Shaping your business school studies for a product management MBA

By Eileen Jacob

Part problem-solver, part storyteller, part trend analyst, and part entrepreneur, a product manager is part of putting The Next Big Thing in people's hands. 
To do so, they juggle competing priorities and call upon many of the skills gained in an MBA program.

Tim GrayBerkeley Haas alum Tim Gray has served as a product management industry specialist for the Berkeley MBA Career Management Group and has worked as a product manager (PM) for both startups and established companies, including Autodesk, BandPage, and He regularly speaks with Berkeley MBA students about how to shape their studies for a product management MBA.

Understanding the diverse range of skills needed is key to determining if the role is right for you and how you should shape your time in an MBA program, according to Tim.

Work for the win (and the win-win)

One of the most important skills good PMs possess is the ability to negotiate. “PMs are constantly doing negotiations, especially around product trade-offs,” Tim says.

“A major accounts manager may want to see a certain feature in a product, but adding it will mean the product won’t ship on time, or the engineering team might want to make part of the code more robust and stable, but that won’t necessarily produce more revenue. So a huge responsibility of PMs is to negotiate these trade-offs.

Look for courses that will strengthen your ability to build cooperation and achieve strategy-supporting outcomes, such as Berkeley MBA Program classes in Negotiations and Conflict Resolution, Game Theory, and Power and Politics in Organizations.

Think “Hamilton”

You may not be translating history into hip-hop, but you do need to know how to weave a compelling narrative.  “PMs are frequently telling the story of a product to both internal and external audiences,” says Tim.

For example, they may explain a customer’s workflow and goals to the engineering and design teams, help the product support team understand a new feature, or describe the problems the product solves during interviews with industry analysts or reporters.

Look for classes that will strengthen your presence and your ability to build trust and be persuasive. Berkeley Haas classes that support this product management skill include Leadership Communications and Storytelling for Leadership.

Dig data

Quantitative skills are also required. “Product managers need to analyze trends and project how the product is going to be adopted and grow over time,” Tim says. Recruiters are now asking that PMs be knowledgeable about SQL, so they can pull data and do analysis without depending on others for help.

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Unleash your inner entrepreneur

It helps to think like an entrepreneur. Some companies, like Google, prefer PMs with entrepreneurial instincts, who can research and pitch their own product ideas, according to Tim. Even if you're at a firm with more of more of a  top-down, programmatic approach to creating products, you'll need a strong sense of ownership.

MBA entrepreneurship courses can equip you with skills that help you with everything from recognizing opportunities to running an enterprise. Courses on entrepreneurship at Berkeley Haas include Innovation Strategies for Emerging Technologies, The Lean Launchpad, and Business Model Innovation. 

Be intentional

Tim also advises students to use their MBA internships to gain specific experience they can later point out to recruiters, for example, creating product road maps or prioritizing product features.

But whether students are talking to alumni or recruiters for PM internships or full-time jobs, it’s especially important to demonstrate a genuine interest in the particular company’s products and/or customers. Tim suggests tailoring MBA class projects to a specific area of interest whenever possible.

“Being really committed to a product, or even better, to a specific customer problem or opportunity, and demonstrating this, is one of the most important things you can do as an MBA student interested in product management. It shows that you have already done some work that is relevant for the job.”

Want additional insights? Read more blog posts about product managers, or download our free ebook on breaking into product management. 

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Topics: Evening & Weekend  |   Full-time  |   MBA for Execs  |   Product Management  |   Career
Eileen Jacob
Eileen was Senior Assistant Director of Admissions for the Berkeley MBA Programs for Working Professionals from 2017-2019. She enjoyed meeting prospective students and helping them explore the benefits of an MBA, and hopes these blog posts provide valuable insight into the Berkeley MBA experience.