A Business Degree For Tech Product Managers

CMU School of Computer Science Dean Andrew Moore, left, and Bob Dammon, dean of the Tepper School of Business, talk to a standing-room-only crowd in Santa Clara, California, on July 6. Marc Ethier photo

Shortly after Andrew Moore became the fifth dean of the School of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University about three years ago, he found himself sitting in the office of Robert Dammon, dean of CMU’s Tepper School of Business, and talking collaboration.

At his previous employer, a little California company called Google, Moore had been thinking about a program designed to produce the one employee type that was always in greatest demand: good, well-rounded product managers who have a combination of programming and design, data analysis, and marketing skills. Google, he says, could only find about one a year — remarkable for a company that at the time had north of 40,000 employees, and now has more than 60,000. There didn’t seem to be a school or program addressing the need, so when Moore joined CMU in August 2014 he wasted little time seeking out and finding a collaborative partner to create just such a program.

“When I was a professor at Carnegie Mellon (from 1993 to 2006), I never heard of product managers,” Moore tells Poets&Quants. “When I went to Google is when I learned about them, and I suddenly realized that that is the key. If you love technology and you’re gonna release something to change people’s lives, you have to design the whole product. One of the biggest lessons in my whole life in technology has been that it’s not just whether you can design the code or build the product.

“It became clear pretty quickly that not only did Pittsburgh not have enough people trained up to be product managers, but the world in general had a shortage. So it was just a wild comment that I made to Bob, but he immediately grabbed onto it.”


Andrew Moore, dean of the School of Computer Science

If he was looking to launch a new program to create great product managers, Moore had found a partner in Dammon, who tells P&Q that before his initial conversation with Moore he hadn’t given the paucity of product managers much thought. After they spoke, however, it was clear to Dammon that CMU and Tepper could act to fill a void and launch a program that would be both unique and of great interest to both students and employers.

“Andrew had just come from Google and when he sat down in my office after becoming dean, he knew exactly what the program we needed was,” Dammon says. “There’s a need for people with the computer science skills but also the business skills — the communication skills, the interpersonal skills, the leadership skills — to manage these cross-disciplinary teams involved in the creation of tech products and services. And there’s very few of those kinds of people out there.”

Jump ahead about three years, and as CMU is preparing to launch the Master in Product Management in January 2018, the school sent its two deans out west to promote it. Last week at an event in Santa Clara, California sponsored by The Hive, a startup seed financier and tech guidance company with an office down the road in Palo Alto, Moore and Dammon spoke to a packed auditorium about the kind of graduate they will be creating, and why industry will love hiring him or her. It was a standing-room-only event attended by numerous industry representatives who seemed to lap up the details.

“This is an area that is in desperate need of good product managers,” Dammon says. “So we’re viewing this an opportunity to sell the program and get people’s feedback about what we’re planning on doing.”


Bob Dammon, dean of the Tepper School of Business

So why is it so hard to find a good product manager? And why haven’t more schools launched programs to create so-called “CEOs of the product”?

For one thing, we’re talking about employees with a rare skill set: programming skills, yes, but business skills, too, on top of skills commonly found in design, data analysis, and marketing. Outside of B-school they’re called “hybrid” jobs, and by some estimates, more than 250,000 such jobs were open last year. For an idea of how much they’re valued, U.S. News and World Report recently cited Hired.com in reporting that the average salary for product managers in tech is $138,000, “now the highest average salary offer in the USA for any tech role.”

With its new 12-month program, CMU wants to create employees to fill these roles. The school 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. Applications are open for domestic applicants until August 15; CMU promises to provide, in just one year, the skills they need to get a product from concept to customer.

“My biggest hope and biggest expectation is that students will find jobs in high-tech companies working as product managers,” says Bob Monroe, associate teaching professor in the Tepper School and co-director, with Moore, of the new program. “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.”


Last week in Santa Clara, Andrew Moore and Bob Dammon made their pitch to industry, telling an auditorium full of tech reps about the potential of their new program. They already had a sense that it was a receptive audience.

“When I was a VP of engineering at Google, we were really excited when we managed to hire a computer scientist software engineer from a top school like CMU or MIT,” Moore says. “Then we went absolutely insanely crazy if we could hire an experienced user interaction designer — those are like the really rare cases. But then beyond that, the ultimate unicorn was when someone said, ‘We found a product manager!’

“When you’re about to launch — could be a consumer product, could be a new way of parking, could be a new approach to recycling — someone has to take responsibility for putting all the different constraints together,” Moore says. “You’ve got to get the economics right, you have to have someone who is going to vigorously advocate for the people who are going to use the product. But they can’t promise magic — they’ve got to actually understand how technology works.

“So you need someone. And it’s a skill set that has to be learned through training and experience. You have to compartmentalize five or six completely different classes of constraints to deliver something, and that’s what we’re going to train people to do.”


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