Aspiring Product Managers Should Get A History Degree

All opinions are my own, not those of my employer.

When I graduated from university there was no degree or certificate for Product Management. As the role has blossomed over the years, I notice students increasingly ask me about what they should study to prepare for a career in product.

  • Should I get a PM certificate?
  • What classes will help me pick up core product management skills?
  • Do I have to major in CS?

My recommendation is to study History.

The PM Manifesto

Product managers help define who, why, and what. Who has an addressable problem, why should we invest in solving that problem right now, and what product should we build to solve that problem?

To answer those questions we identify the right stakeholders, both internal and external. We synthesize competing priorities from all the different stakeholders into a compelling strategy and vision for the business. We take a strong, opinionated stance and chart a course of action for the team.

Historians, whether they’re passionate about 17th century Latin American Politics or Catholic Art in Antiquity, build narratives around past events in a methodical manner. We identify the right primary, secondary, and tertiary sources. We synthesize competing viewpoints from all the different sources into a compelling narrative. We take a strong, opinionated stance that provides support for or opposition to the existing narrative.

But What About CS?

I studied the basics of Computer Science, and when I was a developer I used those skills every day. Understanding the tradeoffs between SSDs and spinning disks was vital to writing performant SQL. Learning the ins and outs of Java’s String Tokenizer directly benefited me when I was benchmarking NLP tokenizers.

As a product manager, however, spending time on query optimization is not an effective utilization of time. You define the performance requirements of the application and rely on your team to deliver (or tell you they can’t). The ability to read design docs and have technical tradeoff conversations with engineers is only minimally improved with a grounding in CS. Engineers rely on product managers to bring a deep understanding of the user and the market to design discussions: they just get annoyed if you try and manage the details.

My history degree, on the other hand, honed the raw skills that I use every single hour of every single day as a product manager.

Ok no CS, but I need a “technical” major right?

You need to be passionate about and understand how technologies work at a fundamental level. Passion for a particular technology naturally leads to exploration of the tech stack. For the vast majority of PM jobs out there, that’s enough. You don’t need to know how to build an IoT sensor stack from scratch. Your value add is in using products that leverage those sensors on a daily basis, building expertise on those products and its competitors, and bringing the voice of the user and the market to discussions.

Notable Exceptions

The more niche you go in the tech industry the more this recommendation falls apart.

If you want to PM a team working on next-gen adversarial ML models, you’ll be hard pressed to lead effectively without a deep academic affinity for precision and recall. If you want to work with a team of engineers to better help ocular pathologists recognize signs of retinal cancer, then having a foundation in biology will help immensely.

Launch, Launch, Launch

You know what beats any degree? Shipping a product end to end. Even if only your mom and best friend use it. Nothing will force you to pick up the core skills necessary like having to actually perform every role, from strategic analysis to user interviews to development to marketing and sales. So if you’re an aspiring PM three years into a beekeeping degree, or 5 years out of college, don’t despair. Trial by fire is still the best professor.

All opinions are my own.