Ask A Good Product Manager

Your product management questions answered

Should I study product design or economics?

Posted on March 21, 2012 · 3 Comments

Question: In order to become a product manager, which is the most useful educational background: Product design or Economics?

Answer from Michael Hopkin of Lead on Purpose: You will be better served by a degree in Product Design

First of all, congratulations for your decision to get a college degree! No matter what you choose for your major, a college degree is absolutely critical to getting a job in product management. Every job opening I’ve seen in the last five years states “bachelor’s degree required, MBA preferred.” Regardless of what you end up choosing, stick with it and get your degree.

Until recently no university offered a specific degree in Product Management (and even today those programs are few in number). Nearly every current product manager has a degree in some field other than product management. What’s more interesting is the wide variety of degrees — and work experience — which lead to product management careers. However, product managers with technical skills have often proven more valuable to their companies. Though very different in focus, both Economics and Product Design will provide valuable technical credentials.

Knowing the market your product competes in is an absolutely crucial skill for a product manager. A degree in Economics gives you a solid business base and experience that will help you discover key market information. Economics focuses on the big picture and will be useful in building a strong business base as a product manager.

A degree in Product Design (or user experience design) is a solid choice. Whether you immediately pursue product management or you work as a designer, this degree is in high demand and the skills it engenders are widely beneficial in many jobs. With a degree in design you will have a keener eye for product enhancements and specific improvements that will delight your customers.

Back in my college days I got a bachelor’s degree in Accounting and an MS in Information Systems. I fell in love with computers and software during my accounting program and knew that was my destiny before I graduated. I took some programing classes and worked as a software engineer (Java and C++) for five years to establish my technical base. From there I jumped into product management and have never looked back. The only accounting I’ve ever done is my own taxes, and I even outsourced that about five years ago when it got too complicated to be worth my time.

When all is said and done, the focus of your degree is less important than your personality and drive to get things done. It really comes down to doing what you love and giving it your all. The demand for skilled designers is very high now and projected to be strong well into the future. So, in my opinion (though interesting but irrelevant), the technical aspects and the focus on quality experience make a degree in Product Design more valuable than a degree in Economics. Product Design will give you a technical base and background, and perhaps a few years later you can go back for your MBA. You will be well served with this educational background; and, if you don’t get wooed by the money and demand for designers, you’ll be well prepared to jump into product management.

Good luck in your pursuits!

3 other answers so far ↓

  • Jeff Lash // Mar 21, 2012 at 5:56 am

    One big “it depends” is based on industries, companies, and products in which you might be interested. For example…

    • If you’re interested managing a software or web-based product in the B2B or B2C space, then Product Design would serve you well, as would Computer Science.
    • If you want to be a product manager at a financial institution — coming up with new types of savings products, for example — then Economics is probably the better choice (or Finance, or Accounting).
    • If you’re interested in being a product manager for a medical device company, then maybe you should think about biology or something pre-med.
    • If you’re not sure what industry/company/product you like, or want to have a good general background which could prepare you for all different types of product management roles, then Marketing is a good option.

    That said, as Michael mentioned, few product managers actually have a degree in product management. Many successful product managers have a formal educational background which is in no way related to the product management work they are doing. (On a sidenote, many successful product designers don’t have degrees in product design, but most successful economics have one — if not several — degrees in economics.)

    It’s not to say that having relevant education isn’t valuable for product management, it’s just usually not necessary.

  • Abhay // Mar 21, 2012 at 6:08 am

    A product Manager must focus on building domain expertise first and than balanced out rest time in technology & business.

    Strong understanding of domain will help him understand how best he can use technology to become market leader & what economics works in favor or against.

    @mathurabhay

  • Alan // Mar 21, 2012 at 1:52 pm

    “No matter what you choose for your major, a college degree is absolutely critical to getting a job in product management. ”

    Terrible , terrible advice.

    Here’s what I say to people who believe this:

    Google, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, Twitter…. all started by college dropouts who were studying CS before they left.

    (Larry and Sergey had undergrad but left during masters program. Sergey went back and finishend his)

What do you think?