand managers were recruited by technology firms for their deep product knowledge and sense of ownership. Intuit founder Scott Cook was a brand manager at P&G before building one of the world’s most successful software companies. He applied his skills in a very different context at Intuit. But his end goal — to focus on understanding, delivering, and polishing user experience — remained paramount.

Gaps between engineering and marketing widened in the 1990s. Companies like Microsoft were rapidly expanding, but they faced challenges as they scaled software development. Engineers did not have processes to keep up with customer demand or speak directly with customers about their concerns. Nor did they have time to collaborate with sales and marketing teams responsible for revenue growth. The gap between them needed to be bridged and product managers became the ones to do it.

“Good product managers take full responsibility and measure themselves in terms of the success of the product.”

These words from the classic Ben Horowitz memo epitomize product management and what companies expect from their product leaders today.