Featured Partner: Product School on creating the MBA for the 21st century
Carlos González de Villaumbrosia is the CEO of Product School, an eight-week training program that helps professionals transition into a career in software product management. He’s also an engaging speaker and a thoughtful educator who has taken a complex and mysterious profession and broken down its structure into clear guidelines. In the year and a half since Product School first opened its doors in San Francisco, the school has grown from Carlos’ painstaking curriculum into a full-fledged school with industry-leading instructors teaching at campuses in three cities - two in the bay area and one in New York - and multiple cohorts of graduates who have entered the profession, with more students clamoring for admission.
PARISOMA is excited to have Carlos and Product School as instructor-partners, both for the great work they’re doing and the fantastic insights Carlos’ curriculum demonstrates into the unique professional training needs of 21st-century workers. We sat down with Carlos to chat about product management, Product School, and the new paradigm of professional education.
Carlos will be leading a Prototyping workshop at PARISOMA next week. Register here.
What does it take to make a great product manager?
I’ve seen product managers come from so many different paths. In the Bay Area, most of them come from a software engineering background, but I’ve seen designers, I’ve seen data marketers, I’ve seen people in customer support - pretty much everyone.
Tell us a little bit about why you founded Product School.
I started my career as a software engineer, and then I transitioned to product management. I created Product School because it’s been a solution to my own problem. I’m self-taught in product management: I had to learn on the go. So when I moved to Silicon Valley from Spain, I realized that most other product managers had a similar situation: they were in the right place at the right time - maybe someone else left and they had to become product managers, or maybe they created a company and they had to figure out how to combine technology with business, and they didn’t have a formal education - maybe some of them were lucky and found a mentor. So I decided to create a place where people who want to become product managers can learn the framework and fundamentals of how to do this.
Those fundamentals are really interesting. What do you think are the most important things a Software Engineer needs to learn in order to transition into Product Management?
Software engineers are usually really good at technology, and really good at finding rational solutions to existing problems. But at the same time, they probably need to understand how to connect those solutions and that technology to the business side of things, and how to communicate that. It’s a lot of soft skills and learning how to influence people.
At the same time, for Business people - they are good at soft skills, they are good at management, they know how to sell. But at the same time, they need to learn how to communicate that to software engineers, so they can build the same thing they’re selling to customers. So Product Management is kind of a hybrid between technology and business.
There’s a kind of archetype of PM as defined by Google and Apple of the Product Manager as someone who was a CS major undergrad and then got an MBA. It seems like what Product School is doing is offering a shortcut through one of those.
If you’re Google or Facebook, you can afford to ask for a CS degree and an MBA and 10 years of experience and two houses, one at the beach and one in the mountains, but that’s not the case for everybody, and you don’t need to have a CS degree and an MBA in order to be a good Product Manager. You need to understand how to build products from a technical point of view, a design point of view, and a business point of view. We are trying to offer a shortcut, to learn those skills in a very practical way, and then also set you up with companies that are looking for product managers.
It sounds like what a Product Manager is is someone who holds multiple viewpoints in suspense.
Exactly. I always define ‘product management’ as the intersection between technology, design, and business.
That’s a hard combination of things to find in one brain.
An MBA is optimized for a lot of good things, but they’re not necessarily optimized for the things a product manager needs to know. If you’re looking for a job in management consulting or finance, an MBA is a great idea. But product management is more than soft skills and management. It’s being hands-on, and being able to have a conversation with software engineers, being able to push code if necessary.
“We’re trying to create the business school of the twenty-first century.“
How much code does someone from a design or business background actually need to know?
I always say that you need to know enough to have a conversation with your engineers. You have to be able to walk into the engineering room and hold a conversation with your engineers at every single level. You need to be able to talk about the product from the perspective of a user and an engineer - at least understanding how to build the different layers necessary to create a product. I don’t expect you to have ten years of experience coding, but I expect you to know the basics of coding if you want to work in a coding business.
Does that mean that your curriculum takes a big-picture approach to teaching non-engineers?
We try to focus on selecting students who are in a good situation to transition to product management. People that want to become product managers need to have some previous experience. It’s not something you can, in general, do just out of college - you need to have, probably, 3–5 years of experience in engineering, design, or business. You need to understand how to do something really really well from one of these perspectives before you can move to the center of the picture and connect all of them. So at Product School we have software engineers, but also designers and people who come from marketing, sales, and customer support.
Is there a strong trend in the backgrounds of students who make great product managers?
We have three campuses right now. We have a campus in San Francisco, another in Silicon Valley close to the Google campus, and a third one in New York. Most of the students that want to become product managers in the bay area tend to have a technical background, while most of the students that take our product manager course in New York tend to have a background in consulting or finance.
We adapt the curriculum based on the audience that we have. So for students who have a strong business background, we focus more on the technical parts so that they can understand how to connect with their engineering teams. For students with a strong technical background, we tend to focus more on soft skills.
How do you teach soft skills?
That’s something that you can’t just teach in a class - that’s why I require students to have some previous professional experience. But the way we teach it is focused on cases. We explain scenarios and let students discuss how they would perform in specific scenarios. Because there’s no silver bullet - there’s no single method to apply for everything, no one book you can read. It’s more about putting students into situations to understand how to deal with a variety of stakeholders. Product management isn’t a science - it’s more of an art. It’s about understanding the mindset you need to have to push your product forward.
How do you see Product School fitting into this larger trend that includes General Assembly and Zipfian Academy and all kinds of other things?
I think most of the different coding bootcamps are focused on hard skills, and helping people become junior software engineers - an alternative to a CS degree. What Product School is offering is an alternative to an MBA. It’s a school where you work on hard skills but also develop soft skills, where you need to have previous experience before you can apply them here. It’s a lot cheaper than an MBA, and a lot less of your time. We’re trying to create the business school of the twenty-first century.
I started this school a year and a half ago, and know we’re in three cities, expanding our faculty, plans to expand to four additional cities, to create an online school and a book. So we’re clearly meeting a real need. I know that because it’s a need I had myself, and I’m passionate about bringing this solution to others.