Main image of article Product Management Degree: Education, Wisdom, and Experience

Product managers are responsible for shepherding a product throughout its lifecycle, from inception through decommission. It’s a job that involves coordination between developers, marketers, salespeople, and even data analysts, which makes it a complex one. What kinds of degrees do you need (if any) to become an effective product manager?

The product manager usually takes over the management of individual products in a product program or range. In a tech context, product management can include anything from hardware to online services. In a typical week, a product manager might do anything from campaign planning to digital development to web analysis to determining a product’s price once it hits the market. That’s a lot to learn!

Limited Options for Product Management Degrees

There are a limited number of bachelor's and master's degree programs that focus on product management, particularly with an IT and/or software product specialization. Carnegie Mellon's Tepper School of Business, for example, offers a one-year Master of Science in Product Management (MSPM); the curriculum includes classes on managing people and teams, product marketing, data science for product managers, and digital service innovation, among other classes.

New York University offers an MBA with product management specialization, with a curriculum that covers processes for building and defending a brand, market research data analytics, and instruction for developing and introducing products based on that work.

Rounding out this trio of degree programs is the University of Wisconsin, which, similar to NYU, offers an MBA with a specialization in brand and product management. This program went online at the end of 2022. The curriculum integrates a strong foundation in general management with three focused career pathways (health care, technology, and consulting). Courses include supply chain analytics, digital strategy and managerial accounting.

The College of Engineering at Cornell has a product management certificate program covering product analytics and iteration, including how to partner with designers to create codeless prototypes, as well as roadmapping and vision and goals classes.

Adjacent Degrees Can Launch Product Management Careers

Dan Ciruli, vice president of product management at D2iQ, explains that the position of product manager is relatively new, and therefore the options for professional degrees in the field is somewhat limited.

“I started as an engineer and grew into what they then called product lead, in charge of figuring out what the product would do, designing it, architecting the solution that we would build and then running the team that would build it,” he says. “Today, that's three different jobs. You have a product manager, you have an architect, and you have an engineering manager.”

Generally speaking, he thinks you don't need a specific degree to gain a foothold in product management, but courses in the field of economics, such as business administration or economics, are particularly suitable.

“There are some things I can imagine they are teaching in product management school, but the wisdom that it takes to be a good product manager, I'm not sure you learn that in school,” he says. “I'm not sure how you how you teach that in a class. I wonder about these curricula in some sense. I think that that there are a lot of concepts that you can teach, but the technical skills involved in product management aren't difficult to master.”

It's important to know how to make trade-offs—such as a feature that's going to improve quality versus a feature that's going to improve revenue. “That's the kind of decision that as a product manager you make every single day,” he says. “And the best thing for that is experience.”

Betty Vandenbosch, Coursera's former chief content officer and current advisor to the CEO, suggests a degree or certificate in product management would be important to have, as it prevents you from hitting the "paper ceiling.” There are also other degrees that would allow one to pursue a career in product management.

“I think you want a specialization in marketing or finance—you need lot of things in order to be good at product management,” she says. “You need to be really strong in one particular discipline.”

With options for product management degrees so limited, Vandenbosch suggests going for a degree in business or technology, then getting an MBA before entering the world of product management. “Depending on if you're a product manager in a technology firm or a consumer goods firm, the job is quite different,” she adds. “In technology, product management is adjacent to marketing, but you also need a deep understanding of how technology works to drive what the product is going to look like.”

Developing Business, Communications Acumen

To be a good product manager, one needs project management skills and a strong sense of consumer behavior as well as marketing. “You don't have to be the person who puts the digital strategy together, but you do have to understand how the elements of marketing contribute to the success of your product,” Vandenbosch says. “You also need to have a solid understanding of how your product will fit into the technology space.”

She advises those looking for education in product management to start with a course that shows you how to be a product manager before investing in a full degree or certificate: “Another thing I would strongly recommend is that you do a project management certificate, from the Project Management Institute, for example, because project management is a core component of being a good product manager because your product is your project.”

Ciruli says he sees resumes that include bachelor's degrees in computer science, as well as MBAs. “I think the product management degree and certificate programs are new enough that I haven't seen the effects yet,” he says. “And so, I haven't seen downstream. How do they turn out as product managers? I don't know.”

Traditionally, product management was a hard job to obtain right out of school because there wasn't a degree in product management, especially given the needed skills (although that has also translated into high compensation for the role). “The biggest difference with these degrees will be when people graduate from college, they will be applying for their first job in product management,” he says. “That really speaks to the evolution and importance of this role, now that universities are creating these curricula and these degrees around it.”

Ciruli advises anyone who wants a degree in product management to make sure the course provides a focus in three essential areas: data science, business and communications. “You need to work well with data, you know how to write a business plan, and it is a critical part of a product manager's job to be able to communicate,” he says. “I've seen people who just can't give a presentation and it's a really difficult job if you can't communicate very effectively.”


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