Why Liberal Arts Majors Make Great Product Managers

There is a canard rampant in Startup Land that you need to have a computer science or engineering degree to be a great startup product manager. As a computer science major whose first job in tech was as a product manager, and as someone who has worked with (as both an entrepreneur and venture capitalist) and taught (as a professor at Harvard Business School) hundreds of product managers, I can tell you that this line of thinking is simply bull. And it may be leading to perpetuating the industry’s gender imbalance.

Let me explain by first focusing on what the product manager job requires.

What Is The Job?

An effective product manager is an entrepreneur, strategist, technical visionary, cross-functional team leader, and customer advocate all rolled into one. They try to understand what it means to walk in the shoes of the customer — what their problems are, what their environments are like, what they read, who they talk to, who they listen to, what their worries are in life. And then they try to extrapolate those insights into personas they can use as an anchor for product design decisions.

At a high level, product managers have three primary responsibilities:

1. Defining the product to be built — whether a new product or an evolution of an existing product — through a customer discovery process.

2. Negotiating and securing the resources to direct towards product development, or prioritizing the already allocated resources

3. Managing product development, launch, and ongoing improvement by leading a cross-functional team — the team members report directly to someone other than the PM, however, so while the PM has considerable responsibility, you might also have little formal authority over other staff members.

The product manager role is a general management position, so product managers tend to be generalists rather than functional specialists. Some of the best product managers are simply great communicators. They’re clear thinkers who have strong interpersonal skills and good judgment. It’s more about character and makeup and the broad skills you develop either in a professional or graduate environment, where you learn to be an effective communicator, a good writer, and a good interpersonal communicator. Where you learn to make decisions crisply. Where you learn to handle ambiguity.

Guess what? Those skills are all consistent with a liberal arts education. As Fareed Zakaria puts it in his book, In Defense of a Liberal Arts Education:

A liberal education teaches you how to write, how to speak your mind, and how to learn — immensely valuable tools no matter your profession. Technology and globalization are actually making these skills even more valuable as routine mechanical and even computing tasks can be done by machines or workers in low-wage countries. More than just a path to a career, a liberal education is an exercise in freedom.

Yes, it helps to be technically proficient, but for that, take an online class or two at our portfolio company, Codecademy. Great product managers need to know how to talk to engineering, but that’s communication not coding. They need to be effective in evaluating decisions and drawing on business judgment, but that’s analytical thinking not analytical programming.

A Few Profiles

Let me share a few profiles of amazing senior product leaders that I know by way of example:

  • Yasi Baiani, a senior product leader at Fitbit, the wearables leader that has a market capitalization of $3 billion. On the side, Yasi is about to embark on teaching entrepreneurship and product management at her alma mater, Berkeley. She majored in business.
  • Melody Koh is head of products at BlueApron, one of the hottest private companies in NYC, a revered unicorn, and rumored to preparing for a 2017 IPO. She studied commerce and economics at the University of Virginia before entering Startup Land.
  • Adam Medros is head of products at TripAdvisor, where he has been for over twelve years, helping lead them to a nearly $10 billion market capitalization. Adam’s major before joining Startup Land? Economics and German at Dartmouth.

Guess what each of these product leaders has in common? Spectacular communication skills, leadership ability, product passion and business judgment.

Why This Matters

In addition to making sure startups are open to hiring and training the very best, I am drawn to this topic because I think it results in a subtle barrier for women to become entrepreneurs and venture capitalists. The prevailing wisdom is that the best entrepreneurs are former product leaders. And there is a prevailing wisdom that former entrepreneurs make the venture capitalists. Therefore, if you accept the prevailing wisdom to be that only former coders can become great product leaders, you are limiting your entrepreneur and venture capital funnel to a narrow pool of candidates, with 88% of engineers being men. That’s bad policy on many, many dimensions.

But I am passionate about this topic for another reason. I love the product management function — it is where I started my own career — and want to see the discipline be an excellent opportunity for everyone. That is why I continue to teach about it, write about it and talk to my portfolio companies about it.

So stop telling folks they need to be former engineers or computer science graduates to become product managers. Hell, hire a Symbolic Systems major and watch what magic can happen.