Harvard Business School
It’s the question foremost on the minds of Poets&Quants readers: Is business school worth it?
The answer is different for everyone, of course. But P&Q isn’t the only place to look for it.
Diana Kimball Berlin, a partner at early-stage venture capital firm Matrix Partners and a Harvard Business School Class of 2013 MBA, has set out to offer guidance on that burning question for a major subset of the B-school candidate population: product managers. After years of counseling would-be B-school applicants, Berlin, a former product manager herself, has published The MBA Decision Guide for Product Managers, chock full of insider knowledge, game-planning, and sound advice for the MBA-curious.
AN HBS MBA WITH ADVICE TO GIVE
Diana Kimball Berlin
“One thing that strikes me about people who are prone to considering MBAs is that these are people who tend to maximize optionality in their lives,” Berlin tells P&Q. “And in a way, investing in an MBA is a way to supercharge optionality in your life. And I’m all for that. That’s part of what I write in the piece, about the optionality an MBA gets you over a multi-decade-long time horizon, largely because of relationships in an intensely interpersonal program.
“I believe that an MBA can give you clarity about what you’re here to do and what you want to accomplish in life. But I would recommend seeing it as the last blast of optionality before really committing to a path, because the truth is, you will have options later, no matter what, if you go all out on the thing that you believe in more than anybody.”
Berlin was admitted to Harvard Business School in summer 2008 as part of the first cohort of the 2+2 program, a way for current students in either undergraduate or full-time master’s programs to apply to HBS on a deferred basis. After getting her BA in history from Harvard, she went to work in 2009 as a product manager for Microsoft in San Francisco, then moved back east to start her HBS MBA in 2011.
Since graduating in 2013, she has counseled countless people about going back to school for an MBA. She finally felt compelled to write down the advice she’s given over the years — and in the process came to appreciate an uncomfortable reality: graduate business education candidates working in product management are often advised not to go to B-school by managers, peers, and mentors alike.
“It’s hard to have a lot of success in life without having someone in your life who supports continuing education,” Berlin says. “And all of a sudden you have this kind of tender idea that you might want to continue your education and something that’s interesting to you — and for the first time ever people around you are like, ‘Nah, that’s weird. You could, but why?’ And I realized how deep that cuts when you had a tender little hope. It was something that you were sharing in the spirit of being vulnerable, and to be kind of discouraged like that really sticks with people and often kind of knocks them off that path completely.”
‘MY 2 YEARS AT HBS ARE A PART OF ME’
“And so when people come to me and they’ve had that experience of having some people discourage them, and then maybe they’re looking to me with the idea that I’ll encourage them because it’s the path I took — I do, that’s kind of my bias. But I realized over the years that the real problem is that people’s instincts were being cut off. The people around them, insofar as they were discouraging them, were cutting off their access to their inner knowing about what they wanted and what was right for them. And so I wrote this piece to restore that in a way.”
Berlin worked on her guide for three months before publishing on June 2. “Looking back on it now, I think I can see what business school meant to me more clearly,” she writes, before listing the key advantages an MBA can provide, including a career reset, a huge breadth of knowledge, and a network of lifetime friends and associates.
“In the end,” she writes, “my two years at HBS are a part of me. It’s so hard to picture my life without them that I’m reluctant to even try. But what I can say is that I’d probably feel similarly about any way I’d spent two formative years. I don’t believe I’d be in exactly the same life I’m leading now, but I do believe I’d be in a life I’d love.”
Following is a Q&A with Diana Kimball Berlin, edited for length and clarity. And click here to read Berlin’s MBA Decision Guide for Product Managers.
Poets&Quants: Why did you write this?
Diana Kimball Berlin: The main reason is that I just had so many people come to me seeking counsel about this decision. And over the years, I came to realize how essential it was for them. And it wasn’t until I sat down to write this that I realized there was this experience people have when they’ve often been surrounded by people who really encourage pursuing more and more education. It’s hard to have a lot of success in life without having someone in your life who supports continuing education, and all of a sudden you have this kind of tender idea that you might want to continue your education and something that’s interesting to you — and for the first time ever people around you are like, Nah, that’s weird. You could, but why? And I realized how deep that cuts when you had a tender little hope. It was something that you were sharing in the spirit of being vulnerable, and to be kind of discouraged like that really sticks with people and often kind of knocks them off that path completely.
And so when people come to me and they’ve had that experience of having some people discourage them, and then maybe they’re looking to me with the idea that I’ll encourage them because it’s the path I took — I do, that’s kind of my bias. But I realized over the years that the real problem is that people’s instincts were being cut off. The people around them, insofar as they were discouraging them, were cutting off their access to their inner knowing about what they wanted and what was right for them. And so I wrote this piece to restore that in a way.
This was written for product managers, but it could easily apply to people in a lot of other fields. Why did you restrict it to product managers?
Well, first of all, I try to acknowledge the perspective I’m coming from and writing this. I had to acknowledge that I was writing from my own perspective as a product manager. The thing that I think is perhaps unusual about product management — and software engineering would be an adjacent field for that — is the prevalence of discouragement for going into the field. I think there’s specifically an allergy to business-y people in the software industry. And that allergy has permeated the culture such that, for let’s call it the 100 APMs across Facebook and Twitter and Salesforce and Google who enter every year, those hundred people are getting a lot of discouragement relative to how much they should actually be discouraged. It’s not proportionate, it’s just in the water. And so I wrote it from that perspective, as a corrective to that discouragement, and so that I could be more specific about my experiences that I felt were relevant.
But I have heard a lot of feedback from folks who feel like it’s more relevant than they expected. And the insight I got after getting the feedback from folks is that what’s interesting about product management-into-MBA is that you can’t lean on the usual lift that you get from having already gone to a top-tier undergrad university, and having a product management job at a top-tier tech company. Then the incremental lift you’ll get from going to business school is less obvious in terms of career opportunities. In fact what happened is that my piece distills down the subtler, non-obvious benefits that you would get from an MBA in the base case, even without the kind of major built-up opportunities available. And so I think that’s why the piece ends up being relevant to everybody.
Diana Kimball Berlin. Photo by Melanie Riccardi
A lot of people reading your guide might be dissuaded by some of the big hurdles with the MBA — the two-year time commitment, the lost salary, that sort of thing. What are your thoughts on part-time MBAs or online MBAs? Are those alternatives as valuable?
Well, that was my motivation for going into the bundling and un-bundling argument: What does it look like to break down the MBA experience and figure out what parts of it really matter to you? Because there are certain things that, if your goal is to inject a bunch of new information into your life without straying from your true career trajectory, an online MBA could be a great solution. But if you’re not attending a residential program, there’s going to be less of that serendipity on the margins. And so the serendipity upside may be substantially lower. Meanwhile, if you’re getting an MBA because you perceive that it will advance your career in a meaningful way, and you’re maybe already working in technology, maybe you have a chip on your shoulder and you’re just trying to get rid of the chip on your shoulder.
If the market around you doesn’t correctly value that MBA, then it may be worse than having never done it in the first place, because we’ve spent all that time, which is marginal time. It’s the time that you might otherwise spend on being with your family or pursuing hobbies or making friends in other ways. You’re dedicating that to being on Zoom calls. And that means that you’ll get more information, but there’s always a tradeoff. And I think that just being really clear on the tradeoffs and thinking about, What am I trying to achieve with this MBA? And if what I’m trying to achieve is knocking a chip off my shoulder and increasing my confidence, let’s make sure that this degree will actually result in the perception shift that I think it will. Because that’s one of the tragedies of life and something that I really started to realize as I wrote the piece — that I can increase my own confidence by knocking chips off my shoulder. But that may not matter at all to the people who are evaluating you for various opportunities. They may be optimizing for something totally different. And so that’s fine, but you should know that before going into it. And there are ways to figure that out.
We don’t know what the long-term impact of coronavirus will be, but obviously it had a big impact in the last year on the full-time MBA, a big disruption. What do you think about the long-term viability of two-year residential MBA programs, as opposed to some of the other alternatives that are available?
With all the challenges post-pandemic, it’s really a reckoning they’ve all had to go through: what’s important to us in life and what really makes the difference? I think that all MBA programs will need to prove how transformative they can be in order to justify not just the monetary costs, but the time cost. I think the time cost is probably the biggest component, because this is very high-value time. You’re early in your career and you can go any number of directions and a two-year residential MBA takes you out of the fray for a period of time when you could be massively zooming forward.
I think that it’s these outlier outcomes that the best programs will optimize for. And that means creating environments where people can form really deep relationships, because at the end of the day, it’s deep relationships that lead to transformative outcomes, whether in changing your mind about something or opening your eyes to an opportunity you wouldn’t have otherwise — creating a friendship that lasts for the rest of your life, the person who speaks at your funeral. That happens at business school too, but that’s much more about the context for relationships and what it takes to get people to be real with each other and how a residential environment supports that. Then the specific content of business school classes.
Overall, what kind of feedback have you been getting since publishing the guide? Are you hearing what you thought you’d hear? What are people saying?
The feedback has been really remarkable and it makes me feel really glad that I didn’t give up on the piece when I was six weeks into writing it and still had nothing to show for it. This is a piece that I treated like a book, because I thought it was that important. I’m very passionate about supporting people and making the life choices that are right for them. I have a background as an executive coach in addition to my background as a product manager. And I think that this is an early-career decision that can really change people’s lives. So it’s something I really wanted to support.
What has been meaningful to me is hearing that people have said it’s as though I read their mind. “You just wrote out everything I’ve tortured myself with in this decision over the past 18 months.” “This one prompt you’ve shared caused me to think about it differently, and now I’m leaning toward school or leaning toward starting a company instead.” And so that gives me hope that this piece did end up helping people to be decisive. At the beginning of the piece, my question is, “Is it worth it? Is an MBA worth it?” I never really answered that. I just give you tools for answering it for you, but I’m getting feedback that says people are answering it for themselves with support from the piece.
I have heard from people who were in the process of making a go or no-go decision to business school in the past week and have decided differently because of the piece.
You touch on this in the guide, but your own career arc would be considerably different without an MBA. Where do you think you’d be without it?
My MBA experience helps me take a very long-term perspective about everything — about my career, about markets, about technology. And I think that the practice of having a long-term perspective day after day, class after class, case study after case study really anchored me on that as a zoom-out that I do reflexively 10 times a day. And that zoom-out is the primary skill I use as an investor. I think that product management, as a career, as a discipline, has much more zooming in, and maybe weekly you have to zoom out; but investing is an hourly zoom-out exercise. And so it’s about getting the practice and the reps in and zooming out consistently, as well as proving to myself that I enjoyed that; but business school was a place I could find meaning and see patterns and connect the dots. That’s what my MBA experience gave.
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