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Thursday, May 04, 2017 at 12pm

Is an MBA the Golden Ticket to a Career in Product Management?

Can an MBA grant you admission to a sought-after role as a product manager?

Over the past decade, there’s been an unquestionable shift in career paths MBAs are taking. More and more, ambitious MBA graduates are pursuing careers in technology over traditional fields like investment banking. In 2016, 19% of Harvard Business School (HBS) graduates went into technology, compared to only 1% in 2012.


One of the most sought-after roles is that of the product manager. In 2016, 7% of HBS graduates went into product management; in 2012, it wasn’t even a category on the survey.

Is being a product manager right for you?  More importantly, is an MBA the best way for you to get there?  Read on to find out.

What does a product manager do?

Product management is a relatively new and ever-evolving field, and thus is hard to define. In his famous piece, 'Good Product Manager/Bad Product Manager', Ben Horowitz describes a product manager as, “the CEO of a product”. Greylock partner Josh Elman describes the job of a product manager as, “help[ing] your team and company ship the right product to your users.”

As a product manager, you might be developing the next feature to delight customers, increasing revenue via conversion optimization, or devising ways to increase user retention

Whatever the project or company, the product manager is a multidisciplinary role that involves talking to customers, digging into analytics, giving specs to engineers, and coordinating with all parts of the organization to bring a technology to life.

In many ways, product managers are the heart of a technology business, so it makes sense that the role attracts so many ambitious MBA graduates.

Are MBA programs a golden ticket to product management?  Not so fast...

Before you rush off to b-school thinking it’s an easy path to your dream product job, remember that MBA programs were never designed to produce product managers.

MBA programs are designed to train students for investment banking, consulting, marketing, and business operations. Product management is a relatively new career, and academia can only react to trends at a certain speed. In my second year at Kellogg (2011), they had just piloted their first course on product management.

Now things have changed since then, but given how fast technology (and thus the product management role) is evolving, it’s very unlikely that you’re going to have many courses that actually teach product management.  

Coursework aside, the fact that business schools aren’t known for producing product managers means that most companies aren’t going to show up to recruit product managers.

One of the biggest draws of business schools is that they draw all the top consulting firms, investment banks and top-tier corporations for recruitment. Though you’re likely to see the big tech companies on campus, the number of companies recruiting MBA graduates for product manager roles will be dwarfed by the investment banks and consulting firms. 

How an MBA can propel you to your dream job in product management

Now that I’ve laid out the downsides, there are a plethora of reasons why you would want to use an MBA as a springboard into product management.

It’s a time to figure things out

First and foremost, it’s very likely you really don’t know what you want to do. Even within product management, there are lots of ways you can go - big company vs. startup, consumer vs. enterprise, software vs. hardware. An MBA is a great time to do some soul searching.

At Kellogg, they had a program called ‘Tech Trek’, where we took a trip to Seattle and Silicon Valley to see different tech companies. I had always thought it would be cool to join a great technology company, like HP or Intel. That was until I went on that trip and saw the lines of cubicles and heard the product guy at HP talk about how cool printer cartridges were. Then we visited Yelp and a few other startups, and seeing that culture and innovation made me quickly realize I wanted to join an earlier-stage company.

The other thing about MBA programs is that you’re surrounded by so many people with diverse backgrounds. I learned a lot about myself and what I wanted to do from the friends I made.

The coursework is relevant, just not how you might think

Yes, you’re probably not going to find a class that teaches you to manage a scrum board or write technical specs. That doesn’t mean the coursework isn’t valuable. 

Some of the most important classes are those on negotiation. As a product manager, you’re going to get more requests than you can possibly imagine from customers and different parts of the business. Since your resources are limited, you have to make tradeoffs. Negotiation classes help give you the tools to work with different parts of the organization.

Marketing classes are also extremely valuable for product managers. Marketing classes teach frameworks around pricing psychology, customer research and ROI analysis that I have found invaluable as a product manager.

Of course, you’re going to take a plethora of other courses in finance, accounting, operations, etc. Working well with other teams is an important skill for anyone, but for product managers, it’s essential. Having a basic understanding of these functions will help you communicate and collaborate with other organizations.

An invaluable network

As I mentioned before, you won’t get a horde of companies coming on campus to recruit product managers, so you’re going to have to hustle for yourself.   


Fortunately, business schools have strong alumni networks which you can use to find people in product roles all over the country. I reached out to dozens of alumni, asking to meet for coffee for a simple informational interview. I had about a 75% response rate on these emails, which led to several job offers.

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Dan Balcauski is currently head of product at LawnStarter Lawn Care - an on-demand platform to order lawn care service. Previously, he served as product strategy principal at SolarWinds after getting his MBA from Kellogg.  

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