The Value of an MBA in Product Management

A question from a reader:

Q: Is an MBA necessary to advance in Product Management to the Senior level, Director level, or beyond? Or can one compensate for the lack of a Masters with strong analytics and high-level strategy and presentation skills?

A: I'm originally from Boston, a city known to instill cynicism in the most gentle of souls. And thus my cynical answer:

It depends. It depends on whether your boss and boss's boss also have MBAs.

If yes, then advancing your career will likely require this illustrious degree. If the hiring bosses thought an underling could do an adequate job without forking over $100,000+ for the MBA designation, then you might force them to regret their own education investment.

If no, where your higher-ups don't have the degree, then they probably pride themselves on their innate business prowess - the kind of natural aptitude and raw talent that would only be hampered by book learning. This kind of uneducated boss regards the MBA as a huge waste of money and time, and MBA holders as ungifted, inexperienced, intuition-challenged, unimaginative drones.

So, my advice to you: if you think the LEARNING will be worthwhile for you and will help you become a better product manager, then go for it.

But the piece of paper itself, etched with that marvelous "M.B.A." designation, does not yield any automatic benefits in software product management. In management consulting and investment banking it does, but not in software.

As for my personal experience, I do have an MBA from Kellogg (Northwestern University). For me, it was very worthwhile because I did not have "natural" business sense. I was raised in a family of academics who viewed business with suspicion. And, like many newly-graduated MIT engineers, I was a bit of a technical snob who thought business problems were beneath me. Thus, prior to studying for an MBA, I had spent little time cultivating my business instincts or learning how business works. So, the learning I gained when studying for the MBA was a true revelation.

There are many people, though, whose parents taught them about business as they were growing up. For them, the learning from an MBA that would apply to product management might be minimal.

Sue Raisty

Product management geek, born-again engineer, adoptive mother of boys, coach & mentor, mountain trail runner, tinkerer, no-bull communicator, wannabe writer, room mother & compulsive researcher.

Silicon Valley, California http://blog.sueraisty.com