Is An MBA Necessary For Product Managers?

I hate paying bills. However, there’s one bill I don’t mind–and that’s the school loan for my masters. Is that because I’m masochistic or because there’s real value in that degree? Is an MBA necessary for Product Managers, or just nice to have?

And The Answer Is…

The Cranky PM says, maybe, depending on internal politics at your organization. Others say your success hinges more on your experience.

No, Seriously. The Answer Is…

I think it depends on the person. When I enrolled for my MBA (specializing in e-business, not in product management) in 2003, I’d been a Product Manager for about three years.

Right or wrong, I felt there were Big Gaps in my repertoire–gaps that couldn’t be bridged in my normal day-to-day. More than that, I felt outclassed, outgunned, by the more senior people in the organization who had both degrees and experience.

My MBA experience deepened my understanding of how business works, expanded my managerial toolkit, and gave me a welcome +20 in self-confidence. Within days of starting my first course, I was forging connections between what I was learning in school and how I was approaching my work.


Looking back, the brass tacks of my MBA experience were about the basics of management, economics, and business strategy. Could that have been picked up on the job? Maybe.

However, the more important throughline of the experience relates to critical thinking, perspective, and learning when to lead and when to follow.

On the job–especially as a young PM–it can be easy to lose perspective, to miss the forest for the trees. At the time, I was definitely into the plate-spinning, the go-go-go, the tactics and day-to-day. No time to think; just keep moving.

The MBA experience forced me out of the tactical and into the strategic–made me understand, you’ve got to strike the balance between short and long term to make things work. An expensive lesson to learn, for sure, but well worth it. And that’s why I’ll pay that school loan every month with a smile on my face.

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14 thoughts on “Is An MBA Necessary For Product Managers?

  1. Chris – I believe as you do that its a personal decision, an intropective one. Each of us has to regularly, if not daily assess what “gaps” we have in our “repertoire” and look for the balance and what we need to establish the balance. Product management, like anyone, benefits from new knowledge at long as its applied.

  2. Chris – I do not hava an MBA. 20 years ago I thought about it; as I did 15, 10 and 5 years ago. I agree with Steve and Jim – I think it is more about the person than the letters. The right PM/PMM who has the skills is more valuable than the person with letters. Our community typically desires to learn more, though often does not have the time to do so. If we focus on personal growth, then the education is nice but not necessary. Letters are only that.

    That said, I did go back for a mini-MBA program last year – a 40 hour effort where the business/financial elements were stressed. This did provide insight will strengthen my abilities and critical thinking/analysis in my role.

  3. Chris – The MBA is definitely a conundrum. While I would say that getting it while young / inexperienced it is a way to get a leg up. The problem is what if you wait? After 10 years as a product manager the value it provides is debatable. I’ve seen a lot and experienced a lot that you cannot get from the theoretical teachings. What has given me a shot of confidence is actually going through a downsizing.
    Getting out and networking enabled me to see that I do have significant skills and am able to handle the trickier business issues. It also emphasized to me that being less tactical and more strategic is the right way.

  4. I surveyed 500+ Product Managers in the Colorado area a few years ago. Less than 1% felt they had all the training they needed. The perceived training gap seamed to depend on their own personal journey to product management rather than formal training.

    If they came from engineering, they perceived business weekness, if they came from business, they perceived engineering weakness. If they didn’t come from operations, then they always perceived a finance weakness.

    Formal training may make learning easier, but to stay relevant the product manager must study continuously. There is just so much to learn, the little formal training can bring is like adding a thimble of water to the Pacific Ocean and expecting to register a difference.
    .-= Val Workman´s last blog ..Luck, Skill, or the Economy =-.

  5. After more than 10 years of being a web product manager in all but name, I’ve decided to get an MS in Human Factors in Information Design at Bentley ( starting next week!)… it’s not a PM or MBA specific program, but it’s about the user experience with a nice bent toward business application. I decided to do it because after 10 years, I still lack some of the self-confidence I think I should have at this point. I’m hoping having some real formal education will help with that and I’m glad to see your post reflect my own thoughts.

  6. I am all for higher education and could possibly see myself using the MBA as a tie-breaker in a hiring scenario. That being said, I would still prefer real-world results over pure education. And to extend that one point further, I would prefer real-world results and an MBA.

    Kudos for getting yours!
    .-= Stewart Rogers´s last blog ..Top 5 Posts from 2009 =-.

  7. Thank you all for the thoughtful comments on this topic! Pursuing an MBA seems like a particularly personal decision, and there isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer.

    @Rachel – I hope you get what you’re seeking out of the experience. If you ever need an ear, I’m happy to trade b-school war stories with you 🙂

  8. I definitely think it’s a personal decision and one must really assess where they are and their goals.

    I am about 4 years into my professional career (post MS in Engineering). I heavily considered the full time MBA last year, but ultimately decided not to go because I think there is much more for me to learn on my own (via blogs like yours), networking and in my current non-PM/PMM job.

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  10. Chris – I agree with you. An MBA degree can help fill gaps in your education. Just don’t believe the MBA marketing that it will launch your career into the stratosphere. That depends on much more than a formal education.

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