Is an MBA necessary to become a good Product Manager

Vibhav Agarwal, who wrote this article on Career Change from Software IT to Product Management after MBA, is back with another article. This time he goes back to the basic question that many aspiring product managers have, about the relevance and necessity of an MBA degree in a product management and marketing career.


 

Do you need an MBA to become a Product Manager?

by Vibhav Agarwal

Product Management career after Software“I want to be a Product Manager or a Product Marketing Manager Post – MBA!”

Sounds familiar? In my experience of studying at ISB and then interviewing potential aspirants, this is one of the most common career goals I have heard, especially among the IT crowd.

While Product Marketing or Product Management is a very exciting career choice and a high stakes position in most companies, the Jury is still out on whether an MBA degree from a Top B-school is necessary.

We have great Product Managers who never did MBA like Ben Horowitz who wrote the seminal piece on Product Management and then have some more with MBA degree like Sundar Pichai.

I would not spend my time on this post trying to argue if MBA is required or not for the Product Management and Marketing streams, but rather help identify some of the key roles a good Product Manager and Product Marketer would play in a company.

It perhaps would give the viewers of the blog a better idea if MBA will aid in meeting their aspirations or not.
 

Roles of a Product Manager

 

Role#1: The Juggler

He will juggle between the requirements coming from multiple sources like sales, competition, technology trends, and current customers and will find the best way to manage all of them. Some of them will go into the product roadmap, some will go to the dustbin and some will remain in-between. But in all of it, he should be the hero who will put up the spectacular show every time he productizes and demonstrates something irrespective of the audience.
 

Role #2: The Actor

He will understand the customer and the consumer of the product. And yes! Those 2 are different in many cases. He will get under their personas and understand their behavior and needs which the product is meant to satisfy.

A good product manager needs to act the part of his consumers and customers in his mind every time he envisages the next feature to be added. He will anticipate the issue of the customer who is using the product for the first time as well as the one who was the first customer for the product five years ago.
 

Role #3: The Seductress

To stand out in the crowded marketplace, every product needs its bells and whistles. Product managers and more so the marketers need to seduce their audience every time they show the product.

They need to make the product stick in the minds of the customer long after they are gone. This skill needs a combination of cool presentation, smart thinking and some awesome technology more often than not.
 

Role #4: The Orchestra Conductor

There are always 10 things on the to-do list. So ought to be developed, some ought to be partnered with and some others just need to be reviewed. But the product guy is always in control and guiding the engineers, UX designers, sales guys and the partners and so on. He is the conductor who can make the team build a nice symphony into whole product experience for the user. He guides his team into prioritizing the tasks, keeping the focus at the right place and building up the success in small steps.
 

Role #5: The Martyr

Well this is the last one and probably one that most product guys do not like. More often than not, the Product manager is always a martyr should things go south, but sadly not always the hero of the story.

As the person ultimately responsible for the product, Product guys get all the flaks for the HTTP 400 errors , the browser and app crashes, the missing features, performance, but not always the kudos.

In this case, the Product Marketers generally tend to fare better because there the face of the product to the market. For product managers, it varies from organization to organization depending on the kind of exposure they get to customers, consumers and analysts.
 

How an MBA helps with each of these Product Management roles

So, now that you know what it takes, as an MBA from one of the premier B-schools, I can tell you that MBA does help with each of the above roles.

As you struggle through the assignments, classes and parties, you would learn to juggle and manage all the three. Most of courses involve working in groups, creating attractive presentations to seduce your professor. The assignments will see you donning roles of a CEO, Product manager, CFO and many more.

And then there is the dreaded bell curve, the hazardous B neg (i.e. low grade in ISB lingo) and the submission deadlines, the perpetual enemies and sometimes the unknown. MBA teaches you to think out of the box, look at the problem for all angles and most importantly understand that there are a lot of right answers.

So do you really need an MBA to be the Product manager or the Product Marketer?


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8 Comments

  1. Arun says:

    What if someone has great track record in work,but unable to crack GMAT.
    Without MBA from top BSchool person can’t be placed or recognised at top level .

  2. Nishant says:

    My view..short answer No..

    Long answer (and i mean loonnnggg)..

    Mba good to have but not necessary.

    An MBA helps to get foundation in market strategy, sizing, pricing and can groom your communication skills. Therefore call it accelerated learning especially if one can tailor their MBA experience to suit the demands of being a Product Manager.
    However if you naturally have a knack for all this, through practical experience you can be just as good if not better than any MBA

    This role is largely about bridging product and its market hence most importantly know your product inside out and understand its applications and implications. This can be done without an MBA based on your background and the specific product line (for example…i work in the semiconductor industry and therefore its important to be an engineer to understand the products and where can they be applied).

    Then comes market positioning, sizing, listening to customers, working with teams to enhance and develop the product. Last step is to work closely with your sales counterparts. This is where an MBA can help to get the skills and experience via various projects and programs but again its not to say one cannot do all this without an MBA. Another important facet is to understand the lingo everyone speaks, an MBA can help to accelerate this (might seem like a silly-point but i have seen countless clueless expressions in meetings (including my own) when jargon is thrown around and this can affect productivity).

    Bottom line is..have the aptitude to know your product and the business side well..your overall experience whether be via your career or via how you tailor your MBA is what will get you there. Do note an mba is more likely to get a look in far easily for such roles by global corps, so the route is faster.

  3. Debopam Basu says:

    Interesting discussion here! The ambit of of a Product Manager role differs from company to company. Fact is that there is no direct correlation between absolutely “necessarily” doing an MBA and donning any particular role. Everything can be learnt with the right opportunity and the scope to develop the right skill sets. Same applies for Product Manager roles too. We could rather ask – Does an MBA help one become a better Product Manager?

    The answer to that would be Yes. Brevity being the focus on this thread, an MBA helps one
    1) acclimatize with the process of thinking both laterally and deeply.
    2) understand the effect of a decision on several functions.
    3) develop soft skills and ability to interact w/ and influence people.
    4) increase the intensity of ownership of a product
    5) last but not the least, understand how marketing, strategy, operations etc. work – which add on to 1).

    Can these be learnt w/o an MBA? Yes. The compressed rigorous format of any good MBA helps accelerate an all round development of what would have otherwise taken more time

  4. kamaldeep says:

    Hlo sir,i had done M.sc chemistry in organic stream from punjabi university,in 2015, i want to do phd from abroad,,,and there is gap of one year is this gap effect on phd program and i have no research experince…

  5. jagat says:

    I am a 15 years mobile application development consultant, is staring at job loss. I don’t claim to have exceptional leadership skills, but I do enough of them with technical hands on to influence people. Still at certain point my company or my manager finds me redundant, of course these are business decisions, but I feel I could have contributed in a lot of business units, even as project or product managers before given a chance and fired.

    Nonetheless, now it seems supply is more and organization feels devs, senior devs and tech leads are enough and architect consultant job is redundant. In this scenario, how a 15 years veteran find another job ? Even if I am ready to work as a team lead, nobody considers me for that !

    What should be my strategy to get a job ?

    – Mention in the cv that I am currently not working ?
    – Mention in the cv that willing to work in a junior position ?
    – What could be alternative career options for me ?
    – I had had many personal problems, and hence do not have much bank balance to sustain my family for 2 years and do an MBA or something like that !
    – Are there enough flexi jobs available in the market before getting a full time job again ?

    I am really confused, how can anybody sustain without going back to village life again ! That also includes a possibility of a divorce :))

    • Very sorry to hear about what’s happening in your company. It’s a trend that’s affecting many other tech companies as well.

      Don’t look at it as a personal failure. Keep in mind that this is the first time you’ve faced this in your 15 year long career. There surely is something that companies value in you.

      I’m afraid this is not the platform to give you a quick solution. I’d suggest talking to friends and colleagues in other companies to see if they have any relevant opportunities for you.

      Be flexible with the role and salary, if it’s a role you like. The tide will turn soon. So don’t lose hope.

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