pm@olin: Introduction (Class 1)


  1. Let each student determine their own sense of “who am I as a Product Manager?”
  2. Generate a list of Learning Goals
  3. Co-create the remainder of the Syllabus
  4. Introduction to teacher & students

Optional Readings:


  • Post it notes, notecards
  • Sharpies
  • Whiteboards & markers

Exercises (in order):

Defining Product Management (20 minutes):

I had an advantage in this regard as Olin students are mostly familiar with the discipline. I didn’t need to do as much of the “PMs work with Engineers” — so we were able to be a bit more philosophical.

  • Individual Generation: I asked each student to take post it notes and write down what they associate with Product Management. As they went I gave more prompts such as [as a Product Manager] “What do you do first thing in the morning?” “What keeps you up at night?” “Who’s your ally within the company? Who don’t you like to work with?” Towards the end, I asked them to take their ideas and turn them into once sentence.
  • Pairing: I had students get in pairs and share their sentences, brainstorms, and discuss differences.
  • Group: Since we’re small (10) we were able to have each student share their sentence out loud and hear variation.

Frameworks (20 minutes):

I shared two frameworks to think about Product Management.

1. Business / Design / Technology: this one is pretty standard and is also used in a lot of design consulting. I just wanted to point out that PMs fall in very different places on this spectrum.


2. Five PM Dimensions: This one I made up. I think it still could use some work, but these are some attributes I’ve noticed while working, and I think it adds more practical “work” dynamics in addition to skills. How much these matter can vary based on the job, but I think it’s helpful to know where you are on these spectrums.

One student mentioned that she didn’t like the “tradeoff” aspect of this. It isn’t meant to say you can’t both start and finish — that would put you in the middle. I’ve noticed most people do have preferences towards one side or the other.

I used slightly different words to start with, but if I had to name them now, my best shot is:

  • Starter / Finisher — I think this is key. At Olin, many students start lots of projects and abandon them. At Microsoft, finishing strong is one of the most valued traits. An experienced PM once told me “a PM gets the job because they’re good at one, but to be really good you need to learn how to do both.”
  • Big Picture / Details — Are you good at picking a direction for the team? Or are you good at taking that direction and making sure every little piece works?
  • Owner / Executor — Does it matter to you if you have the final say? Do you want to create the vision and push it up, or are you okay with having a vision pushed down?
  • Technical / Nontechnical — As much as it pains me to admit it, this seems to be a big issue in the industry. It will matter more in some jobs than others.
  • Political / Autonomous — I wasn’t expecting how much political work would go into being a PM. In my mind this is “how much do you mind needing to network / socialize ideas / work with partner teams /etc ?”
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After sharing, I had the students think about where they fall on each of the frameworks, and where they might like to be.

Learning Goals (20 minutes):

After we talked about each of these areas and some of the work they entail, I had the students (as a starting point) write down what skills they wanted to learn. I gave them 10 minutes to do that, then asked them to take a couple minutes and pick out their top one.

We went around the circle and I wrote down each student’s top thing. My commitment is that through the class, everyone will improve at their first choice. Obviously, I’d like them to learn more. As it’s a one-credit class I’m looking to measure my/their effectiveness off of this metric.

I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I was pleasantly surprised by the outcome of this. There’s a wide spectrum of goals ranging from “proper task management skills” to “how to be friends with your team while maintaining authority.”

Syllabus (30 minutes):

The goals exercise translated nicely into discussing what I was going to cover during the semester. I put a list of topics up (by date) and asked students to add post it notes for anything specific they wanted to learn in that lesson. This might look a bit sparse because I talked while I was writing, but hopefully it helps get the idea across.

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I was also able to combine/move a few lessons to add topics that I hadn’t expected interest in. One topic we added was the Career Workshop — students were very interested in adjacent roles. The final pm@olin syllabus is here, and I’ll be adding a post like this for each class that we have.

Introductions (30 minutes):

The last topic we covered was introductions. I introduced myself — I added a fair amount of personal (why I went to Olin) and professional (what projects I did at Microsoft/Kickstarter). I let students ask anything they wanted to.

As we have the luxury of the small group, each student also did an introduction. I have a wide range of ages (including one freshman!) and a bunch of different interests. Some students are going to large companies, some want to start their own company, some want to be PMs full time, and some don’t. It’s a diverse group and I’m excited that it’s small enough that we can really get to know each other.

Suggested Changes/Notes:

  • I didn’t introduce myself at the beginning, as is customary at HBS. I wanted to jump straight into work. In hindsight, a brief introduction “Hi, I’m Ellen, and we’re going to jump right in but I’ll tell you more about myself later” would have helped.
  • The five dimensions could be different. Feel free to experiment and find ones that you think are most helpful (let me know!)
  • At Olin, co-creation is encouraged, so I felt very comfortable bringing a skeleton syllabus and asking the students to help me fill it in with their interests. This exercise might not work as effectively in a school that isn’t so focused on pedagogy.
  • There were more questions about what makes a “good” Product Manager than I would have expected — I added some readings to reflect that, and I’d suggest working it into your comments while teaching this lesson.