Program Name: Master of Science in Product Management
School: Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business and School of Computer Science
Length of Program: 12 months
It’s a huge void in the job market: employees who have a combination of programming skills and skills commonly found in design, data analysis, and marketing. Occupations requiring these skills are called “hybrid” jobs; business schools know them better as product managers. By some estimates, more than 250,000 hybrid jobs were open last year, and filling them — finding the “CEOs of the product” — is a task both academia and the market struggle with.
Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business is taking on this task, joining CMU’s School of Computer Science (SCS) to launch a Master of Science in Product Management program that will start in January 2018. The 12-month program will aim to provide the technical skills and business acumen needed to be successful in this high-demand area, with a required internship and capstone project helping to supply the skills students need for their new careers.
“A product manager is first and foremost the CEO of the product,” says Bob Monroe, associate teaching professor in the Tepper School and co-director of the MSPM program. “Through the Tepper School’s Accelerate Leadership Center, students will create a personalized program and work with an executive coach to develop the leadership and interpersonal skills they’ll need to succeed.”
Adds SCS Dean Andrew Moore: “One message we consistently receive from industry is that truly good product managers are incredibly hard to find. In software companies big and small, there is no such thing as a great product manager who doesn’t combine technical excellence with passionate leadership, so SCS and the Tepper School are the perfect partnership.”
OFFERING WHAT THE BEST PMs NEED TO HAVE
The MSPM program is looking for computer scientists with two to three years of work experience and an undergraduate degree in computer science, software engineering, or computer engineering. Its aim: to help them make the leap from coder to “CEO of Product” — giving them the skills they need to get a product from concept to customer — in just one year.
SCS’s Human-Computer Interaction Institute (HCII) will provide technical education in courses ranging from digital service innovation to data science for product managers. The Tepper School will supply courses on management topics that include marketing for high-tech product managers, product strategy, and managing people and teams.
“The role of product managers continues to gain importance in today’s technical product companies,” says Bob Meese, vice president of business for language software company Duolingo and former director of business development for Google Play, in a news release on the SCS web page. “The best product managers partner effectively with engineering managers on near-term product development efforts while also centrally directing cross-functional teams and keeping the customer’s perspective present throughout longer-term product planning.”
Adds Jason Hong, MSPM co-director and associate professor in the HCII: “The MSPM program offers a deep dive into all the skills good product managers need to have. This program will help technical professionals change their career trajectory and make the leap from technologist to product manager at tech companies.”
Why is CMU launching the program?
“The impetus to do this program came from employers,” Bob Monroe tells Poets&Quants, “the employers that come both to hire Carnegie Mellon computer scientists and software engineers, and the employers who come to hire our MBAs. They and others out of our business school have been saying for years that it’s really hard to find good product managers. They really need more of them, and they were happy to share with us what kind of skills and abilities they were looking for, and so we basically put together a program to help people develop those skills.
“And then as far as internships go, we have so many companies that have come to us looking for these people that we have the pump primed, so to speak. We have been working with them and we will continue to work with them to help them understand what to expect in terms of how far the students are along when they’re interviewing.”
How is it different from what else is on the market?
“It’s unique — and that’s one of the reasons that we’re offering it,” Monroe says. “Myself and Andrew Moore, the dean of the School of Computer Science, we both worked in the tech industry previously, and we’re both kind of baffled that there is no Master in Product Management elsewhere. The most traditional way, it seems, that people move into a product management role is that they’re seen as an engineer with good social skills. Somebody comes and pats them on the shoulder and says ‘Hey Frank, why don’t you come and visit a customer with us?’ And then over time they kind of drift into a product management role and kind of learn on the job. And sometimes they learn really well on the job, and sometimes it’s a long, painful process.
“Another traditional path is for an engineer to go and get a two-year MBA with a focus in marketing or product development. And we certainly offer two different tracks (at Tepper): a technology leadership track and an innovative product development track, and they’re both excellent ways to move into product management. But it’s a two-year investment, and the opportunity cost is high, the tuition is high, and it’s a much broader type of program. You can come out of that and work in finance, or work in operations, or work in marketing. But that won’t be the case with the product management degree — you will come out deep in product management.”
Who is the ideal applicant and student?
“Who we’re looking for is generally people with a computer science or computer-related technical graduate degree, and the idea is that they can take a year and in 12 months we can help them adjust their career trajectory from being a better and better engineer to being a good engineer who also can run the development, launch, distribution, etc. of new products,” Monroe says.
What’s the application process? Are GMATs or GREs required? An essay?
“Applications are open now,” Monroe says, “and the process is really similar to the MBA process in terms of what’s expected. It’s a combination of grades, GRE or GMAT scores, letters of reference, an essay or two and some short-answer questions. Much like an MBA — though, in addition to technical expertise, we’re looking for people that have reasonable development in business communication skills and interpersonal skills, so candidates who meet the baseline criteria may be invited for an interview, which is typically part of the application process as well.”
The MSPM web page lists prerequisite criteria for applicants to the program:
• An undergraduate degree in computer science, computer engineering or software engineering.
• Sufficient programming and computer science skills to pass graduate-level CS classes in CMU’s School of Computer Science.
• At least one year of work experience in industry.
• Strong social, written, and spoken communications skills.
• A desire to work hard in an intense environment for one calendar year.
• The ability to relocate to Pittsburgh for one calendar year and focus exclusively on the MSPM program.
What are the application deadlines?
For international applicants, the deadline is July 1; for domestic applicants, the deadline is August 15.
What can a student do to best prepare for the program in advance of its start? Books to read? Podcasts to listen to? TED talks to watch?
“We’ve thought that by the time most applicants apply, they’ve made the decision to be a product manager,” Monroe says. “But what I really encourage people to do before they make the jump and invest in a program like this is, try to understand what product managers do. So many of these people will be working in a tech company; spend some time, take a product manager out to lunch, learn what they do, learn how they do their job, learn what the important aspects of it are. And that will certainly help with your application — you’ll be able to make a more compelling case for why you want to go down this path. But it will also help the candidate understand whether this really is the kind of role that they want to take on as the next step in their career.”
What will students learn in the program? What is the program format?
“Students arrive in January and have a one-week orientation, where there’s career coaching and getting to know each other, team-building, etc.,” Monroe says, “and then since we figure that most of the people coming in are going to have stronger technical skills than they will business skills — that’s really who we’re aiming for — the first semester is probably 70% to 80% business, and 20% or 30% technical. And so they do a deep-dive in a semester-long Foundations of Business course, where instead of spending six to seven weeks on each functional area, we spend two to three.
“There is also a product management project course that they’ll be in from the first week on campus. Basically, they break into teams and work together to identify a gap in the market, generate ideas for how they might address it, and then bring that concept all the way up to prototyping and a plan for market launch.
“And then they take specific and deeper classes in areas that are really critical to product managers — so they go deep into strategic marketing, they go deep into user experience design, they go deep into data science for doing analytics on large sets of business data. They also go deep on business communications and organizational behavior. So you can see it’s weighted towards business in the first semester.
“At this time they’re also trying to get matched up for an internship, and they do an online portion while they’re doing their internship. They continue to work primarily through the leadership and communication development center that we have, and they’ll actually be taking an online course over the summer. The idea is, they will be learning all these techniques and working with our approach on their communication and leadership skills, with the idea that they can actually apply them at work while they’re there doing the internship. They’ll do an internship and meet at least once a week with their coach and their classmates.
“Then when they come back in the fall, they get to dive in in a more advanced way into the technical topics or the advanced business topics of their choice. So if it’s weighted 70%-30% business-technology in the first semester, it’s probably weighted 30%-70% business-technology in the second semester. So they come back, they take advanced technical classes, and they will typically choose to specialize in one aspect — so they might specialize in user experience design, they might specialize in data analytics, they might specialize in the deeper marketing aspects. Basically they’re going deeper on the technical part of their choice.”
Is there a capstone or special project? If so, please describe it.
“There is a capstone project in the last semester that will be sponsored by a corporate partner of ours. They will have some deliverable — it may a new product, it may be a prototype, it may be a marketing plan. But it will be a substantial semester-long product management project.”
What do you expect student outcomes to be?
“My biggest hope and biggest expectation is that students will find jobs in high-tech companies working as product managers,” Monroe says. “This really has been an employer-driven decision to start this program, so we see really strong demand from employers for people that have these skills — the deep technical skills, so they can go in and work with a team of engineers at, say Google or Facebook and get their respect and speak their language and actually understand the technical aspects of the decisions they’re trying to make. But also a deep understanding of product design, product marketing, strategic marketing, pricing, sales cycles, and bring that to bear on the problem. So the expectation is that they will move into these kinds of product management roles, primarily at traditional tech companies.”