If being a Product Manager is hard, imagine how difficult it can be to teach it. Well, if you aim to teach it well; that is.
In Product School, we knew from the start that our teachers would be active practitioners. In the past five years, we have had the chance of meeting the most amazing product mentors. It is not just that they come from some of tech’s leading companies: the challenges they have faced and the achievements they have under their belts speak for themselves.
But most of them were probably not ready for the ultimate test: teaching something so innovative and dynamic, that the rule-book changes every six months. Our alumni reviews tell their own story of success, but we are interested in understanding how they did it. Let’s look at the fundamental steps in becoming a star Product Management instructor at Product School.
The Problems with Teaching Product Management
Business education is not as modern as you might think. About five centuries ago, merchant associations began holding meetings and writing manuals that explained how to conduct business. Fast forward to today, and there are limitless options to become proficient in your preferred business area: from established business degrees to more flexible bootcamps, there are options that fit every lifestyle.
However, Product Management offers a particular challenge. Like those pioneer merchants from centuries ago, they are charting the course in the new digital sphere. A lot of what constitutes Product Management emerged as the organic evolution of multiple practical insights. This is because it is equal parts development, marketing and design.
Let’s see why this makes the discipline a particularly tough one:
- No established set of rules. Product Management is not like other disciplines like Project Management (which has its own official set of certifications). Of course, Project instructors do not have it easier than those teaching Product. However, having a body of regulations, which are sometimes even upheld across countries, makes developing and delivering a curriculum much easier.
- A constantly evolving context. Remember, PMing was a position aligned with the digital revolution. But the wider infrastructure supporting this transformation is always taking unforeseen routes. Think of the quick evolution from personal computers, to smartphones to the Internet of Things in the space of barely two decades: that is something which product instructors are expected to deal with.
- Best practices keep changing. Agile methodologies, fast iterations… they are all meant to save time and cut costs. Ever since tech visionaries began hiring and deploying product teams; they have been designing their own approaches. Thus, no two companies share the same perspectives; even within the same company, product teams can favor one or another method. For PM instructors, it is important to understand which ones are working, at least in a broad sense.
- Ruthless competition. Some professions are regulated: think lawyers, doctors… This means that access is premised on fulfilling certain conditions, such as degrees and exams. At the same time, requisites make these positions somewhat “protected”: not everyone can enter them. Product Management is not exactly the opposite, but there are indeed a wide variety of backgrounds from which to begin a product career. Students must be taught how to differentiate themselves in a crowded labor market.
- Slow reaction time. Company successes today can be short-lived: what seemed like a sure bet becomes an exploding bubble in no time. This is why it is sometimes unwise to study Product Management at traditional business schools. Industry parameters might change, but recommended readings and university administrations stay the same. This also explains the popularity of tech bootcamps, like Product School.
- A wide field. Yes, you need to be a precise professional to make it in product. However, precision must be attached to an industry. PMs are needed in everything from FinTech to massive social media platforms. As a result, a PM instructor can find it difficult to explain experiences that are relatable for future professionals across multiple industries.
In Focus: Training the Next Product Management Generation
It would be unwise to write this celebration without speaking to some of our instructors first. We want to understand their perceptions. This is why we reached out to Jeremy Glassenberg and Joel Palathinkal.
Jeremy is a Product Leader with over 11 years of experience in Silicon Valley. Most well known for being Box’s first successful product hire and founder of their developer platform, Jeremy has managed products in B2B, Education Technology, Supply Chain, and Customer Success.
Joel is the Senior Director of Product at Northwestern Mutual. He has extensive experience in fintech on enterprise web & mobile cross platform solutions. Joel was previously the Head of Product Development at FactSet (a large financial technology firm), and lead product/technology strategy at large media giants like NBCUniversal, CNBC, CBS, and Cosmo.
Let’s see what they think about the past and future of Product Management education!
How has Product Management changed in the last 5 years?
Many things have changed, at least on the surface. Everything is mobile now: for most people across the world, their first online experience takes place on their phone. Plus, we are seeing the first serious roll-out phase of Internet of Things applications. On top of that, the consolidation of certain companies (FAANG) over certain markets makes competition more viable in industries where they have not yet extended their reach over social, media and finance.
For Joel, these changes mean that “product people have to be more collaborative and wear different hats based on the role.” Jeremy concurs. “Hiring managers moved away from just seeking the Engineer/MBA combination, and instead focus on two key traits: customer empathy, and growth mindset. We know know to build a team with a diverse mix of backgrounds, finding people specialized in technical challenges, UX, and specific product areas.”
How can we make it easier for people to transition to Product Management?
“Until very recently, there was no “degree in Product Management” and even courses in Product Management at universities were nonexistent. With the growth of internet content, we at least had communities where PMs could share their experiences, but even for MBA graduates it was still difficult to understand how to actually be a PM.”
This was the situation when Product School started, which Jeremy accurately describes. Our courses and content through these five years have been developed in collaboration with the growing demands of Product Managers across the world. How has our curriculum changed to help aspiring students achieve their goals?
Well, as Jeremy says, you need to do your homework; but that is not enough! “Now, actual, organized coursework combined with continued learning through the community, enables one to understand how to actually be a PM. That said, getting that first job is difficult, and I find interview processes to be inefficient. I am hoping for more discussion on this front, to see what experienced PMs have learned from hiring the right people and wrong people, and being on the interviewee side, to improve this process, now that the expectations of PMs and backgrounds for PMs are becoming better defined.”
Joel adds this “Coach them for the role and simulate the role in realistic environments”. Looking forward to a Product School VR experience to simulate actual PM situations in 2024!
What do you think is the main difference between traditional MBAs and contemporary tech bootcamps and certifications?
This is what Joel believes bootcamps add to the equation: “People are able to learn skills which pushes towards an economy that values proficiency more ” Indeed, the idea is that you will become proficient in something in a very short time; with a huge amount of work. Many of our students have also taken part in other courses, hoping to increase their skillset and become well-rounded PMs.
Something interesting about Jeremy’s experience is his similarity with many of our own student’s backgrounds: “As an MBA graduate, I learned a lot that was relevant to being a Product Manager, but came out not knowing practically how to execute as a PM. Much of the learning was theoretical, and left gaps in what I really needed to know to be a PM. As universities teach more Product Management courses, I anticipate them covering the learning gap, but still focus more on theory. Bootcamps provide more practical experience, which I found especially important for a PM role, more than other fields.”
Are MBAs really necessary? Not according to Jeremy: “For most wanting to become a PM, the MBA is still useful, but not necessary. And you have to ask yourself whether it’s worth 1-2 years out of work, vs spending that time learning no the job, in a related role at a tech company.”
What is the future of online product education, given increased access to the Internet for people around the world?
Joel asserts: “Online courses are effective when they are engaging and the future of them is globalization.” We couldn’t agree more! This is why we launched our Global Product Community: to create and empower product people from Berlin to Bangalore! Technology today makes top-notch education accessible for everybody. Forget having to move to prestigious and often not affordable locations to start your career. Today, our instructors can deliver lessons from anywhere: all you need is a reliable Internet connection.
Let’s hear what Jeremy has to say: “Universities are questioned more and more for their financial inefficiency: tenured professors, unecessary building projects, and other quite surprising factors cause tuition to be unnecessarily high. Bootcamps fundamentally have to operate lower cost, and when positioned in a competitive space, are forced to focus just on providing real value to students, efficiently. When forced to think this way, a bootcamp’s curriculum isn’t just a low-cost alternative to universities, but a program better geared to achieve results. They can teach in less time what students really need, without wasting resources.”
Nothing Like the Real Deal
If there is anything these instructors exude, is their love for the discipline and the benefits that new PMs can bring to the world. Through this half-decade, we have learnt a lot from them and the way they approach their job. What is more important: inspiration or data? What is a good background for product? What are the best organizational models for product teams? How can one communicate their vision?
All the answers to these questions are not set in textbooks. They require the contextual application of thousands of hours of product work. It would be useless to place our students with theorists or dreamers: we want the real deal. In the past, we have held panels with some of our top instructors. Check out the video below if you want to see them in action.
Instructors like Joel Palathinkal, Jeremy Glassenberg, May Allen and Alex Shih are what make our students’ experiences so great. It is clearly reflected in our glowing alumni reviews after they have taken the course. And it is also a relationship that develops over time: having your own product community is very important in your pathway to product. Our instructors will do their best to stay in touch and point you in the right direction (which is why we love them so much!). Remember to join the world’s largest Slack group for aspiring and practitioner Product Managers and learn about the latest in events, jobs and insights.
In the end, while it is important to have amazing instructors like Jeremy, Joel, May and Alex; it is up to you to become a PM. Of course, you should make the most of the course while you are taking it:
- Here are more instructor interviews to help you understand their expertise.
- We have compiled the 11 questions you need to answer before becoming a Product School student.
- Here’s access to our collection of free PM resources to make your transition easier.
- And our job portal to start considering your first product opportunities.
Here’s to finding a good mentor. Best of luck with your career!