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Product Management in the 21st Century: Transforming the Future

June 13, 2022

Product management is a relatively new field. The origin story of the profession remains open to debate. By most accounts, the genesis of product management was a memo written in 1931 by Neil H. McElroy.

Working at the time for Proctor & Gamble as an ad campaign manager, McElroy outlined the duties of “Brand Men,” a term that today sounds like an anachronistic rendition of a brand ambassador. But from those Brand Men came the professionals responsible for a product’s lifecycle and accountable to all its stakeholders—especially the customer.

“One person would be wholly accountable for that package of Ivory Soap that sat on the supermarket shelf,” writes Ken Norton in his blog Bring the Donuts. “That manager would understand Ivory’s customers deeply, execute on improving the product, track and monitor sales closely, and deliver results.”

We still use soap, but many of the products we use today weren’t yet a glint in McElroy’s eye, let alone the concern of a suit-and-tie brand man in the mid-twentieth century. Nonetheless, the responsibilities of “brand ownership” and personal customer identity led, in time, to today’s product manager. McElroy’s earnest memo evolved into modern product management. Or so the story goes.

We’ve come a long way from those staid days of selling soap. Entire industries have emerged, blossomed, and now dominate the global economy; others waver at the cusp of their possibility. Product managers (women and men) play critical roles in shepherding products from concept to happy customer in a data-empowered, mobile, app-based marketplace.

What skills and mindset do product managers bring in today’s whirlwind business environment? Let’s explore these questions and shed some light on modern product management.

Product Management in the 21st Century

While long past its nascent “brand men” days, the product management principles they arguably set in motion continue to evolve at an accelerating pace.

At the dawn of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, artificial intelligence, big data, machine learning, IoT, the cloud, and edge computing are revolutionizing sectors from shipping to healthcare. Broad-minded, imaginative product managers ably navigate this furious pace of change.

A product manager’s talent doesn’t lie in a singular discipline. Instead, they can speak the language of many. Product management skills are like the center of a Vin diagram. Its intersecting circles encompass technical proficiency, business savvy, analytics, leadership, and empathy. In other words, a product manager is an accomplished generalist. 

An orchestra conductor plays none of the instruments, but no instruments are played without her leadership, at least not as a coherent whole. A product manager understands all the parts and sees the finished outcome like the conductor.

Product Manager Industries

Any successful product needs managing, whether that product is embedded in a complex manufacturing robot or a shopper pulls it off the grocery store shelf. But the most dynamic, fast-moving industries are where changemakers find a home as product managers. The industries shaping a world where “disruption” is the new normal are themselves shaped by the imagination and skills of qualified PMs. Product management on the frontier expands what is possible, shaping how we live, work, and thrive in a new century.

Here are some of the sectors leading the charge.

Software, Web, SaaS, and Mobile

There are the usual suspects: Amazon, Apple, Meta, Google, et al. A peek behind the curtain reveals thousands of other hi-tech firms developing cutting-edge web and mobile products for individuals and industry. These products touch the lives of millions, if not billions, of people.

Product managers in this sector understand various online business models, have a keen eye on customer-driven usability, and employ Agile Software Development methods. They also understand the critical components of privacy and security in the products they help bring to market.

Other than the companies already mentioned, some of the top players in this sector include SalesforceSlack, and Y Media Labs.

Life Sciences

From genetic engineering to wearable health, clinical research, and vaccine development, these products help us live longer, healthier lives.

Product managers must balance rapid innovation with tight controls in the highly regulated life sciences and healthcare sectors.

Leading companies in life sciences include StemcellVaultGenentech, and Verily Life Sciences.

Complex Technologies

The confluence of merging complex technologies is the hallmark of Industry 4.0. These technologies include artificial intelligence (AI), the Internet of Things (IoT), machine learning, blockchain, robotics, and immersive technology.

Product managers at the bleeding edge of technology are shaping the future contours of our world, from the products we use to how those products are made.

Professionals in data science and analytics can leverage that experience into product management for companies like AIBrainIOTech, or 3D Systems.

Launch or Advance Your Product Management Career

There is no single product manager career path. Some people work up through the company ranks, leveraging their experience into a product management role. Others may learn the ropes as product management associates. In all cases, a commitment to acquire and improve their skills is critical.

The Master of Science in Product Management program and Graduate Certificates in Product Management at Merrimack College match ​​commitment and talent with industry-aligned skills and knowledge.

The MS and Graduate Certificate programs close the skills gap found in many product manager training programs. Graduates emerge prepared for product development leadership roles in the most in-demand sectors.

The 33-credit MSEM curriculum allows students to leverage their expertise into advanced leadership positions.

Topics covered include:

  • New product development and the principles of product realization
  • Developing product specifications
  • Marketing and business analytics
  • Negotiation and conflict resolution
  • Organizational leadership and decision-making
  • Foundations of data management, statistical analysis, and data visualization
  • Data governance, law, and ethics

Three concentration options augment the core curriculum:

  • Life Sciences
  • Web/Mobile/Technology
  • Complex Technology

The 12-credit Foundations Graduate Certification offers students the fundamental skills to launch their product management careers. Each certificate focuses on either life sciences, software/web/mobile, or complex technologies. Credits are fully transferable to graduate programs.

Help Build the Future

The story of McElroy’s 1931 Proctor & Gamble memo as the beginning of product management may be apocryphal. It makes a good story. Nearly a century later, transformative technologies are building the future in a new century. Product management sees the promise of those technologies and understands the nuts and bolts needed to harness that potential into valuable products that are changing the world.