Product School

Product Management History: The Nineties, The Noughties, and Beyond

Ellen Merryweather

Ellen Merryweather

January 09, 2023 - 7 min read

Updated: January 24, 2024 - 7 min read

At the close of 2020, when we’re on the brink of entering a new decade, we thought it’d be a good time for a little history lesson. With more people entering the Product landscape than ever, now is a good time to help the newbies understand where Product Management came from and how far the industry has come.

Where It All Began

Not every discipline can point to a single person as its father/mother. Luckily for history-enthusiastic PMs, they can! Neil McElroy from Procter & Gamble (the man who also helped found NASA, by the way) is often pegged as the man behind modern Product Management after he wrote a now-famous 3-page company memo on the principles of brand management in the 1930s.

The memo describes the role of the ‘Brand Man’, who would be responsible for managing the product, tracking sales, and general marketing and promotion of the product.

The memo revolutionized the way Proctor & Gamble operated, helping it to become brand-centric and therefore leading to the start of Product Management as we know it today. In part, according to Rafayel Mkrtchyan in ‘History and Evolution of Product Management’, because of McElroy’s influence over young entrepreneurs Bill Hewlett and David Packard.

When Hewlett-Packard ran with his ideas, it introduced an organizational structure where each product group functioned as a separate organization. This puts more focus on both the customers and the products themselves. Sound familiar?

Product Management in the 90s

90s technology cassette tapes

The 90s in tech. What an era.

The way business was done changed drastically in the 90s, and not just because of the rapidly-improving technology. Corporations started restructuring so that teams were self-managing and were given more autonomy and ownership.

This is when companies started applying consumer PM principles to software PM. At the time, Microsoft had Program Managers who were essentially engineers. There was a gap between development and tech that needed to be filled. There was no one in the middle to ‘translate‘.

Product Management developed organically, as the intersection between engineering and brand management. Program Managers evolved into Product Managers (though not universally, as we still have Program Managers today).

It was the 90s that produced several lightweight software development methods. Popular methods were heavyweight, and led to bottlenecks and micro-management. The new methodologies were designed to allow for better time management, and allow for more creativity. Most notable, perhaps is Scrum, which was popularized in 1995.

Tech Highlights of the 90s

🌍 1990: Tim Berners-Lee first tests the software that would become The World Wide Web

🎮 1993: The PlayStation is released, launching a new era of home console gaming that’s still going strong today

🛒 1994: eCommerce sites (Amazon, eBay) become more and more popular

👨‍💻 1995: Microsoft launches Windows 95, and Internet Explorer makes the internet more user-friendly

📼 1997: Netflix is launched in its original version, mailing videos to customers in their own homes

🎧 1998: The first portable MP3 player is released

📧 Email takes off, changing the way people and businesses communicate

🎉 Y2K is expected to bring the new online world crashing to a halt (spoiler alert: it didn’t!)

Product Management in the 2000’s

xbox 360

It was in the 2000s that the product world started to open up to more people who didn’t necessarily come from technical backgrounds. As Product Management secured it’s place as the intersection between design, technology, and business, having Product Managers from diverse backgrounds was finally recognised as a strength and not as a weakness.

After all, many paths lead to product!

2002 saw the start of the APM program, which Marissa Mayer introduced at Google. It was the first program, soon to be adopted by tech companies around the world, which had the sole purpose of training the next generation of Product Leaders, by introducing them to the company culture and exposing them to current product talents.

In the early 2000s we also got The Agile Manifesto, which was set to replace waterfall as the defacto method for building software products. It’s hard to say where Product Management would be today without agile, as it gave us so many of the tools which we use to build great digital products. Without agile, there would be no MVPs, no product-led growth, and the overall landscape of the tech industry would look very different.

Tech highlights of the 2000s

👾 2004: The video game industry’s profits officially overtook those of the movie industry

🗣 People started using the word Google as a verb

👋 Peer-to-peer technology took off, leading to big debates on the ethics of filesharing

🤓 Smartboards were more widely adopted and installed in schools, and eReader sales became as important to the publishing industry as paperback/hardback sales

📢 The Agile Manifesto was launched

Product Management in the 2010s

apple watch

By 2010, the Product Management community was going from strength to strength, and expanding all over the world. The global product community started getting the recognition it deserved.

Going beyond a job, Product Management became a craft.

Product School was founded in 2014, from a small coworking space in San Francisco. We started offering Product Management training to individuals, and over the last 6 years we’ve grown to a Product community of over one million people!

This is also the decade where product leaders realized that they could give back to the Product Management community, volunteering their time to give talks, write books, appear on podcasts, attend conferences, and mentor the next generation of product leaders.

This decade also gave us some landmark content for the community, such as Dan Olsen’s The Lean Product Playbook, and Marty Cagan’s Inspired.

Of course, the end of the decade brought…2020. A year that will go down in history, and perhaps also infamy. In 2020 a lot of things happened very fast, whilst simultaneously bringing the world to a standstill.

For Product Management, everything moved online in many parts of the world. Remote PM had been a topic of conversation swirling around the industry for some time, and Stay at Home orders really cranked that up a notch. Sectors like online education and online collaboration tools blew up, and eCommerce website (which were already very popular) went from strength to strength.

Tech highlights of the 2010s

💻 2012: Google Chrome overtakes Internet Explorer as the most used web browser

🚀 2012: SpaceX’s Dragon became the first private commercial spacecraft to reach the International Space Station

🚲 In countries around the world, shared mobility grew exponentially, with car, bike, and scooter-sharing becoming popular in almost every major Western city

👩‍💼 Virtual assistants became more widely available, including Apple’s Siri, Google Assistant, and Amazon’s Alexa

🖨 The 3D printing industry gained $7 billion in sales

📺 Streaming sites rose in popularity, eclipsing traditional television and forcing Blockbuster to close

🌏 2018: The number of global internet users surpassed half the population of the world. In 2011 about 2 billion people used the internet, which more than doubled to over 4 billion in 2018

What Does the Future Hold?

Technology has always been an exciting space to work in for those who are passionate about it, but perhaps it’s safe to say that there has never been a better time to build digital products.

Companies will of course have to find the new balance between remote and in-office work. Some have already pledged a complete shift to remote-first, and it’s something that many new startups will consider as a cost-cutting effort.

To find out what we (and a whole host of product leaders) think the future holds, check out our report on The Future of Product Management.

Updated: January 24, 2024

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