A common question that people pose when they are considering whether to pursue a career in Product Management is whether or not they should get an MBA, or at the very least obtain a certificate of some form from any of the numerous companies and institutions out there who are offering such a document.
Almost universally, the answer is no — having an MBA doesn’t make you a more attractive PM candidate, nor does obtaining a “certificate” from nearly any source out there.
Sorry, folks, that’s just the way it is.
What’s Wrong with an MBA?
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with an MBA — they’re great degrees. They’re also typically focused on the high-level management side of the business. “But,” you’ll say, “isn’t Product Management part of that?” Not really — Product Management is, to borrow from Liam Neeson, a particular set of skills that may include general management and financial understanding, but incorporate far more than just those skills that you’ll learn in an MBA program. In fact, many of the things you’ll learn in the academic setting of an MBA won’t apply to any real-world scenario. Much like law school teaches you how to “think like a lawyer”, but not how to actually practice law — and MBA will teach you to “think like a businessman”, but not actually how to run a business.
Perhaps that’s overly harsh, but it’s often the truth — the “meta” level on which most b-schools operate simply fails to adequately account for and comprehend that actual day-to-day struggles that a Product Manager faces. You can have all the forecasts you want, all the business plans that could possibly be written, and a thorough understanding of the balance sheet of the organization — and still suck at being a Product Manager. In fact, if you approach Product Management like most recent MBA grads might, you’re far more likely to be disappointed when you realize that the “CEO of the Product” title is more myth than reality.
Well, Why Not a Certificate?
Well, let’s be honest here — if a 3-4 year graduate degree program doesn’t necessarily prepare you for the realities of being a Product Manager, what makes you think a couple days in a Hyatt by the airport will? Or even a 6-month program offered by a University? Sure, these programs are more focused on what a Product Manager does, or how a Product Manager thinks, but there’s one fundamental problem — there is no single definition of what a Product Manager does. Take a look at the Pragmatic Marketing Framework and seriously ask yourself whether one role in any organization is ever responsible for all of those things. To be fair, that’s not the assertion that Pragmatic makes, but it’s representative of the problem that these programs have — they’re too focused on a particular view of what Product Management is and their particular set of practices. You will learn something, and much of it may be useful to you in your day-to-day life as a Product Manager…but there’s nothing there that will make you into an effective Product Manager.
The same thing goes for university programs — certainly they are helpful in creating an understanding of what it is a Product Manager is supposed to be, and of what they’re supposed to do within the vision of the person heading the program. And that’s not inherently bad — we all need to start somewhere. My only point in this post is that these programs, like the MBA, are not going to be a kick-starter to your career; at best, they’re going to be something that gives you some fundamental understandings, which you have to twist and tune and finagle to create the Product Management career you’re looking for.
That Sucks. What Am I Supposed to Do Then?
Build something. Anything. Take some time to work with your friends, your family, your acquaintances, your neighbors — start with an idea about a problem that may exist, propose a solution, and bring it to bear in the real world. It doesn’t have to make money; it doesn’t even have to be particularly successful. But it does have to exist. The number one thing that nearly any hiring manager for a PM job is looking for is the drive to make shit happen. Combine that drive with an understanding of how to identify a problem and propose a solution, and you’re in a better position than anyone who walks in the door with only an MBA or a Certificate to hang in their cubicle. At its most fundamental core, Product Management is an entrepreneurial role — even in the most backwards and asinine and rigorously-structured organization. It’s about finding problems, proposing solutions, and getting people to buy in to your vision of that proposed solution — if you can demonstrate your ability to do those things, nobody is going to care that you don’t have an MBA or a certificate. Show that you can do the job, don’t talk about how you learned about how others have done the job.
PS: I Do Still Love You Guys
Having said all of the above, there is nothing wrong with getting an MBA or a certificate (I have personally sat through the Pragmatic Marketing series about five times in my career). They provide you with an opportunity to learn different approaches and to network with others who have or want careers in Product Management. My point is merely that you should understand why you’re going to these programs. If it’s because you think it’s an open door to the career, you’re absolutely wrong. If you think that it’s a good opportunity to learn some new things about Product Management or to establish a base set of skills and tools that you plan on building from, then you’re golden. There are some great programs out there (and more programs are building every single day), but they’re not going to be any kind of groundbreaker for you; if you can demonstrate that you can make things happen and have some kind of formal or semi-formal training, then you’re in the best position possible.
My advice to people is always to get the job, then have the job pay for the training, not the other way around. I can’t say that the vast majority of these programs are worth paying for out of your own pocket — but if you can get them expensed as training programs, there’s absolutely no reason not to attend them.