B-School and the Missing Product

The Cranky Product Manager was just thinking back — oh so nostalgically — on her MBA years.

Ah yes, what a joy it was to devote herself full-time to the study of BUSINESS…. so different than her undergrad years as an Engineering major at a random institute of technology.

No more studying seven days and nights a week and working endless hours in the lab, all to get a lousy “B” or “C”.Nope.

Business School couldn’t be more different than Engineering School.  Ah yes, the easy A’s.  The off-da-charts drunken parties, multiple times a week. The hot men who worked out, showered, AND shaved EVERY single day! The random hook-ups with the aforementioned hot men.  The four black tie events per year. The exotic vacations “study trips,” funded by federally guaranteed student loans, to international locations with hot locals and lots of alcohol in need of the MONSTEROUS brains and awesome business expertise possessed by a gaggle of privileged 28-year-old MBA students.

What a time it was!  Those were the days!

The Cranky Product Manager took classes on marketing, finance, accounting, organizational behavior, strategy, operations, statistics, etc.  All that standard MBA stuff.  Especially the marketing and the strategy.  She ate that stuff up.

But in all her time as a drunken and downright slutty full-time MBA student, the Cranky PM never took a SINGLE class on developing products and services.   She doesn’t even recall such a class being offered. (see footnote) 

…which is ODD, when you think about it.  After all, EVERY SINGLE BUSINESS IN EXISTENCE sells either a PRODUCT or a SERVICE. 

Why would a Top-10 MBA program essentially ignore the CORE of all business? 

Perhaps it is because MBA types, including the professors, think of product and service development as being the realm of engineers?  Did they think the engineering curriculum was covering it?

Maybe.  But if so, what a horrible misjudgement.  The Cranky Product Manager’s computer engineering education consisted of a lot recursive loops, mathematical proofs, Turing Machines, oscilloscopes, FPGAs, and exhaustingly insane late nights (once stayed up 54 hours straight), trying to get some effing wire properly situated on a breadboard, or debugging a mind-bending multiple inheritance issue in some code written in an arcane/academic language.

The end result was that the Then-Engineer-Future-CrankyPM could probably build a product if someone told her EXACTLY what to build.  She learned NOTHING about how you decide WHAT to build, how you determine if it should even be built in the first place, or how you get ideas. And that’s probably pretty typical of most Engineering educations.

Aren’t these questions absolutely fundamental to any business: how you decide WHAT to build, how you determine if it should even be built in the first place, and how you get ideas???

Footnote: Sure, the Intro to Marketing class touched on the “product”, but as only one of The Four P’s: product, price, promotion, placement. The Marketing Research class talked a bit about products too, but it wasn’t truly central to the class.
 

74 comments

  1. Vikrama Dhiman

    One of my goals is to come up with a curriculum for a course in Product Management for B-schools. Hope to get working on it asap.

  2. straz

    One of the most valuable courses of my MBA was the Product Design and Development course offered by one “random institute of technology.” A key part of the experience was enrolling both engineers and business students, forming teams then delivering a real project over the course of the semester. Sadly, the course was one of the more challenging ones and was not part of the required core curriculum so many students avoided it. Materials for the course are available online via the Open CourseWare project for those interested.

  3. Rajeev Kozhikkattuthodi

    Good one! Here’s to seeing more Product Managers who understand Turing Machines, Threading Architectures, Revision Control and technology in general. Here’s to programs like MIT SDM, CMU MSE and Stanford MS&E

    • The Cranky Product Manager

      Revision Control? That wasn’t covered in the Cranky PM’s engineering education. That was something she learned about once she started writing code in the real world (and she attended one of your aforementioned schools, although not the specific programs listed).

  4. William

    Ah, Cranky. How touchingly naive. It’s good to know that under all that cynicism, you still have the chance to become yet more bitter and disillusioned.

    The purpose of an MBA isn’t to make you better at creating a business, or creating value for customers. It’s purpose is to make you better at extracting cash from existing situations, and more able to justify you personally getting what was previously thought an absurd share of the proceeds. At best, it’s a degree for making local, short-term optimizations in a business. But they don’t focus on value creation precisely because it would make it hard to exercise the powerful dark side of the degree, business parasitism.

    There are plenty of people who make this argument, but two good tech-world examples are David Heinemeier Hansson of 37Signals (e.g., his talk at Stanford’s Entrepreneurial Thought Leaders series), and Steve Blank, who gave a great talk at this year’s Startup Lessons Learned conference on why attending b-school is actively harmful for entrepreneurs. That is, people creating new businesses and products.

    And to check the math, look at the way the compensation of professional managers has risen along with the cult of the MBA. I recently saw mentioned that 40 years ago, the CEO of GM got paid 66x what his average employee did. Today, Walmart’s CEO gets 900x. Then look at the rise of Wall Street. As “Liar’s Poker” and “The Big Short” demonstrate, caring about the actual value of products is strongly discouraged there because that might get in the way of profit-taking.

    I’m sorry to be the one to tell you, but what you’ve discovered is no accident. The MBA curriculum? It’s a cookbook.

  5. Alain Breillatt

    Hmmm, my top 5 MBA program actually included a course entitled if I recall correctly: Managing New Products for Success. Which was taught by Tom Kuczmarski who walked us through the whole process from beginning to end including the responsibility of coming up with an entirely new product concept based on ethnographic and market research, formulating the potential of this opportunity and then developing a business plan to support it. In fact that was the focus of the entire course, using the instructed approach, develop a new product idea, build it out with supporting research, and then pitch it a bunch of business experts and VCs.

    We even went through the whole discussion of how to build an innovation team who has responsibilities of developing these ideas and how to then go through the full testing process toward actually delivering them to market.

    The class was so good that I went to work with Professor Kuczmarski at Kuczmarski & Associates in helping Fortune 500 companies come up with new ideas, formulate them into products customers would potentially demand, and then prepare to bring them to market. Seems like it’s more a question of finding the right program than it is declaring that MBA-types have completely abdicated the product development role to the engineers. Kellogg even offers a joint program with the McCormick School of Engineering where you can earn a Master of Product Design and Development if it’s an area you want to specialize in. I compared notes with a friend of mine who went through the program and it was a perfect meld of the business and product development / engineering knowledge since it pulled a number of Kellogg MBA courses into the education.

    • The Cranky Product Manager

      Glad that Kellogg has one decent class. Truly. No doubt, though, that class is an elective, not a requirement. And the Cranky PM will bet money that Kellogg offers more classes on how to be a venture capitalist than on how to innovate and develop successful products and services.

      And hooray for Kellogg again, and for a few other schools (MIT, Stanford, CMU, etc.), for each having a small joint degree program with the School of Engineering that focuses on products. But do tell the Cranky Product Manager, what percentage of the students at any of these schools actually enroll in these “specialist” (said mockingly, because they shouldn’t be “special”) programs?

      Here’s the Cranky PM’s beef: Given that Products (or Services) are at the CORE of EVERY SINGLE business, the Cranky Product Manager finds it mind boggling that product/service development classes are relegated to the rare elective or the off-the-beaten-path degree track within the typical top tier MBA program.

      The fact is that MBA students learn more about off-balance sheet financing of private jets (usually covered in Financial Accounting 101, most often a required class) than about product/service development and innovation.

      There is something very, very wrong here.

  6. Art Felgate

    Funny, my MBA wasn’t anything like the party you describe. But i took mine Evening at the University of St Thomas (Twin Cities).

    I took an excellent elective, “New Products Management”, taught by adjunct faculty with real-world credentials launching new products. We spent a great deal of time on the ‘Ideation’ stage of ne product development.

    My MBA taught me Value creation is not necessarily about creating new products/services. My “New Venture Finance” course reinforced the lesson that a startup with limited financial means must never run out of cash. Much ‘value’ in an idea can be created or preserved via financial methods, which an MBA teaches.

    • The Cranky Product Manager

      You missed out on the party? tsk tsk..

      Your mistake was going part-time instead of full-time. How are you supposed to have time to socialize if you’re juggling classwork with a full-time job and family responsibilities. I don’t know how your part-timers do it. That’s the MBA with all the work and none of the fun.

      • Tim Johnson

        Hey Crank,

        We do the Fully-Employed programs because we already have a mortgage, family and career that requires travel several days a week and the MBA is primarily an equalizer in the job market.

        I went to Hot Pockets U for my MBA and the “Entrepreneurship” course was how to value a small business you’re going to buy from the retiring owner. Learned a LOT about free cash flow but zilch on how to run said company nor how to innovate/overhaul the product line. I would have pounced on a product management course like you pounced on the hot locals on those “study trips.”

  7. Fred Garvin

    Ah, those good ‘ol undergraduate days, working all night on my plasma accelerator. Roommate got bent out of shape when an early version, well, accelerated most of his personal belongings into a alternate dimension. Apart from his Freon cooled “hydrabong”, insurance covered everything. But I digress . . .

    Cranky is spot on. in b-school, the product / service was always assumed. Deciding to create — and then creating — a version 1.0 is the best business experience one can have, IMHO.

  8. Chad Myers

    I thought the point of business school was to learn how to schnooker venture capitalists out of millions of dollars and not end up in jail, but getting re-hired to schnooker them out of MORE millions.

  9. Don MacLennan

    Another point is that there is no education path to create a Product Manager. Spot on. You would need an undergraduate degree or professional certification to achieve that. No disrespect, but those professional certifications that do exist in our world fall far short of other professions such as CPA in finance, or passing the Bar exam in law. Quibble if you will about those certifications, but they are far more rigorous than what we have.

    Do we need an undergrad in product management? I think so.

  10. Dr. Dan

    Well, I guess that is the difference between top 10 B-schools and the lower tier schools. :-) After my engineering degree I got my MBA from University of Akron, not a top 10 school, but still AACSB accredited. This was back in the late 80′s and at that time they did offer a class dedicated to new product development and product management. The text for this class was New Products Management 2nd edition (1987) by C. Merle Crawford, which I still use as a reference today. It was the content of this class that sent me on a 20+ year career in product management.

    I have since believed there are two classes that should be offered in every engineering curriculum program, at least as electives, and required in MBA programs. These classes are the one mentioned above, New Products Management, and the other is one that focuses on team dynamics, personality types, etc.

    But then again, this was the case, what would we engineers that got our lobotomies and went over to the dark side (marketing) do for a living?

    • Geoffrey Anderson

      @dr. dan – responding to your last paragraph: What we have always done, mop up the mess, get the train back on the tracks, and “get ‘r done”

      I wish I had a class in this stuff. I learned painfully, one step at a time. Great post!

  11. Pingback: Thoughts on “B-SCHOOL AND THE MISSING PRODUCT” by Cranky Product Mgr | Getting Design Done
  12. C Todd

    Thanks for the discussion here. As an adjunct professor, I would like to have a discussion on how this could be developed and integrated into the curriculum of business schools. Should this be a core course? If so what would it be? What’s on the syllabus?

    Leave your thoughts here
    and contact me if you’d like to co-develop a course on this.

  13. Widget Bitch

    Hey Cranky —

    I’m somewhere on the border of designer and product manager. The product design programs at schools like Stanford, Berkeley, and CMU (where I went) train us for the *what* that you discuss. Unfortunately the difference between product designers vs. UI designers / graphic designers isn’t well exploited. But that’s what you want: user-centered product design skills.

    Full blog post here:

    – Ellen

  14. the Success Ladder

    This is a very interesting point of view. Your blog is refreshing, but I wish one could find more content, though. I am looking forward to reading more from you. Keep up the good work. thanks.

  15. Howard

    Cranky,

    How I’ve awaited your return. Here’s teh funny thing. You are spot on. I actually was fortunate when I made my leap from engineering to product management to attend a “Management of Technology” program at an Ivy League institution. Which was an awesome program and took into account product development in every course, even finance. Here’s the funny part. When completed, I actually ended up with an MSEE degree, not an MBA. So, I sometimes get passed over because people “want” an MBA even with all the accurate flaws you mention. Good thing I have lots of friends on LinkedIn who actually know me and what I can do to help with getting employment when it is needed.

  16. Kim Fisher

    I couldn’t agree more. I too graduated from a few moons ago from an MBA program. I then hired MBA’s to run Product Management at my software start-up. They said, “uh, is there a book on this or a class we could take?”. Shameless promo– this is why I have rallied top MBA faculty to now teach a class on Product Management– for those with our without an MBA: http://www.galimagroup.com/product-management. Check it out. Go back to school. It may be too late to be drunk and slutty again, but it isn’t too late to learn :)

  17. Jyothi Gaddam

    Teaching how to create a product/service is like asking how to come up with good ideas – while there is perhaps a science to it, I don’t imagine you could easily codify it, or formulate it for the masses – which is what a teaching curriculum in a classroom would require.
    Inside an organization if there are cross-functional teams, and genuine diversity of thought, perhaps we may get better at creating.

    • Cranky PM

      Bullocks! (Is that how the spell it in the UK? This is the crankypm’s first time using this charming British expression).

      First of all, creating a product is more of a science than an art. There are a number of good books on the subject, yet sadly very few of them get good coverage in B-School.

      Second, even if it WERE an “art”, well you can go to college and get your MFA in Art. What would you learn? How the MASTERS created their art. Sure, such knowledge will not necessarily give you a full-proof method for inspiring yourself to create your own art, but if you learn how the masters and others do it, you will at least know something and have a starting point for when inspiration is not just striking you.

      Most of us can’t just wait around for inspiration to strike us with product ideas or for God to speak through us and give us the perfect process for creating a product. Product Mgmt & Product Development professionals are PAID to come up with products, manage them through development and launch them to the market. Saying “I wasn’t inspired” isn’t an option – you gotta produce. So, at minimum, learning how others have come up with ideas and turned them into an actual, salable, successful product gives us a starting point.

  18. Jon

    Luckily, if you go to Random Institute of Technology’s MBA program, there are several courses on product development. Should’ve gone back to your alma mater for an MBA. :)

  19. Mayank

    I just enrolled at the MIT Sloan School of Business and my primary motivation before enrolling was to learn how to develop products and services, and which products to develop. This school is excellent in this respect, offering multiple product development courses and a dedicated ‘Entrepreneurship & Innovation’ track focused on product development.

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