A Product Manager Decides if She Should Get Her MBA

Do you need an MBA to be marketable as a product manager?

For a long time, I've struggled with the decision of whether or not to go back to school for my MBA. I'm constantly taking online classes on Udacity, Coursera, edX, and MIT Open Coursewear to stay current with my tech skills, but committing to many hours of graduate-level courses - not all of which are relevant to my job (I'm looking at you "advanced accounting"...) -  as well as the ominous price tag, all sounds a bit grueling now that I'm already an experienced PM.

When I'm looking to acquire a new skill or knowledge set, it's typically pretty easy to find an online resource in which I can invest several hours of my time and a small amount of cash. If the course isn't available for free on edX, it's probably available on Coursera for around $39, which I'm totally willing to pay to learn a new skill that keeps me relevant.

To get to the bottom of the 'To MBA or Not to MBA' question, I interviewed two product managers - one who does not have his MBA, and one who has her MBA from Berkeley. Keep reading to see what they have to say about all this. 

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Mike Michuda, Director of Mobile Products at Charter Communications: Doesn't have an MBA

Mike is an awesome product manager at Charter, and I was lucky enough to work with him in the past. He's failly young (suffice it to say he's a millennial) and he's been promoted more than once during his career. I figured he was a good person to ask about this MBA business.


Q: Have you found that *not* having an MBA has been a limitation in any way in your product management career?

A: No. But I believe that is because my executive management does not value employees differently based on having an MBA. They reward people who can prove themselves in the office rather than on paper. An MBA is commonly used as an easy recruiting filter, which makes a lot of sense to many hiring managers and HR. Depending on the company you are looking at, that would be the limiting factor if you don't already have a strong resume proving your Product experience and growth in responsibility at a single company.

Q: People that you work with that have MBAs - do you find they have any obvious advantages?

Not that I can tell. There are no hard (or soft) skills that I have seen anyone prove out in my work environment that I could assume came from their MBA, but that is hard to know...

Q: Have you thought about going for an MBA - if yes, why did you decide against it?

A: Yes, I used to think I needed and wanted an MBA. That was when I was working for a company that had a CEO that really valued it. I also wasn't very satisfied with the company and was looking for change, which can easily rush decisions like this.  I made the choice to leave the company for another Product Management position, rather than going back for an MBA, and it was one of the best decisions I have ever made. I have no regrets and feel that I have advanced further in my career (4 years later) than I would have by entering a full-time MBA program.  I don't think that will change as time goes on.

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Q: Do you feel having a bachelor's in business administration changes what an MBA would mean for you? (Mike has a BBA from University of Wisconsin-Madison, School of Business.)

A: Yes. I think the value in an MBA is completely dependent on what the individual is trying to get out of it.  There are many variables that determine the value of an MBA and is why so many people get caught up on the decision. 

Since I believe my BBA gave me the foundational skills to be successful in Product Management from the business side, I do not see nearly as much value in an MBA as someone who may have an engineering degree and has not had the opportunity to build other skills in their current role. 

Q: Are there any other skills or education you feel are more important than an MBA as a product person?

A: There are several formal and informal educational opportunities that I will always recommend over an MBA. It can obviously depend on what kind of Product Management you are doing/considering, but I think reading up on and taking classes around Agile methodologies and basic coding goes a long way.  For someone wanting to dive deep on a topic they are passionate about, a Masters in a more technical field like IT or Analytics is a lot more worthwhile from my viewpoint. And doing that part-time while working is the best option in my opinion.

Q: Any other thoughts at all you have on this subject...

A: I believe that the majority of people do not need an MBA to be successful in Product Management. But it's very typical to hear that from those that do not have an MBA like myself versus those who do have an MBA and think the opposite.  Almost everyone I know that got their MBA is happy they did it. There is no right or wrong answer; it depends completely on the individual's situation and motive. But I would recommend that for those considering one, make sure you understand exactly why you want it rather than just wanting a change or a resume builder. Checking a box should not be enough.

Laura Burkhauser, Senior Product Manager at LeTote - MBA from Haas School of Business (Berkeley)

Q: What led you to do your MBA?

A: I was working at a management consulting firm, and I was given a random internal project to build out an online learning tool for executive teams. They asked me if I wanted to help create this new online learning platform. And suddenly, I was building something on the internet. Users started writing to me to tell me what they liked about the platform and what they didn't like. This was so exciting to me, and I decided I needed to do this for a living, but I didn't have the background to be able to go straight into product management. That's what led me to Haas - to Berkeley - to get my MBA. 

Q: Now you work at LeTote as a Senior Product Manager. Do you think you could have gotten your job at LeTote without your MBA?

A: I think the answer is that I couldn't have. And that doesn't mean an MBA is the right decision for everyone out there, but I think personally for me, spending two years at Haas was really important for both getting the role as a product manager and succeeding in that role. 

Q: Can you give some examples of what you learned in your MBA that are applicable to your current role as a product manager?

A: It can be very good for learning rigorous analytical methodologies. For example, data and decisions, which is a required course at Haas, has given me the ability to not just conduct an A/B test - because there's lots of software that can help you with that - but to truly understand what it means when something is statistically significant - what you can learn from an A/B test and what you can't. And also to understand when a different type of statistical analysis is appropriate. 

Also, if you don't have experience yet in financial modeling, I've found it's helpful. At LeTote, for example, we wanted to try out a different subscription plan, and I was able to very quickly just throw together a financial model and determine core cost drivers, core revenue drivers, and what revenue would have to look like in order for this to be a profit-neutral endeavor.

A lot of MBA courses are atune to the new economy and have created specific courses around product discovery process. If you're coming from tech, you may already know a lot about product discovery, but that was really something that I needed background on. I had never even worked with designers before.

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Q: You were a full time, on campus student. What do you think about part time vs. full time?

A: I think it really depends on what your currently employment situation is, what your currently financial situation is, and what you're trying to get out of business school.

Here are the reasons I think you should consider a part time MBA:
- If you love your current job and you see it as a real stepping stone to your next job.
- If you want to stay with the company you're at right now.
- It's really nice to still have an income!

If you know you want to make a big change - for me it was a sector switch and a function switch - it makes sense to do full time. It's what's going to allow you to completely immerse yourself in your classwork and extracurricular stuff. Also, if you're not sure what you want to do and you need a discovery period to find out what your next step is, full time would be the best way to go. 

Q: What is your opinion of online vs. on campus? 

A: I'd be especially rigorous in vetting an online program. Business school is certainly about the curriculum, but it's about a lot of other stuff too - like networking and collaboration - that I think would be harder to get online. 

Q: Where do you think you'd be right now if you hadn't gotten your MBA?

A: I think I still would have made the switch into tech from consulting, but I think I would have had to break into tech by coming in as an analyst - doing quantitative analysis type work, then working with product over a few years to build relationships and demonstrate the competencies to be able to take on product roles. 

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