Forget finance and mergers. In 2016 the Wall Street Journal dropped a bombshell on the business world by announcing a new brass ring for MBA candidates. Instead of brokering mammoth acquisitions or landing plum jobs as VP of Operations, B-school grads increasingly want to be product managers.
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It’s why business school heavyweights like Harvard Business School, Johnson Graduate School at Cornell, and Kellogg School at Northwestern were rolling out sparkling new Product Management tracks, with students flocking to learn the basics and the finer points of this position that sounds suspiciously like “Project Manager” and “Product Owner” … but it’s neither.
Why the rush to the Product Management role? And is it justified? Will freshly-minted MBAs who land the coveted title discover Employment Nirvana in the role? Will it be more than they bargained for … or will it be less?
First things first—it’s easy to see why B-school students have their eye on Product Management roles. The money is good.
With fast tracks to the Upper Middle Class becoming few and far between, average salaries for Product Managers sit in the low six figures according to Glassdoor.com—$108,000 and change to be exact, with the low end sitting at $71,000.
With a ballooning college debt crisis and an epidemic of underemployment stalling launches for Millenials and now Gen Z, it’s hard to deny the appeal of a fat paycheck like that.
As much as the salary, if not more so, MBA candidates are drawn to the Product Management role because they sense—with good reason—that tech is the place to be, particularly in the age of artificial intelligence.
According to BLS, despite employing only 12% of the country, high technology accounted for more than 23% of economic output in 2019. The COVID-19 pandemic, despite disruptions in raw material and supply chains that tech depends on, has nevertheless inspired surges in innovation to meet the emergency needs of a global moment.
Meanwhile, people who work in tech are happier on average, enjoying the benefits of remote work, more work-life balance, and—of course—higher salaries. With younger generations emphasizing personal development and happiness, it’s no wonder today’s B-schoolers fancy skipping the Wall Street heart attack factory in favor of cooler Silicon Valley shores.
Of course, there’s a glaring problem—B-school is not a STEM discipline, and coding is not part of the standard B-school curriculum. Upper management is probably fulfilled by tech company founders until the company blows up big enough to afford the fat salary of someone with a fat resume.
So what role can a recent MBA fulfill?
Can an MBA Help you Become a Product Manager?
The role of the Product Manager appears, on the surface, to be the perfect fit for a recent B-school grad. According to DAP, “Product Manager” is a cross-disciplinary role, a kind of “jack-of-all-trades” position.
The Product Manager acts as the “champion” of the product, sitting at the intersection of development, marketing, and customer support. Sometimes vaunted as the “product visionary” or “CEO of the product” (a dubious distinction, as we will discuss later), a product manager must also maintain a strong connection to the customer, acting as the voice of the target user in stakeholder meetings so that managers and developers never forget who the product is actually for.
What is the “product,” anyway? We shouldn’t leap to the conclusion that we know this intuitively. Most of us think of “products” in terms of merchandise on the shelf. But in the tech world, where the Product Manager role is most relevant, the “product” is actually the customer’s entire experience of the brand and its offerings. This includes:
- Product Functionality. The interactive quality of the digital experience.
- Product Design. The visual aesthetics of the digital experience, which have a heavy impact on user interest.
- Product Content. The informational aspect of the digital experience, usually compelling the user to take a specific action.
- Product Monetization. The strategy to extract revenue from user engagement.
A Product Manager must be involved in all four of these product aspects. Hence, the need for a cross-disciplinary, multifunctional approach.
In this sense, a “product” could be the entire experience or an aspect of the experience. Facebook is a digital product, for example—and a whopper at that. But Facebook Marketplace, Facebook Groups, and Facebook Dating could all be sub-products with their own Product Manager to advocate for them at stakeholder meetings.
Experienced Tech Managers Aren’t Convinced
It looks good on paper … but many seasoned tech managers aren’t convinced. The WSJ article quotes several managers dubious of the qualifications of an MBA candidate to manage products, stating instead that they prefer candidates with STEM or coding backgrounds.
This aggressive discounting of the MBA is reminiscent of the disdain for liberal education that permeates Silicon Valley—a land of college dropouts who founded disruptive tech startups and became billionaires.
But many major companies do take MBA graduates seriously. Facebook, for example, accepts MBA grads into its 18-month Product Management placement program.
Schools like the Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon, on the other hand, take this skepticism as a challenge. Tepper has partnered with the Carnegie Mellon School of Computer Science to create a Product Management MBA track steeped in the science of digital product development.
WSJ also quotes experienced Product Managers who scoff at the notion of the role as the “CEO of the product” or “product visionary.” In their experience, they describe it as little more than a glorified admin job.
It’s a pretty important admin job, though. It also sounds like the kind of high-value scut work a go-getter MBA looking for a foot in the door might jump at—with a high salary to boot. That’s one of the reasons that more MBA candidates are looking for Product Management jobs than there are Product Management jobs for them to fill.
Gallup’s #1 finding of Millenial career goals is that they want a purpose, not just a paycheck. Less likely to rely on their personal lives for fulfillment or meaning, they want to feel like their work makes an impact, rather than just being a cog in a massive and impersonal machine.
Today’s B-school students see product management as a chance to have a tangible impact on the customer’s experience, as well as a direct connection to the customers themselves. Digital products have changed their own lives in countless ways. What better way to invest a career with meaning than to lead the next generation of world-changing products.