To MBA or not to MBA, that is the question

Product Management requires a varied and adaptable set of skills. Is an MBA required for success? Not a simple yes or no question, as often in life, the answer is "it depends"

Being a grizzled veteran of the Product Management trench warfare, the Dude is often asked for advice about how to join the ranks of Product Management. Sometimes, regardless of his horror stories, tales of woe, and his personal drinking problems, all relics of a long career of product management, they are not deterred from their quest.

In the discussion, the question inevitably comes up: Would getting an MBA prepare me for a lucrative career in Product Management?

Oy vey. No easy answer. The Dude, who doesn't have an MBA, is cautious in answering this. There are some things that are important to product management that you can learn very efficiently in an MBA program. However:

(strong engineer) + (MBA degree) != (product manager)

But, just like an MBA doesn't make you an executive, it can give you a leg up, and remove some of the tedious learning curve climbing. MBA programs are great a giving you strong financial tools for analysis, how to price (often the weakest part of a Product Manager's skills), and strategic frameworks. All good to know things. But these are all things that you can learn without the 2 year commitment, and the student loans to pay off.

The Dude's experience is that the best product managers may or may not have an MBA, but they have acquired many or all the skills that an MBA bestows on an individual that are useful. All, and he means ALL great product managers have started elsewhere in their career. They have been engineers who had a bent for customer interactions, or they are applications engineers who recognize that their immersion in the field gives them perspective that isn't found at the factory, or they are marketing people who have a serious technical bent. It is those early experiences that mold a product manager.

For those people, the Dude would agree, an MBA will streamline the process, and short circuit some agony as well.

However, if you just take an MBA program because you want to be a product manager? The Dude thinks you are wasting your money. And for a product manager, you do not need to have a prestigious MBA. The money for HBS would be an inefficient spend.  Perhaps you can get your employer to fund an "executive MBA" program tuition for you. (Although, the Dude would be wary of a University of Phoenix MBA grads.)

As for the Dude?  His degree in physics, with a very strong mathematics and analysis background, coupled with his inquisitive nature means that when he works with an executive, and sees a particular analysis, or strategic framework, he can replicate it (and sometimes even extend it) on his own. So he has never lamented not having the sheepskin from a business school.

As always, YMMV.

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