Should You Get An MBA?

by drjim on August 29, 2008

Should Product Managers get an MBA?

Should Product Managers get an MBA?

I had a chance to talk with one of my friends the other day who is a product manager working in the telcom space. Carol is basically happy with her job, but she’s tired of always gathering requirements and she is already starting to think about the next step in her career – becoming a Director. She told me that she was thinking about getting an MBA; however, she had not made up her mind yet as to if it would be worth the time, energy, and expense required to get one. She wanted to know what I thought?

Just a little background info for you here: I’ve collected four university degrees. I’ve got a BS, MS, and PhD in Computer Science and then I went on and just for good measure I picked up an MBA with a focus on Marketing. All in all this took me about 15 years to do. Because of the time, energy, and expense that I’ve gone through I felt that Carol was talking to the right person!

The first thing that I asked Carol was where she wanted to take her career and what she thought that she needed to do to get there (besides getting an MBA). She said that she had been doing some studying of the last four or five IT people who had been promoted to a Director position. What she had found that they had all been at the company for at least 5 years, they had been associated with a successful project, they were well known to the Executive Director that they would be reporting to. She then said that only two of the five new Directors had an MBA – the other three had at least a Masters technical degree.

Carol had done her homework! We then spent some time talking about what you can expect to get if you get an MBA. Assuming that you can’t take time off from your job to go to school for two years, then you are probably looking at going to night school for 4-5 years. I realize that there are other options such as the University of Phoenix and Executive MBA programs; however, my experience has been with the traditional butt-in-a-classroom-at-night approach. One of the first questions that I asked Carol was if she expected to be living where she was right now for the next 5 years – nothing could be sadder than moving half-way through a program! Carol said that yes, she expected to be in town for the next 5 years.

I got my MBA for two reasons: I wanted to have the vocabulary that was needed to work with the people who are running the business and I wanted to network with other people who were at the same stage of their career as I was. In the end, I feel that I got the vocabulary that I wanted. A lot of that vocabulary has to do with finance, organizational behavior, and marketing and these had been things that I didn’t know much about before starting my MBA.

The networking with other folks who were working on their MBA didn’t work out as well. When one attends the big Ivy League schools to get an MBA, you have the advantage of moving though your courses with your peers in lock step. The MBA program that I was in had more people in it and so we were spread out both over time (some people completed in 3 years, some took as long as 7 years) and in courses – there were a lot of courses offered each semester. This meant that few close relationships were formed that lasted more than a semester or two. In my case I moved out of town after completing the degree and so the value of the networking was even more minimized. All that being said, I believe that if you went into the program with networking as a key goal, you could build up a healthy LinkedIn network by the time you were though.

The final benefit of getting an MBA is that you get a chance to be exposed to a great deal of business information that you may have heard of, but never had a chance to study before. Depending on what your background is, this material may be very straightforward. Unlike technical degrees, an MBA requires you to work in teams, give in-class presentations and really doesn’t have that many problem sets to turn in. Rather, questions require wordy answers – you have to memorize a great deal of information that does not have a formula or numbers associated with it. I found the studying to be easy because it was all new. It kept my interest and was easy to memorize.

After I had shared all of this with Carol, she decided to go ahead and take the GMAT in order to apply to enter an MBA program. What helped her to finally make her mind up is that she took a look at the people who would be her competition for the next Director position and decided that an MBA would set her apart from them.

What do you think about Product Managers getting an MBA? Do you think that it helps make them better Product Managers or is it just so much window dressing? At your firm, do people with MBAs seem to go higher, faster in their careers? Leave a comment and let me know what you think.

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

MM September 10, 2008 at 12:39 am

So I (along with a zillion others I’m sure) am in the same boat as your friend Carol. Wondering bout the need for b-school. And like you clearly mention its about knowing where you want to go and how school will help (if at all).

My reasons for an MBA (2 year full time)
1> Get into a high profile tech firm for product management. I’m a software developer and making that transition without an MBA will prove difficult. (They want me to code, not ask why we’re building a product)
2>Get the biz insight , Don’t know nothing about marketing (except common sense)
3> Network. long term,I don’t see myself working for a large company, I hope to meet interesting people, I would love to start my own thing with a bunch of like minded people from school.
4> Perception, perception, perception. A top school mba would open doors that I wouldnt even know existed,..
5> Travel while at school..
6> Get the vocab (demand curve, ‘opportunity cost’,’) all that jazz (Appear smarter than I am)
7> Hope one of your classmates strikes it big and then can mulch of him/her
8>Drink beer on Tuesday mornings (or Wednesday afternoons)

There are several several trade-offs (biggest being cost for me)…
But oh well.

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admin September 10, 2008 at 9:14 am

MM: good comment. One thing that you said caught my eye “..2 year full time…” Hmm, this is one way to do it; however, this is the most expensive route to take. Not only will you have school tuition, book, and living expenses but you also have to factor in your lost paychecks!

In my case, I decided to go get an MBA at night. This allowed me to keep working my day job, getting a paycheck, and in my case the company paid for the tuition. What I didn’t get was (1) a top school MBA (I got a good state school MBA), and (2) I didn’t get that close bonding that two intense years of side-by-side schooling creates with classmates.

What I did get was the vocab, the resume item (“has MBA”), and I did finally learn what everyone else seemed to know about marketing! There were clearly some tradeoffs; however, in my case I was happy to make them.

If you’ve got the time do it – it’s easier earlier in your career. Life just seems to get more complicated as we move on! Good luck.

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MM September 10, 2008 at 9:08 pm

Thanks Jim.
if I don’t get into the right school, I won’t go. Will probably go the part time route in a few years then.

Keep up the good work, like your blog.

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CTodd September 19, 2008 at 2:18 pm

Hi,

I have been a product manager for about 7 years until recently I was quazi-promoted to manager of the marketing team (long story). There was a director position open, but I was completely passed over for it. The folks they have been considering have had advanced degrees (I have a BA and many years in graduate school for biomedical engineering but no actual degree – another long story).

I started considering an MBA about 3-4 years ago. Over the last two years I pretty much made up my mind to go for one. The biggest reasons were that I had never taken a marketing class, yet that was the functional role I was playing as a product manager. I also saw limitations on my progression up the proverbial corporate ladder. In addition, I had some ambition to perhaps start a company. An MBA certainly would help with networking to the right people so I could get the funding and resources I may need to make that happen. It also will give me, as you mention, a vocabulary, to speak at the level I will need to operate as a leader.

Sure, the cliche is that great leaders are born, but I feel otherwise.

Lastly, an MBA might give me a credential I can lean on should I desire to switch industries.

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John Doe June 24, 2011 at 10:35 am

So my case is even more peculiar – I have a BS and a MS in comp science and I added a MBA part-time

I was in software development till I got my MBA. With an MBA it gave me an edge to move up to a Product manager

But since then it has been 10 years and I dont seem to get the attention of my executives or my superiors at work to move up to a Director position. I keep getting passed at in every reorg that happens

SHould I consider a executive leadership certificate course at a Top university ?

Reply

Dr. Jim Anderson July 2, 2011 at 9:42 pm

John: every person’s situation is different and I can’t say with 100% certainty what’s going on in your career, but my gut reaction is that no, additional education is not what it’s going to take in order to allow you to achieve your goal of becoming a Director. Most companies have very few Director positions and when one opens up, it’s almost a given who is going to get it — an internal candidate or an external candidate. If after 10 years you have not achieved this promotion, then it’s just not going to happen at the company that you are currently at. You need to be looking to outside companies that are hiring directors and start to apply. One key point for you to keep in mind is that there is some (or multiple) reasons why you haven’t been selected to become a Director at your current company. Take a long hard look at your situation and answer these questions: do I have the attention and respect of the senior management, have I managed successful products, do I work well with other companies, do I mange others (even those who don’t work for me) well, do I make problems go away? Your answer lies in these questions.

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