Hell No, You Don’t Need an MBA

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Save your time and money.

One question I get quite often from would-be product managers is “should I get an MBA?” This is usually followed by “should I get certified?” and “do I need an engineering degree?”

I know there are many who will disagree, but I’m going to tell you that, no, you don’t need any of those, and if what you really want is a PM job as quickly as possible, spending the time and money to get an MBA is probably a waste.

Hiring Managers

But what about all those job descriptions that say, “MBA preferred” or even, “required?” And what about those recruiters and automated resume screeners that look for these sorts of credentials? Won’t they hold me back?

The secret truth is that most PM jobs (like most jobs) go to someone in the hiring manager’s network who has demonstrated the skill and talent required. An MBA is one way to develop and demonstrate some of those characteristics, but I don’t think it’s the most reliable, cheapest, or fastest way.

The Skills You Need

I look for 3 areas of experience in a prospective product manager:

  • Customer exposure – have they represented the company with customers?
  • Technical learning – have they had to absorb and leverage technical material?
  • Business decisions – have they had to make a decision with dollars-and-cents consequences?

It’s hard to get a job (or do a job) as a PM if you haven’t got at least some experience in all three of these areas. Product management is not an entry-level job. I’ve met a few people who got a PM job right out of business school (even managed one once), but invariably I’ve found they lean more on their previous work experience than what they learned in B-school. Until you’ve had to explain to a customer why you’re not going to do what they want, or made a trade-off between time to market and performance, it’s all theory.

Talents Required

I look for a few strengths of character as well that I think may be in-born, or at least much slower to learn on the job:

  • Leadership – do they take responsibility for outcomes and do people naturally follow their lead?
  • Clear communications – can they make their point concisely and with relatable examples?
  • An analytical approach – do they break things down logically and test their assumptions?

Watching someone in action is the best way to assess these qualities. This is why PM jobs — even more than other jobs — tend to come from people in your network. They’ve seen “the gene” in you or they haven’t, because either you don’t have it or you haven’t had the chance to demonstrate it.

Better Vectors

When people ask if they should get an MBA, they are really asking, “what is the fastest route to my dream PM job?” And simply stated, the best way to develop the skills and talents I just described is not an MBA. So, then what are the most efficient vectors into product management?

Jobs like technical support, sales engineer, or professional services put you in a great position to develop and demonstrate all 3 skills and all 3 talents. Standing in between the customer and the nuts and bolts of your product forces you to analyze the customer’s needs, understand and make business decisions and technical trade-offs, and then develop and sell a plan to everyone involved. In another post on breaking into Product Management,  I called these “tweener” roles, and they are where I usually look for new product management talent.

Save a Bundle

It’s true that a recruiter is more likely to send me your resume if you list an MBA on it, but it’s only the skills and talents above that will get me to hire you anyway, so I say save your tuition money, get one of those tweener jobs, and impress the hell out of me. Then I won’t care what sort of degree you have.

For more on the skills and talents needed for product management, see my equally controversial ProductPowers post, “Don’t Hire Product Managers Because They’re Technical,” or my SlideShare.

Tell Me Why I’m Wrong

So now it’s your turn — comments are welcome below. Tell me why you fully agree and believe I am speaking an important little-known truth. Or (more likely?) tell me why an MBA is essential for product managers, why you insist on them when hiring, or how it got you the best job ever. We’ll summarize the best feedback in a follow-up piece – and quote you right here on ProductHub.

 

Diploma image courtesy of Scott Chan at freedigitalphotos.net. 

3 thoughts on “Hell No, You Don’t Need an MBA

  1. Great post and you’re definitely not wrong if we’re talking about the traditional 2-year thing. But I would argue the best vector of all might be to do both at the same time if you can swing it.

    In my limited experience, I’ve observed that unless you’re planning to go through HBS and then into banking or big consulting, taking 2 years off is a tough sell. I did the part time thing and (I think) developed a lot of the skills you mention above in one of those tweener type roles. But, lots of people do those roles, and here in Boston — and especially in tech — they can be full of bright young people with big ambitions. I think what got me on management’s radar was probably the investment I was making in myself.

    I did a Product Management specialization, so it was a clear declaration of intent. And I’d say for the right person, that’s what an MBA is: a very expensive (but powerful!) declaration of intent. It can be like rocket fuel for your career.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I agree with Hally, though I would include several other schools in the HBS bundle (Stanford, MIT, Wharton, Top 10). If you don’t mind the strict honor code, the Marriott School (BYU) is a tremendous value (super cheap tuition). That said, the opportunity cost is still extraordinarily high and you need to have a relatively high level of certainty that the only path to your intended destination is through one of those graduate programs.

    If you begin with the end in mind you can often find more cost-effective paths to the destination than an expensive MBA program. While one of the most valuable aspects of the program might be the network you will build and have access to, there are more tools than ever before to even “hack” the MBA network as well.

    I’ve been considering the MBA route for a little while now and my rationale has gone something like this: I won’t be able to find more high-quality “collisions” with interesting people than I could find at one of the top 10 MBA programs. Those top programs will also have opportunities to collide with people from a variety of disciplines (who are also top in their field). If you really know how to leverage that, there will be interesting opportunities and value created that didn’t exist prior. In my opinion, that is where the real opportunity lies.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ll have to get back here some more after I graduate!

    For now though, I will say that b-school is a great platform for exploring a variety of different career paths and functions. The MBA also opens up numerous opportunities for internships and short-term projects that can certainly make you a more attractive candidate for PM roles after graduation. If you do get an MBA, expect to learn a lot in and to work hard, but also realize that a lot of effort and skill development needs to happen outside of the coursework.

    Like

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