Profiles

Becoming an Actual Master of Product Management

Longtime entrepreneur and product guy Greg Coticchia has a different sort of product management role in the second act of his career in technology.

The self-proclaimed product manager of Carnegie Mellon University’s new Master of Science in Product Management, the first degree of its kind in higher education, Greg is shepherding four students from around the world through an intense year-long curriculum. It includes soft skills training like speaking and writing, academic fundamentals like business analysis and accounting, product management principles like design thinking, and experiential learning through summer internships at companies like Cisco, GrubHub, and Pendo.

Coticchia plans to grow enrollment to 30 students by next January. For now, he’s doing what any good PM does: leveraging resources, experimenting, collecting feedback, learning and improving the product.

He’s also fielding interest from colleges and universities around the world hoping to do the same.

“In five years, you’ll be able to choose a dozen or more schools to get a product management degree,” Coticchia predicts.

Coticchia sold his last company in 2014 and decided to give back by teaching and helping commercialize technology at his alma mater, the University of Pittsburgh. Several years after he set up Pitt’s Blast Furnace startup accelerator program, CMU contacted him to lead the new master’s program, a collaborative effort between the Tepper School of Business and School of Computer Science.

Before saying yes, he did some homework and realized people got into product management the same way they did 30 years ago—they stumbled into it from another role within a company and then learned on the job. While a handful of universities had begun offering certificates or specialized tracks within MBA programs, and one-off courses on elements of product management were becoming more common, no one was offering a product management degree.

His response: “Wow, isn’t that long overdue?”

My conversation with Greg was vaguely familiar to those I had a decade ago covering technology as a business reporter. Universities were hurrying to establish entrepreneurship programs to respond to demand following the last economic recession. Entrepreneurship was certainly not a new field, but the high-growth technology industry had fundamentally changed the practice. Now, courses and degree programs are plentiful and startup accelerators exist at nearly every institution.

The interest in formalizing product management education is likewise influenced by the tech industry. Software companies are giving more responsibility to product leaders, and the perception of the role has changed, too. A former boss once told Coticchia that product management is where you put the failed salespeople and engineers that you still like.

That’s certainly not the case today. Earlier this year, LinkedIn named product management one of the 10 most promising careers of 2018, with 30 percent more job openings year-over-year and a career advancement score of eight out of 10. Glassdoor calls it the ninth best job in America, with more than 7,500 job openings. Product management is also the highest paying role in tech for 2018 according to Hired.com, with an average salary of $145,000.

When Coticchia recently searched the Amazon careers page, he found 531 open product management jobs.

Demand is certainly outpacing supply, but the problem is compounded by a lack of good product managers, Coticchia says.

That’s the challenge Carnegie Mellon is trying to solve with its three-pronged approach. From the Tepper School’s MBA curriculum, Coticchia is borrowing elements of its Accelerate program, which teaches leadership and communication skills like persuasion and selling, speaking and writing. There’s also coursework around accounting and economics, sales channels, and business analysis.

All of the students have computer science or engineering degrees or work experience, and a fundamental understanding of programming and user experience, which provides the basis for teaching product management principles and exposing the students to a variety of tools available to do the job.

The third prong of the program is the internship, which lets students experience what it’s like to work on a product team. Throughout the summer, the group will come together virtually to reflect and share about the experience through conversation and writing. Coticchia hopes the summer break from classroom learning helps to confirm their career choice and focus their study for the final semester.

Coticchia admits that a formal degree program won’t be for everyone—many aspiring product managers can’t afford to take a year to study the practice. In most cases, accelerated education from long-standing providers like Pragmatic Marketing or the 280 Group is a great option, he says. In fact, he hopes his master’s students take advantage of these offerings for continuing education.

“People are realizing a great PM makes an enormous difference to the product,” Coticchia says. “It’s more than just running a good sprint; it’s soft skills and hard skills, business strategy and sales support. You have to pull all of it together.”

About the Author

Laura Baverman is the director of communications at Pendo. She spent a decade in business journalism, writing for publications like USA Today, the Cincinnati Enquirer, News & Observer and American City Business Journals. Prior to Pendo, she served as editor of ExitEvent, an online publication covering startups across North Carolina. A Cincinnati native and Raleigh resident, Laura is learning to love the South.

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