An extremely polarizing topic, the question, ‘Do You Need An MBA To Be A Product Manager?’ is an often asked one on popular forums; the answers range from “No, an MBA won’t help you in any way, and you are better off not spending the money” to “Yes, it’s a must if you want to get hired by large corporations.”
Like most big decisions that individuals need to take as part of their career growth journeys, the answer is really:
Now that may seem like taking the easy way out, but there really is no one single decision that would make sense for every aspiring Product Manager. So, instead of asking if an MBA is essential to become a Product Manager, a better question would be:
What do I lack in my quest to become a Product Manager, and how do I acquire the skills I lack?
When you frame the question this way, you can make a decision that fits your career goals and skill levels, rather than following a generic guideline that may be right for someone else.
A few years ago, getting an MBA was the best way to gain exposure to various business functions and learn skills needed to be an effective product manager. However, there are multiple alternatives available today – working in a startup where every member gets exposed to different aspects, taking online courses, taking specific training programs to build key skills or learn methods, and more.
So, with that in mind, let’s look at some of the skills and qualities you would need as a Product Manager and how you can gain them with/out an MBA.
Joining the dots between Market-Customer-Product-Technology
A good PM needs to map market opportunities, understand customer behavior in the context of that market, visualize the opportunity in the form of the right product – and finally, ensure that the available technology can deliver the product in the form visualized.
An MBA doesn’t teach you to do all of this. However, it can help you learn the tools you need for the first half of the equation, i.e. understanding markets and customers.
Of course, successful managers who do this without an MBA exist, but an MBA can reduce your learning time at work.
The rest of it is a skill acquired over time, learning on the job and supplemented by Product Management training that you can practice at your role.
Communication & other soft skills
PMs necessarily have to work with Sales, Marketing, and Engineering; to do this successfully, PMs need communication skillsbeyond talking – they need to listen, negotiate, harness the power of teams and often, influence using their credibility rather than authority.
Do you need an MBA to acquire these skills? If your communication skills are poor, an MBA can help you polish certain aspects such as presenting ideas well; on the other hand, if you have excellent communication skills, an MBA may not help you much in this area. (And don’t take your own word for it – get an objective person you know to rate your skills).
Depending on how your company structures its teams, PMs may or may not be hands-on when it comes to Product Marketing. In the Indian context however, most PMs will be deeply involved in some or all aspects of Product Marketing.
This is one area where an MBA can add to your learning, with courses on consumer behaviour, brand management, and marketing communications. Many engineers lack exposure to these aspects of the job, and having some training in them is an asset.
Today, you could also gain some exposure to these using online courses from Coursera or others.
Till a few years ago, colleges were the best areas to form strong networks. Most of the leading B-schools have strong alumni networks that allow exchange of information about new jobs, and often give visibility into what friends in other industries are up to.
However, today there are a multitude of forums to network within the technology industry like startup events, LinkedIn forums, expert networks and more. While these do not replace the traditional B-school networks, they definitely give a leg up to candidates looking to build their own identity and explore work in other domains.
Graduating from any of the top B-schools could give an edge in getting selected for roles, but a lot then depends on the candidate, his/her domain and functional expertise to clinch the job.
With many startups trying to make their mark in the product space, demonstrating expertise in your known area of work through blogs/forums or by interacting with others in events often throws up job opportunities that you may not be aware of.
The key skills of being a good product manager – intense curiosity to understand how things work, an ability to appreciate context and its effect, the ability to observe keenly, spot opportunities and work to tap them – are not skills that a B-school can teach you.
While a B-school might hone some of your skills, you should take a cost-benefit approach to this and rightly ask – is an MBA worth the money?
Without a huge education loan to pay off, you may decide to take the risk of picking a relatively lower paying job as a product manager for the experience, or maybe start your own firm based on an idea you have.
That would be the first step along thinking like a product manager.