Consumers are constantly demanding faster, newer, and better products. According to global market intelligence firm IDC, 85% of a company’s decision-makers say they have only a two-year timeframe to make a transformative change before they fall behind their competitors.
Across industries, product managers are essential to making this happen — and Stanford Graduate School of Business knows it. As Yossi Feinberg, professor of management and economics, says, “A great product manager can be the difference between success and failure for the whole company.” Which is why Stanford launched the Product Management Action Learning Program in 2019.
The Product Management ALP course, taught by Feinberg and Anneka Gupta, was created in collaboration with LinkedIn to provide immersive, hands-on learning experiences that address topical issues for today’s business leaders — and to meet student demand for MBAs’ most sought-after skills post-graduation. But demand has continued to grow, and the course has become heavily oversubscribed, so GSB plans to increase the number of open seats next year.
‘STUDENTS NOT ONLY LEARN FROM WHAT THEY’RE DOING, BUT FROM WHAT OTHERS ARE DOING’
The case method has been successful in graduate business education, Feinberg says, because it allows students to analyze real-world experiences. He believes the next level of learning is to give students actual real-world experiences. That’s what ALP courses offer.
Action learning — in Feinberg’s description, structured learning that directly relates to the real world — brings academic insights into a practical setting. With an intimate class of only 15 students, ALP offers opportunities to acquire real product management experience over the 10-week course duration.
Throughout the course, students work alongside senior product managers at LinkedIn for four projects. “In a class where people are working on different projects — and sharing their insights — students not only learn from what they’re doing, but from what others are doing,” Feinberg says. “These projects are about real problems that aren’t easy to solve, and involve difficult decisions that need to be made.”
“Experiential Learning is critical in product management,” adds Tomer Cohen, LinkedIn’s chief product officer and a GSB alumnus. “The more students are able to firsthand experience the day-to-day making of products, the better they can connect the theories to real-world situations.”
‘AN AMAZING EXPERIENCE TO BE PART OF’
Gaurab Bose, a Stanford MBA student who will graduate in June, knew he wanted to transition into product management after working as a PayPal senior analyst. In the Product Management ALP class, he was most impressed by LinkedIn’s enthusiasm and effort to bring students into their processes — and for the company’s willingness to connect with them and provide feedback.
Isabel Andrade, a 2021 dual-degree MBA and MA in education, says having a bird’s-eye view into LinkedIn’s processes was a huge privilege. Interested in the Product Management ALP course after hearing so much buzz about the emerging field, she was excited to see for herself what all the fuss was about.
“I got experience shadowing calls between the LinkedIn product managers and the marketing team, software engineers, and designers,” she says. “It was an amazing opportunity to be part of. There’s so much knowledge in such an established company.”
DESIGNING THE COURSE
This course was in the design phase for over a year, and took several people to bring it to fruition. Cohen was instrumental in helping the school find LinkedIn product managers willing to mentor students in the course.
“I see a strong need for product management education and training,” says Cohen. “As more and more businesses are becoming ‘product-led’, business schools around the world are investing in adding product management to their curriculum.”
The instructors of GSB’s Strategies of Effective Product Management — which is the less experiential version of the ALP course — as well as TAs helped to develop the course’s structure and content. Gupta and Feinberg made sure to cover topics like product strategy, ideation methods, resource allocation, resource planning, and operational methods.
The goal: to explore frameworks that span the product life cycle, the constituencies that the product manager orchestrates, and the skills required to do so successfully.
‘PRODUCT MANAGEMENT IS MANAGING THE UNKNOWN’
“Part of the reason this course is so attractive to students is because it’s a great stepping stone to any leadership role,” says Feinberg.
According to him, product management is one of the most interdisciplinary roles, requiring a variety of skill sets to navigate constantly moving targets. “You have to be a great communicator, understand strategy, be entrepreneurial, and facilitate coordination between people with different backgrounds,” he says.
When a company is hiring someone for a product management role, Feinberg says it wants someone with proven experience of executing product management-related tasks. “The nature of product management is that it’s going to be different in every company,” he says. “An employer wants someone who has a deep understanding of product management and the ability to adapt and find their own solutions in a new environment. That’s what this course does for its students.”
“A lot of product management is managing the unknown,” adds J.Y. Lim, teacher assistant. “You’re basically a conductor of a wider symphony.”
Lim and Kevin Fauzie — both TAs who have over five years of product management experience in the tech space — believe that aside from specific product management-related knowledge, this course teaches students three things: confidence, tangible skills, and whether or not a role in product management is right for them.
For Andrade, the increased confidence that this class gave her was monumental; during a class exercise where students had to reflect on their future career paths, she thought she needed more experience in tech before going into a product management role. However, Feinberg encouraged her to believe in herself and apply to product management roles right away. “That nudge is the reason I’m now a product manager at Khan Academy,” she says.
Bose, on the other hand, mainly enhanced his technical skills. “We had a lot of sessions where we went into the weeds of how to actually drive a product roadmap,” he explains. “MBAs are often taught only the business side of things and we don’t get much exposure to tech, so this was helpful.”
THE POWER OF INCLUSIVE THINKING
Feinberg believes that the most important skill for an aspiring product manager is being an inclusive thinker. “You cannot just stay in your own mind,” he warns. “You must recognize that no matter how smart you are and how many experiences you have, you must be exposed to people who think differently than you.”
“Great product managers have great judgment,” adds Cohen. “They can work backwards from their customers’ needs to develop an experience that sits at the intersection of technology, design, and business. Product innovation is rooted in having deep customer insights and product managers intimately understand the functional, emotional, and social needs of their users and how they can exceed their expectations.”
As GSB thinks about scaling the course, it’s considering how it can bring even more diverse experiences and projects into the mix. “This diversity is the most powerful thing,” says Feinberg.