Business School can make you a better PM

When I started at HBS, I was nervous that it would be a detriment to my career. Tech isn’t known for being the most welcoming place for MBAs. Plus, how on earth was Finance and Operations relevant to PM? I took the leap anyway, and this post is a simple sketch of how I’ve learned about PM over time: including at business school. As always in my blog, PM = Product Management.

When I started working in PM, I wasn’t starting from 0. I was starting from a strong liberal arts background (high school) and an engineering degree (college). I had a lot of ideas flying around, but none of them were particularly relevant to PM. I’m calling this general knowledge (grey dots) as what I started with.

IMG_4805

After I started at Microsoft, I started learning things about PM (red dots). I also starting having my own insights (red triangles), based on that new information and my previous knowledge.

IMG_4806

Over time, I learned more and more about PM, and formed more of my own opinions. But the map started to get full — I’d learned many of the “PM basics,” so I learned more slowly.

IMG_4807

I did things outside of PM to try to increase what I knew: taking design classes at University of Washington, going to Creative Mornings, running PM breakfasts. These things were still adjacent and fit nicely with my PM knowledge (more red dots, some pink dots).

IMG_4809

They’d spark new insights of their own (pink triangle) and about PM (red triangle). This happened fairly often — but not as much as it did at the beginning.

IMG_4810

Business school is like an entirely different world.

First, we learned some Accounting and Finance, which made a bunch of blue dots:

IMG_4811

Then throw in Operations which made orange dots, and Marketing that made green ones:

IMG_4812

If I’d been adding dots at a rate of one/day, business school was like suddenly adding five per day (or more). It was exhausting and painful, and at the beginning it was just dots. Nothing seemed to connect or make sense.

But as time went on, I started to see insights about each of the disciplines independently (blue, green, orange triangles):

IMG_4813

And then I had lots of new pieces to use in my ideas about PM, too!

IMG_4814

If I hadn’t gone to business school, I wouldn’t have all the green, blue, and orange dots to work with. I’d be stuck primarily with my red, grey, and pink dots — walking through the same ideas over and over again. Being at business school helped me answer two of the PM questions I was stuck on: do you need to be technical? and how to pick a PM job that’s a good fit. I’ve also gotten a much better sense for how non-technical people think about technical problems.

I’m sure that some of these insights don’t have much to do with business school in particular, just that I’m focusing on a different discipline. (I’ve written before that learning anything new can help with being a PM.)

I also don’t think this would work for every PM. Business school is incredibly distracting — and varies widely based on what you want to get out of it. There are always a million things going on. I’m able to spend the time to think because I say “no” all the time. My schedule is primarily: preparing for class, going to class, and reflecting on class.

Most students spend more time on other activities: recruiting, clubs, and 5–35 hours per week at parties. I cannot imagine 35 hours per week at parties. I’m definitely missing out on some of the networking, but I’m doing what I wanted to do: breaking my mental model. If a PM decided to go to business school for the social aspects, I don’t know if they’d have the same experience that I’m having with the academic content.

But almost three months in: I’ve learned more about being a PM in school than I would have in three more months of working. I’m not sure I’ll feel the same way at the end of the year, or in two years, but from where I sit: the first three months of business school are solidly worth it.