The Value of an MBA in Product Management

A question from a reader:

Q: Is an MBA necessary to advance in Product Management to the Senior level, Director level, or beyond? Or can one compensate for the lack of a Masters with strong analytics and high-level strategy and presentation skills?

A: The Cranky Product Manager specializes in cynicism. Thus, her answer: it depends. It depends on whether your boss and boss's boss have MBAs.

If yes, then advancing your career will likely require this illustrious degree. If the big cheeses thought an underling could do an adequate job without forking over $100,000+ for the MBA designation, then you might force them to regret their own education investment. And we can't have that!  No sireee.

If your higher-ups don't have the degree, then they probably pride themselves on their own awesomitude: their innate, genetic business prowess – the kind of natural aptitude and raw talent that would only be hampered by book learning. This kind of uneducated boss regards the MBA as a huge waste of money and time, and MBA holders as ungifted, inexperienced, intuition-challenged, unimaginative  drones.

So, the Cranky Product Manager's advice to you: if you think the LEARNING will be worthwhile for you and will help you become a better product manager, then go for it. Because the piece of paper itself, etched with that marvelous "M.B.A." designation, does not yield any automatic benefits in software product management.  In management consulting and investment banking it does, but not in software.

Yours as a fountain of useful career guidance,

The Cranky Product Manager

22 comments

  1. Leslie Osborne

    I’m a Dir. of Product Management who recently got an MBA, but I don’t know that my career will necessarily be any better off for it. It was just something I’d always planned to do, so I did it.

    I think whether or not you should get an MBA depends on a few things: (1) the political reasons mentioned in your post, (2) what kind and quality of undergrad degree you have, and (3) whether or not you’ve been a Product Manager for a while (say, 5+ years).

    Further on (2), if you’ve got an undergrad degree in Underwater Fire Prevention, then getting some formal education in the ways of business can be enlightening and useful. And on (3), the Product Management role is a lot like an MBA in and of itself — you have to know a little about each function within a company to truly be successful — and that’s really all an MBA teaches you anyway.

  2. Therese

    MBA’s posses a certain ‘Je ne sais quoi’ when it comes to product management. I’d agree with Leslie that MBAs and PMs are very similar; a little knowledge about different functions goes a long way.

    I’ve known a lot of great product managers without an MBA (myself included). However, I find when I am faced with a question on tactics, I go to a textbook for MBA’s.

    If you have the time and money, get the degree. But if you want career advancement, learn the fine art of persuasiveness.

  3. Rick C.

    “In management consulting and investment banking it does, but not in software.” In the 8 years since I’ve earned it, I would agree wholeheartedly. Hasn’t yielded any obvious benefits, automatic or otherwise. But I enjoyed learning what I had to learn to obtain it.

  4. Gopal Shenoy

    I personally don’t have an MBA and have 11 years of software product management experience. In my career, I have met so many folks who have an MBA and my encounter with them makes me wonder what exactly they learnt in the business school. Most of these guys think markets live in spreadsheets and nice looking graphs on a powerpoint slide. I have wondered if they had to let go of their common sense when they got through business school.

    Personally, I think to be a good product manager, more than any degree, one needs three important skills
    1) Listening skills so that you can listen and empathize with your customers so that you can understand their needs
    2) People skills to lead cross functional teams by influence.
    3) Communication skills so that you can communicate the benefits of your product to your customer base in a language that they understand

    If one masters these three skills and have the willingness to learn other skills you need such as managing the financials of your product, I think one can really succeed as a product manager. My two cents.

  5. Vikas Bansal

    I think an MBA certainly helps in product management role. My view is that it’s utility depends upon one’s level within the product management team. For example, the director of product management in my company needs to understand the views from different organisations (sales, marketing, corporate, professional services etc) of a company. In such scenario, having an MBA is of help.

  6. Chris Scruggs

    What a wonderful blog I have just tumbled to. I couldn’t agree more that the reason to get the MBA is for the knowledge you will gain. I recently became a product manager after spending many years in an operational management role. Having just a bachelor’s in physics I survived as a manager basically on gut instinct and a bit of wisdom. Pursuing the MBA led to my studies of best practices in strategic marketing, finance, leadership and being able to find my way around a balance sheet without a map and compass.

    I have met plenty of business professionals without MBAs that I would have on my team, but I have met surprisingly few MBAs that I wouldn’t want on my team.

    The MBA catches the eye of employers, but its the solid business knowledge gained through study that keeps ‘em coming back for more and paying the big bucks.

  7. Pingback: How to Get Hired By The Cranky Product Manager | The Cranky Product Manager
  8. Kim Fisher

    Hi there,

    After getting my MBA at UC Berkeley, I had a hard time getting hired as a Product Manager because I didn’t have an engineering degree. However, I ended up in a very cool Strategic Planning role and eventually ended up CEO of a 60 person software company. I did find that PMs (and Directors and VPs) I hired could have benefit from more business training, but necessarily a full two year MBA.

    After selling my company, I created a five day class with UC Berkeley professors to remedy this training gap in the market. You can check it out at: http://www.galimagroup.com/product-management. I don’t mean to promote my own product here, but this might be useful for people who want some business training to advance in their Product Management careers without taking 2 years out. Bottom line, I don’t think you need a full MBA, but some good business skills help and the credibility doesn’t hurt.

    Kim

  9. Ram

    I am planning to spend120k into my MBA(Product Marketing) . With an engineering background, I feel that the MBA not only gives me the skills but also the much needed job ops. So I think MBA is also a gateway to a PM role for some folks

  10. Michael Palmeter

    Knowledge can be acquired but the talent for learning and the personality to make use of that talent cannot be. An education is much less relevant than demonstrable skills and actual experience with the work at hand (whatever it may be). The farther we get in our careers the less relevant education becomes – at some point, it is really nothing more than the last sentence in an executive bio. To be successful as a PM, focus on building up a track record of success and a large network of people who know you well enough to understand what you have accomplished – they’ll be the ones that will hire you, refer you and accept offers from you.

  11. Greg Council

    Agree and disagree – ok, maybe I’m entirely ambivalent about this but I have decided that I will go the MBA route even with having 12 years of experience within product management. Why? Two things:

    1 – Steve mentions the primary motivator and that’s “show me the money”. Like it or not, the number of stars on your shoulder impact the initial perception you make with others and it all goes up or down from there.

    2 – I want to remove a potential career roadblock. You know, kind of like arming your salesforce with arguments to counter potential sales blocking of customers? Well, I’m selling myself and I want to have all the “features” so I can focus on my true value.

  12. Michael Palmeter

    RE: Greg Council [07.02.09 at 11:56 am]

    Good point, Greg, and in terms of adding value with stars-on-the-shoulder and “features” that makes sense. The question I’d ask, though, is about the cost/benefit. If you were a product, is this the most cost effective way to add value? Consider this: is the likely increase in revenue going to offset the up-front investment plus the opportunity cost of getting the MBA if you amortize over the remainder of your career? Barring specific quid pro quo promotions (i.e. we don’t promote people that don’t have MBAs) there is reason to be skeptical.

  13. Anonymous

    If one has been laid off in this scourge, then it would make sense to go back to school. If not an MBA, then how about a Master’s in your product area? My only issue is that a Master’s is so expensive. In researching all the options for an MBA, I stumbled across a Wall St. Journal article about Jack Welch starting an MBA school at an accredited university: Chancellor in Cleveland. Curious, I followed up and found out that it was all online and costs in the low 20s. This was curious, was it a real MBA? Turns out it is a real MBA. What an affordable option for getting those “stars on the lapel” Greg talks about.
    I have 3 children. I don’t want to steal from their 529, but I am itching to do something and starting my own business sounds more expensive than an MBA. I keep thinking that when the economy turns around, it will look nice on the resume. And I like learning.

    In work places past, some people with an MBA from Cracker Jack U seemed to be on the management track. I debate this back and forth; in the end, I agree that networking with people who know your work is the best alternative to blowing money on an MBA, cracker jack or not. Do it if you really want to learn and have the confidence it might bring you that you have covered all the bases. However, I would cringe if I had an MBA that was advertising on daytime television, (“drive the big rigs” , remember that?) and this is what worries me most about “The Jack Welch Institute.” Currenlty I see no sign of them except on the internet.
    I completed a 1 year Marketing Certificate program at a prestigious university; it gave me the tools I needed when I needed them. But no one has a clue what it was or how rigorous it really was.
    So what I am actually doing while I make up my mind is teach myself what I want to know. Do what you are most interested in! Follow your passion! There is a huge amount of material out there: MIT has free online class presentations from some very cool classes on operations and so forth. Did I mention they are Free? I downloaded a pile of material from an operations class and the only drawback was that it really made me want to BE in the class, taking notes and asking questions.

    I may not have that particular piece of paper, but I always have felt that the quality of one’s work speaks for itself. Getting the work in the first place is the hard part these days. I suspect that for me, getting a Master’s in Engineering would help more than an MBA. FWIW, I have been a hi-tech marketer for more than a decade. I am not a student of, nor a paid promoter of the Jack Welch Institute.

  14. Alex R.

    Hello,
    I’m a Project Manager for IS/IT projects and I’m planning to take a MBA in Product Management.
    Based on my background, do you think I can change careers and move to a Product Manager role after or during the MBA?

  15. Jen D

    So a couple of things on the MBA front. First, there’s been a lot of evidence that overall an MBA from anything below a top 25 school is a waste of your time and money. The only exception would be a local school with a lot of alumni connections in your field (e.g. San Jose State for the Bay Area).

    So what does an MBA buy you?

    (1) The alumni network. I can’t stress this enough. Alumni will get you in the door and into the interview. I’m even had alums help prep me for interviews. Many hiring managers will explicitly seek out candidates from their own schools and give them preference. Many job postings never make it out into the world and are only on alumni job boards. If you’re a product manager you’re probably going to be switching companies every 2-4 years anyway, so this will really be invaluable.

    (2) The brand name and title on your resume. Even if there is no alum to help out at the company, having a prestigious mba will often be enough to get an interview. It’s not even so much about the education, it’s the sorting mechanism. Just getting *into* Stanford or HBS or Kellogg means you had to be very smart and accomplished. So the HR rep doesn’t have to spend a lot of time talking to you to figure out if you are going to make them look like an ass if they include you in the resume pile for the hiring manager. It’s an easy way for HR to pre-screen. Even at the worst part of the recession I got call backs on 3/4s of my cold resume drops to big name companies.

    (3) The education, which is a decent grounding in the various roles in a company. As mentioned in the comments, an mba is a jack-of-all trades degree. You walk away with the basics of finance, marketing, operations, accounting, hr, etc, and that can be really useful when talking to different teams in a company, particularly as you move up. I am amazed actually at how often issues of revenue recognition and OPEX vs CAPEX come up in my job now. Sure, I could have learned them on the fly, but it was nice not to have to.

    So, do you need an MBA? Ask yourself if you have an amazing group of connections that you can call on for job searches (and who send out feelers for the kinds of jobs you want), a stunning resume that almost always lands you interviews, and a good grounding in the various functions of a company. If the answer is yes to all three, you don’t need an mba. If you can’t get a 650 or above on the GMAT, also do not waste your time and money (see my opening comment about a top 25 school). Otherwise you may want to seriously consider it, even if you feel the degree will not do anything for you purely from a learning perspective.

    As a final note, there’s a lot of evidence that women hit a glass ceiling without the MBA that men don’t, so the decision calculus would be slightly different for women.

  16. Jeroen

    Good article. I was a product manager for over 7 years in the consumer electronics industry. My original degree was a BSc in Electronics, but after I held several management positions, I decided to pursue an MBA. While the degree did not boost my career into the upper echelons of the company, I did find that the MBA degree taught me some valuable skills I could use in the role of product manager, as well as give me credibility with marketing, sales and business analysts.

  17. her every cent counts

    Hello. Great article. I’m trying to solve this question myself. My challenge is that I have an undergraduate degree in the fine arts and ~8 years of a career in marketing, and I’d like to move into PM. The MBA seems most valuable for engineers who have had 0 experience on the marketing side, but for a marketer I wonder if getting a masters degree in HCI with a technical bent would be more valuable than an MBA. The more research I do, the more I believe this to be the case.

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