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.
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.
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.
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.