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.

A VC Perspective on AngelList


I have long been a fan of AngelList, an innovative online platform for startup funding and recruiting. I have watched the rise of the platform with great interest and enjoyed playing with it around the edges.

Over the last few years, individual angels and even some firms have used AngelList to create investment clubs to invest in individual startups in what are known as syndicates. More recently, funds have used AngelList to create special purposes vehicles (SPVs) for follow-on investments in portfolio companies.

My Flybridge partners and I decided we would try a new twist on the model by creating a small fund on AngelList as a platform to make seed investments centered around a particular community and theme. To that end, a few months ago, we created something we call The Graduate Syndicate fund, a $2.4 million seed fund. BostInno wrote a bit about it here.

The Graduate Syndicate will invest $100,000 in compelling startups founded by recent Harvard graduates, particularly out of Harvard Business School (HBS). As a faculty member in the Entrepreneurship Department over the last six years, I have had the opportunity to teach hundreds of brilliant, enterprising students. Flybridge has invested in a few of them, but many of the recent graduates (and only graduates, in compliance with Harvard’s conflict of interest policy) are at such an early stage — pre-seed or seed — that they are pre-institutional at the time that I am advising them. As with our other investments, our goal is to back outstanding entrepreneurs who are pursuing large, disruptive opportunities that we think can generate outstanding returns. But by operating more like an angel — we don’t price the deals or take board seats, we don’t require partner meetings but instead make decisions after a few meetings given we already know these entrepreneurs well — we can be more flexible with regard to process, stage, sector and geography.

The other thing we decided to do in creating the fund is to invite some of our friends to invest alongside us who are from the Harvard community. So, in addition to Flybridge IV (our fourth fund, which we are currently investing out of), the LPs in The Graduate Syndicate are a handful of HBS professors and alumni who are excited to support the young entrepreneurs, many of whom they had in their classes or have been advising as Entrepreneurs in Residence (EIRs). We also assembled a group of recent alumni entrepreneurs as advisors to be available to coach the founders through the ups and downs, particularly in the early years before they have more formal advisors or boards.

The benefits of The Graduate Syndicate to entrepreneurs are compelling: pre-seed money from a trusted advisor, a network of amazing LPs and experienced entrepreneurs available to them, and inclusion in the broader Flybridge network of nearly 100 portfolio companies. Since creating The Graduate Syndicate a few months ago, we have made eight investments:  Amartha, Baroo, Camino Financial, Digital Outposts, Fitzroy Toys, Funding Societies, Getaway and Robin Health. The website lists them all, but the plan is to run the experiment for the next year or two and then assess the results.

Having created this new model on AngelList, I thought I would share a few observations as a venture capitalist working with the platform:

  1. Smooth Back Office. Although we have our own, crack finance team, when you are investing on AngelList, you are benefiting from a very experienced back office team, with existing contracts and processes. Collecting and tracking numerous small dollar investors has an overhead attached to it. The AngelList team has been absolutely first rate to work with.
  2. Brand/Reputation. Like many leading platforms, there is a brand and reputation benefit to working with AngelList. LPs who knew it (although many did not) were immediately comfortable with jumping on the platform and investing through it. Similarly, the startups we have invested in are all listed on AngelList and were comfortable with the flow of agreements and money. Over time, I would expect more investors to jump on the platform, making it even easier to work with.
  3. Capital. In theory, AngelList also brings capital. We haven’t utilized this feature for The Graduate Syndicate because we are a closed fund (that is, for the first fund, we only allowed LPs who we knew well and trusted to participate). But for our startups, we expect to see funds like CSC (who committed $400m to AngelList companies last year) and others become sources of available capital.
  4. Work in Process. We were breaking new ground with AngelList and the team has been outstanding in working through the issues, but there are still some rough edges. For example, although we don’t charge any fees for The Graduate Syndicate, there needs to be a fee mechanism in place before other funds will jump on to the platform. AngelList is working on adding this feature and many others.

All in all, creating a fund on AngelList has been a very positive experience. If anyone would like to learn more from our experience, let me know!