Product management is a central discipline in just about every technology company in the world. The job, at least as we describe it at Percolate, is to own the strategy and roadmap for the team product/s and oversee the execution of those products. At places like Google (and Percolate) these jobs are held almost exclusively by people with an engineering background. The thinking here is two-fold: On one side the engineer’s approach to solving problems is generally pretty optimal and on the other, it’s hard to lead a team of talented engineers if you don’t understand what they’re doing at a pretty deep level. (While product managers mostly don’t actually manage the engineers on their teams, they are expected to “lead” the team and make choices around what they’re developing.)
What’s interesting about product management, though, is that it actually came from the world of marketing. The idea was inspired by brand management, which was originally introduced by Proctor & Gamble in 1931. I’ve read bits and pieces alluding to this connection, but this piece on the evolution of the discipline draws the line quite explicitly:
One reason product management has not traditionally been included in engineering curricula is because it did not start as an engineering role. Its earliest form was brand management, a term coined by a young advertising manager named Neil McElroy, who in 1931 wrote a memo to the executive team at Procter & Gamble proposing the idea of a “brand man”—an employee who would be responsible for a product, rather than a business function.3 The role had many similarities to modern-day product management. His memo called out the need to promote processes that work and outline solutions to problems. Above all, it called for the “brand man” to take full responsibility for the product.
Interesting point of distinction between Google and Facebook’s approach to the world in this long feature of Zuckerberg and Facebook’s approach to wiring the world. Specifically in reference to Facebook and Google buying drone companies as a possible approach to getting internet to rural areas:
Google also has a drone program—in April it bought one of Ascenta’s competitors, Titan Aerospace—but what’s notable about its approach so far is that it has been almost purely technological and unilateral: we want people to have the Internet, so we’re going to beam it at them from a balloon. Whereas Facebook’s solution is a blended one. It has technological pieces but also a business piece (making money for the cell-phone companies) and a sociocultural one (luring people online with carefully curated content). The app is just one part of a human ecosystem where every-body is incentivized to keep it going and spread it around. “Certainly, one big difference is that we tend to look at the culture around things,” Zuckerberg says. “That’s just a core part of building any social project.” The subtext being, all projects are social.
This is a pretty interesting point of difference between how the two companies view the world. Google sees every problem as a pure technical issue whereas Facebook sees it as part cultural and part technical. I’m not totally sure I buy it (it seems unfair to call Android a purely technical solution), but it’s an interesting lens to look through when examining two of the world’s most important tech companies.
I wrote a reasonably in-depth post over at the Percolate blog on my thoughts on the marriage of Google+ and Android. Here’s a snippet:
As we all know, Google has very publicly announced its intention to build G+ into a massive social platform at any cost. For awhile I think many simply nodded and metaphorically patted Google on the head, as if to say, “sure Google, whatever you say.” However, as Android has continued to grow, I’ve noticed something very interesting: It seems that Google’s plan to turn G+ into a platform is to hitch its wagon to Android. With over a billion users it’s hard to argue with that strategy.
Matthew Yglesias makes a decent argument that Apple Maps, while a terrible product, is succeeding at its intended goal:
To get out of that bind, Apple has never needed to make a product that’s actually superior to Google Maps. What they’ve needed to do is produce an application that clears two bars. One is that it has to be good enough that your typcial doesn’t-care-too-much phone consumer doesn’t reject iOS out of hand. The other is that it has to be good enough such that if Google doesn’t want to lose the entire iOS customer base it has to scramble and release a great Google Maps app for iOS and not just for Android. Apple’s Maps app easily clears both of those bars. Before the release of iOS 6, the inferiority of Apple’s Google-powered iOS Maps app to Android’s Google maps was a real reason to prefer an Android phone. Today, there is no such reason. Not because Apple Maps is as good at Google Maps, but because Google Maps for iOS is as good as Google Maps for Android.
This was actually part of the original Chrome strategy as well. While Google released the product because long-term they couldn’t afford to have their biggest competitor (at the time) controlling the majority of their usage, they also did it to push Internet Explorer to innovate so that Google could deliver a better and faster experience for its customers. By entering the browser market Google was able to light a fire under Microsoft that a company like Firefox never could and the versions of IE that followed were a thousand times better than what had existed before.
I’ve written in the past about what market leaders do to build categories, and frequently I cite Google as the best example of these strategies. Their approach with laying down fiber and providing really cheap, super fast internet in Kansas City is no exception. Like it did with Chrome (at least at the beginning), Google is trying to jumpstart a stagnant market:
If you are one of the lucky few Kansas City natives to have already signed up for Google Fiber, I don’t begrudge you one megabit; your ancestors had to deal with the Dust Bowl, you deserve a little extra bandwidth. But at its heart, Google’s attempt at being its own ISP is much more about forcing the entrenched service providers — the Verizon’s and Time Warner’s and AT&T’s of this world — to step up their games than it is about making this particular business a raving financial success. When I asked the Google spokeswoman what the ultimate goal of all this was, she replied that Google wants “to make the web better and faster for all users.” The implication is that they don’t necessarily want to do it all by themselves.